Meet five fabulous Austin women who’ve embraced their natural gray hair, all on their own terms.
Story and photos by Kara E. Henderson
Historically, gray hair has been the most conspicuous sign of aging. This association between silver tresses and lost youth has led many women to combat the effects of time with hair dye. Clairol, a pioneer of colorant in U.S. markets, ran an ad in the 1940s describing gray hair as a “heartless dictator.” This monstrous categorization stuck.
According to Goldstein Research, more than 75 percent of American women use some kind of hair dye—an exponential increase from 7 percent in the 1950s. Yet new data suggests antiquated notions of beauty are evolving. In December 2018, Pinterest released its annual trend report, which showed an 879 percent increase in searches related to gray hair.
Nicole Reeves, an Austin-based stylist with 15 years of experience, sees a silver lining in this uptick.
“Many people are in it for the trend, but I feel that has influenced older generations to have the courage to embrace their gray,” Reeves says. “Gray hair has been underestimated and overlooked. More women and [societies] as well are embracing gray hair. People are all about their natural texture verses trying to fit into a specific hair fad. Their natural hair may not fit that mold.”
At a time when personal image is a crucial aspect of both identity and branding, five women share their reasoning for rocking their natural hair and offer advice to those seeking to do the same.
Hometown: Caracas, Venezuela
Profession: Journalist and University of Texas cultural studies doctoral student studying Venezuelan migrancy in Latin America
Her advice: As long as we accept who we are, we can be really empowered and happier without wasting money on something that won’t really change anything. Resist and try to be comfortable with you because no one is going to be happy for you.
“I love my gray hair and have had this since 20 years old. Most friends pushed me—because society pushes—to do something. But I’ve embraced my gray for a long time and decided to try some colors only seven years ago,” says Ruiz, who only dyes the front of her hair, preferring bright colors. “This was more for change and to have fun, not to hide my gray. I feel wonderful and comfortable with my gray.”
She emphasizes Venezuelan beauty standards often align with “all the stereotypes,” similar to those in the U.S.
“Friends would say, ‘You look like an old person,’ but,” she says, grabbing her hair and smiling, “this is my hair. You have this problem, not me, because every time I see myself in the mirror, I feel super good.”
TISH HINOJOSA ELLIOTT
Profession: Legal recruiter
Her advice: “When you do it, you have got to be confident. You’ve got to rock it and don’t hold back. Wear it like a badge. That’s what I’m working to do.”
After receiving a government degree from UT in 1991 and attending law school, Elliott secured an Austin job in litigation, soon realizing it wasn’t for her. The ease of this decision evaded her when it came to hair.
“I’d been coloring my hair since I was 16,” she says, having learned this practice from her mother. “It was so much trouble maintaining it, and I got tired. That was the impetus.”
Seeing other women her “vintage” with dyed hair reminds her of internal pressures.
“I face my own pressure rather than society’s to stay looking good and young,” she says, admitting to a fear of facing professional discrimination.
Though still not positive she loves the new look, she’s open to seeing where it goes.
Hometown: St. Louis
Profession: Retired reputed journalist and author of Stirring It Up With Molly Ivins.
Her advice: “Be you. Know who you are.”
Born in 1941, Sweets was brought up in the era of relaxers, “back when you’d straighten your hair half the time. You’d go to the beauty shop on Saturday because Sunday you were going to church and your hair had to look right. I hated it.”
At 17, she went to the local barbershop and cut it all off. Since she was experimental from youth, gray in her 40s was no big deal. Having witnessed the evolution of hair care during the span of a few decades, she’s pleased with the current societal climate regarding gray hair.
“I think we’re back to being sensible about making the best of the time we have,” she says. “I don’t plan on spending [mine] having my scalp bleached to maintain a color that’s not real. What’s the point?”
CINDY KAZEN KOPEC
Hometown: Laredo, Texas
Profession: Retired elementary educator and startup-software licenser
Her advice: “Ask yourself this: Is it the hair I have now that makes me confident or is it me, knowing I make the hair look good? It’s a balance between the two. That’s the reward. You get both sides of the confidence when you get to the point of, ‘Ah, I’m done. I’m free. I’m living my truth. No more Sharpie pens.’ ”
She grayed prematurely, in her 20s, and “was always dyeing.” Eventually, she tired of addressing the “skunk line”—a common new-growth problem her former stylist advised rectifying with a marker. But when she turned 50, she ignored laughter from friends and grew it out.
“In hindsight, had I known this was under all that hair dye,” she says, “I would’ve left it alone.”
Bonus: When she stopped dyeing, her hair stopped falling out.
Hometown: Dale, Texas
Profession: Retired from the Austin Police Department, she was the first local black policewoman, female assistant chief and black interim chief.
Her advice: “Eventually, your face is going to have to match your hair. It’s going to happen, but you’ll fall in love with it. It’s a different texture than your regular hair, so find a stylist who can help you manage.”
She began turning gray in her late 20s and colored her hair not to hide the gray, but for fashion. By about age 32, she stopped. The biggest change was finding people constantly desired to know her age.
“I would say I’m not as old as my hair,” she says.
Though friends originally suggested she dye her hair, she’s often stopped by people who say they love the gray.
“People ask if this is my natural color or who colors it,” she says, adding it happens so often that one friend offered to buy her a shirt that says, “This is my natural hair.”