Gray hair. It -- along with wrinkled skin, dark circles under the eyes and a sagging body -- is an often unavoidable sign of aging that many women dread.
Every day, salons are filled with clients of all ages who fork over anywhere from $40 to $150 or more a month to cover the unwelcomed, and many times premature, evidence of "looking old." For those women who don't go for such extravagance, it doesn't get much better. Regular hair coloring means a visit to the drug store and a messy, smelly night in front of the mirror in their bathrooms, hoping against hope they didn't miss any spots in the back ... again.
But when is enough, enough? When, after years of warding off the wicked white strands, of fighting back the growing gray roots, does a woman embrace her natural hair color? And how does she do so gracefully?
Put simply, going gray is a process -- a process many more women start than ever finish -- and it all begins with a bold decision.
In the 14 years that Danielle Keasling, owner of Salon Karma in Bluffton, has been a hairstylist, and of all the hundreds of clients who have started the process of going gray, only a handful have followed through with it.
"People talk about it all the time," Keasling said.
When a client shows interest in letting her hair go gray, Keasling first explains that it might not turn out as they envision. Once fine hair turns gray, it can have reflection and shine, but coarse hair tends to be more dull. Because gray hair is more brittle, and the wirey strands are weaker, longer styles often have to be compromised for a shorter cut.
With that, some women abandon the idea before they even start. Some begin going lighter, but then never fully stop coloring their hair. Some allow their hair to go gray only to return to having it colored.
It's not an easy choice. Women fear they will look old. They fear their husbands won't like it and will find them less attractive.
They fear letting go of yet another facet of their youth.
"It's such an emotional thing," Keasling said. "Hair is so emotional for women, period."
MAKING THE DECISION
Prompted by an article in the December 2012 issue of Vogue about allowing hair to go gray, Keasling's client of nine years, Nikki Sandmaier, 41, asked about doing that herself.
But by "gray," she meant a beautiful silver-white.
With dark brown hair and only about 25 percent of it going gray, the Hilton Head Island resident was a long way from the women she saw on the pages of the magazine with all-white hair.
To give herself an idea of what gray hair would look like on her, Sandmaier tried on a wig cut in a shoulder-length bob. Salon Karma has dozens of wigs to help clients see what a particular style or color will look like on them. Sandmaier took a picture with the wig on and showed it to her husband.
"He said it was crazy," she said.
Not only was the gray hair the complete opposite color of her current hair, it was also a foot shorter.
"It presented a totally drastic change," Sandmaier said.
But she didn't think the gray hair aged her and is confident that with a short, trendy haircut she could pull it off at her young age. For now, though, she's leaving the door open on the decision.
"I'm very conflicted," Sandmaier said. "[Danielle and I] decided we'd start lightening my hair, so if I decided to go gray, it would be an easier transition."
Contrary to what the Vogue article might lead readers to believe, going gray is not a trend. Yes, white hair can look stunning and chic, and it can give a woman the confidence to gracefully accept her age, but the reality of achieving this look is not the same for everyone.
Clients bring Keasling pictures into the salon saying, "Look at this woman with beautiful gray hair."
Yes, Keasling responds, look at that woman.
"She's airbrushed. She's 40 years old. She's a model. Her gray hair isn't what is making her beautiful," Keasling said. "I help clients see what they're actually looking at."
Women might envision the shiny, white hair of Savannah native Paula Deen for themselves. But it's not just that silvery-white hair creating the celebrity chef's iconic look. It is the full-bodied hairstyle that is professionally blown dry, teased and curled for maximum height and width. It's also her poreless and wrinkle-free skin at age 66, her piercing blue eyes and Southern-charm smile.
Many women find that gray hair doesn't make them feel more beautiful, and that they end up feeling better with colored hair.
"Looking through magazines, it's a lot of famous people or models (with gray hair) who are professionally done," Keasling said. "Paula Deen would be beautiful whether she had blonde or brown or white hair."
ME GRAY? NEVER
Bluffton resident Linda Papa, 64, waits for her monthly appointment to begin at Salon Karma. Her hair is dark red, the ends colored with thick chunks of orange. She laughs out loud when asked how many colors her hair has seen -- blonde, red, purple, aqua and green.
Would Papa ever consider going gray?
"Never," Papa said. "You can put that in capital letters."
Papa was a hair stylist for 30 years. She saw clients with gray hair, and she saw how it aged them -- something she'd never want for herself.
She considers the time and money required to maintain colored hair a gift.
"I deserve to do (this) for myself," she said.
Like mother, like daughter. When Papa's mother died 14 years ago, she left this world maintaining colored hair all 76 years of her life.
And Papa intends to do the same. In fact, she has left specific instructions to her daughter and to Keasling for when she dies: Don't bury me with gray hair.
'MEN HAVE STRONG OPINIONS ON HAIR'
For men, going gray has different implications, of course.
Silver hair on a man isn't a sign of becoming irrelevant with age, but rather of handsome maturity. Anderson Cooper was placed in People magazine's 2012 "Sexiest Man Alive" issue in a "50 Shades of Gray" feature, alongside Brad Pitt, 2012 presidential nominee Mitt Romney, and "Grey's Anatomy" star Eric Dane. Even Ben Affleck, 40, was spotted sporting the salt-and-pepper look in 2010 on the set of "The Town," which he co-wrote, directed and starred in.
While dating white-haired E! Networks CEO Ted Harbert, talk show host Chelsea Handler told E! News that, along with the Grand Canyon and lean corned-beef, she ranked the "silver fox" as one of God's most beautiful creations.
Gray hair makes a man look more distinguished, and there is much less shame involved. Keasling said that at Salon Karma she does have male clients who color their hair, but estimates they make up less than 10 percent of her gray-fleeing clients.
While men have been given permission by society to let their hair turn salt and pepper, Keasling said it's those same husbands who often play a huge factor in a woman's decision to continue coloring her hair.
"Men have strong opinions on hair, whether they want to admit it or not." Keasling said. "I think it's an age thing. They don't want their wives to age."
'I'D REACHED THAT AGE'
Maureen Greig, 67, of Sun City Hilton Head, began dying her hair when she found her first gray strand at 19 years old.
Forty-six years later, she was dying her hair every four weeks, and even then, her dark brown hair wasn't coming through in the rich, full color she desired.
Fearing that gradually lightening her hair would be too harsh, and that there was a risk some of it would fall out, Greig quit coloring her hair cold turkey.
"I'd reached that age. I'm in my 60s. I saw a few other women with white hair, and it gave me confidence," she said.
As she let her gray hair grow out, her salt-and-pepper hair received strange looks from some people.
"I just tried to ignore it," Greig said.
She received compliments from younger people thinking her two-toned hair was a fashion statement.
But more importantly, she received encouragement from Keasling.
"Danielle just really tried to support me through it," Greig said. "She left [the decision] up to me."
She now wears her white hair proudly, maintaining a shorter, stylish cut. Her husband of 16 years supported her decision.
In fact, he thought it really turned out nice.