White Hair, Don’t Care

Photo by Miller Mobley








Photo by Miller Mobley

In the made world, white is plumbing fixtures and hospital wards, sterile and incorruptible; it is the chalk and paper and correction fluid of school, plain objects of pure utility. In the Bible, Christ’s hair, in a vision, is described as “like white wool, like snow,” but human hair, no matter how aged the person, tends to be called gray. The implication: Truly white hair is not quite human or of this world.

The difference between white and blond is one of tone. White is cold; blond warm. “Ice blond” is truly white; “white blond” or “platinum blond,” the palest yellow. Blond is sun-bleached, living warmth; white is lunar, the chill of polar night.

Until recently, white hair meant two different things for the sexes, at least in the Western world. For men, it added a layer of nobility, even virility; for women it meant senescence, the end of fertility and thus usefulness — there could be beauty, but with a note of poignancy: Oh, she must have been lovely when she was young! Equally, white hair could imply menace, the season of the witch (see Cruella De Vil). There were exceptions: Jessica Tandy, forever girlish with her ponytail bound in black velvet, or the sophisticated spun-sugar bouffant of Carmen Dell’Orefice, one of the world’s oldest professional models. More often, though, it was not something a celebrity aspired to or embraced, unless, like Andy Warhol, you used it as a sort of performance aid. Warhol began wearing his signature wigs when he was in his 20s, with a baby face and early male-pattern baldness. First it made his young face appear even younger. And then it made him ageless.

But slowly, the attitude toward white hair began to change. The glorious Emmylou Harris and the ever-sultry Helen Mirren embraced their natural color. Until then, the rule had been that if you chose to go there, if you intentionally let your hair go white, it was a fashion accessory; otherwise it was just giving up. The idea that they could still be called sexy — that was a perception changer.

Every few years I try to let my white hair grow in, then give up after about an inch. I keep saying I’ll do it when there’s more, when it might look like a choice rather than inevitability. But the collateral benefit to the new trend among the young is that older women are now freer to discover what might be a natural asset hiding under a veil of dye. Some women discover they look better with white hair — who would have thought?

My inclination is to jump right in, as you would a cold lake. On YouTube, dozens of young women eagerly show me how to achieve a head of “manga white” or “granny white,” which would allow my hair to grow in without root shame. (In fact, you will likely get a punky two-tone effect, also known as ombré, that some people pay good money for.) The trick is to lighten with powdered bleach to the point of near colorlessness, then use a toner to manipulate the remaining color to neutral. Do it in stages: dark to honey to flaxen to platinum; don’t use a 40-volume developer in one go and expect to have any hair left. And then it’s all about maintenance. You’ll need to retone every two to eight weeks to keep the color maximally cool, or it can tend toward yellow. After conditioning, a cold water rinse helps the cuticle seal in the emollients. Think of it as freezing the hair even whiter.

-Sarah Manguso via The New York Times Magazine