This Is Us

A Self-Indulgent Ode to Old Lady Hair

Or, a meditation on accelerated aging

Do you feel like you’ve aged exponentially this year? Or, better question: Do you look like you’ve aged exponentially this year? I do. And not just because of the pandemic, the recession, or the numerous existential crises facing our country.

I’ll start by rewinding to March.

The last thing I did in pre-Covid times was get my usual monthly root touch-up. Five days later, New York City went into lockdown and we decided to rent a house in NJ to be closer to my parents. Hospitals started filling up with sick patients. My lovely hairdresser texted all her clients, offering to leave doses of dye on her salon steps so we could cover our roots at home. I couldn’t be bothered. It felt vain and pathetic to be thinking about hair — and anyway, this whole thing would be over in another month, I figured.

A week later, she texted again. This time to say she was closing the salon for good, because the landlord wouldn’t give her a break. I was heartbroken — and not because of my hair. In the past decade, I’d spent more time with my stylist than with most of my friends. Weeks passed. The gray began seeping across my scalp. I told myself it was a symbol of my loyalty to my hairdresser. But maybe it was just denial? I’m not sure. Yes, I ordered a box of dye from CVS.com but, between the kids and meals and work, again, I couldn’t be bothered to use it. I started dodging mirrors. I tilted my Zoom camera upward, so that it cut off the top of my head on conference calls.

The grombre IG account

But hair really does grow about an inch a month and, by June, I had a new habit: After reading the news at night, I’d treat myself to the Instagram rabbithole known as the #grombre (gray + ombre) movement. Women embracing the two years it usually takes (shit. two years?) to grow out your natural color and cut off all the dyed ends. Thanks to the pandemic, their followers had swelled because of women like me. In 2018, Vox wrote about the trend, specifically the grombre Instagram account, marveling at its 29k followers. It now has 215k followers, a large percentage of us who never would have tried to accept how nature intended us to look, were it not for a pandemic. That is a sad but true statement.

It seems like there’s a process grombre women typically go through, like the five steps of grief. Grief, however, is internal. Going gray is very public. I decided to “own it,” as the commentators on the #grombre account advised. When I posted a photo of my roots on my own Instagram, it got more comments and suggestions than anything I’d ever posted. People had opinions. “Use a sharpie!” one friend joked. “Went #grombe after Hurricane Sandy and never regretted it,” another posted. “I lost all my hair last year in chemo…loving it any color,” one woman wrote. #perspective

Meanwhile, some of my family members didn’t find my transition very funny. My daughter hated the crown of gray and white and sometimes avoided looking at me. “I don’t want an old mommy,” she told me. Her comments hurt my feelings, but I also kind of understood that my transformation was, well, shocking. If I’d gone the route nature intended, my brown hair would have incrementally faded away over the course of her 10-year lifetime. She wouldn’t have even noticed. Now, just as she’s starting to preen in the mirror herself, mommy is aging at an accelerated pace. Within months, I’d gone from passing for 37 years old (or so I’ve been told) to looking my 47 years. It’s disconcerting for both of us. My 13-year-old son and my husband didn’t comment much; they’d curiously peer at my head occasionally and say, “I think I like it!”

Me? I was still on the fence (maybe Grieving, Phase Four: Depression?), but I was also fascinated by how much I cared. I highlighted passages in the one good book I could find on the subject (Going Gray by Anne Kreamer) and cringed while listening to the hosts of the Everything’s Fine podcast lament the “pubic texture” of their incoming grays. With the election and recession and second (third?) Covid wave, the time I spent mulling whether to give up and go back to brunette felt incredibly self-indulgent. One day I plopped down next to my sister on the porch and started talking (for the n-teenth time) about how conflicted I felt about my hair. She took a final bite of her salad, said, “This conversation is getting really boring,” and walked away.

Agreed. It is really boring. But dear daughter and younger sister: I think it’s about more than hair.

Cat. Author.

When August rolled around, I truly looked like a calico cat. I carefully watched both political conventions, and not a single woman had gray or white hair. Same with The Office, which my family was binge-watching. Also same with the movie Gloria, the original Spanish version, which is about women getting older. What the hell? My hair was starting to symbolize, to me anyway, another lie in an era of misinformation.

Every night, the family and I went for a socially-distant swim at the house next door. I thought about how, possibly next summer, I wouldn’t have to worry about the chlorine turning my fake brown hair orange and could swim carefree underwater again. “Growing out your hair will make you look old,” advised the 70-year-old neighbor who generously let us use his pool, “Don’t do it.”

Well, that sealed the deal. Every time a man that age tells me what to do, I do the opposite. Even though I knew he was right. I’m in the media. The image I’ve always projected is fresh and high energy. In other words: young. It goes without saying that there are very few high-powered women role models with gray hair. Sure, Jane Fonda decided to go gray in 2020, but have you seen the amount of makeup she wears to counteract its aging effect? A recent fashion trend has women in their twenties dying their hair gray. Old head, strikingly young face. The contrast has impact. But a middle-aged face with the hair to match isn’t fashionable. It’s just dull reality. I’m seriously concerned that my hair will limit my job prospects. That sentence is so stupid but, while the situation for older women has improved, they are still mostly invisible in society. Irrelevant. The other day, out of the blue, I got an email from Google with stats on how many people had googled me, and their top growing queries. Number one? manoush zomorodi age. (Number two: manoush zamorodi; number three: manoush zomorodi nationality. These were less surprising.)

Who will I be if I’m suddenly treated a decade older this winter than I was in the spring? I’m not sure. Between the election, schools reopening, and financial instability, everyone is constantly reminding each other to take things one day at a time. But I’m also very much envisioning the future: the day my transformation is complete. When I chop off the dead ends. And today — at least at this moment — I feel quietly optimistic that I, alongside my #grombre sisters, will be able to look in the mirror and embrace this new, “real” self. And I wonder: What will the world even be like then? What will I be like? Will the pandemic be over? Will we have started fixing this janky nation?

When I first pitched this article in September, two (female) editors declined. Lockdown had ended; women were returning to salons. They felt that the gray-roots phase of the pandemic was coming to an end. That’s not true. Our contingent is just smaller, and more hardcore. I lock eyes all the time with women who, like me, have decided to ride this out. It’s easy to recognize us: We all have exactly six-eight inches of roots. We are part of a secret but very visible sorority, with no motivational comments cheering us to “embrace our power” as we walk down the street. Some of us are happy to hide behind our masks. Others don’t give a shit. But I’m certain we’re experiencing the days and weeks differently, pacing ourselves.

I asked one woman eating ice cream on a bench next to her white-haired husband how she was doing. She knew exactly what I was referring to. “Right now it looks awful when it’s not in a bun. But I’m gonna stick with it, even though I read it takes about two years,” she said. Clearly, she’s been doing the same Google searches I have. Her speckled brown and gray hair softly framed her face. At the back, a flaming artificial-red coil of hair was pinned in place.

I vacillate between hating what I see in the mirror and being profoundly curious about my transformation. Do I look like a Persian Bonnie Raitt? I’m not sure I would have had the gumption to go through this process were it not for the pandemic and now, being part of this small feminist gray movement. Yes, some of these women will go back to the bottle and looking like a version of their younger selves. That consistency is indeed very comforting. But the world is in a very uncomfortable place. Consistency has gone out the window.

I’m an incredibly privileged person and, like many people with means and options, I’m trying to think about what I’m willing to give up in this world so that more people can have opportunities. One very small thing I can do is be a public person — a woman — with gray hair. I know there will be more women with gray, white, and silver hair in your life, and mine, two years from now. I want to imagine a future where these older women are visible… and not just to each other.

I’ll be writing here every week. Please follow me and tell me things. To hang out even more, find me on Twitter, sign up for my newsletter, and listen to NPR’s TED Radio Hour.

Journalist, mom, Swiss-Persian New Yorker. Host of @NPR’s @TEDRadioHour + @ZigZagPod. Author of Bored+Brilliant. Media Entrepreneur-ish. ManoushZ.com/newsletter

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