Silver Sisters lead way in gray-roots movement

Published: Sunday, Jan. 23 2011 11:12 p.m. MST

Silver Sisters, from left: Karen Milne, Debbie Schoenberger, Mary Higgins, Barb Shelley, Chris Critchfield and Vera Mengucci.

Ravell Call, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — After Vera Mengucci had breast cancer, she didn't want to add chemicals of any kind to her body, so she stopped dyeing her hair. Karen Milne just flat out didn't want to, choosing instead to let her silky long mane resemble pewter. And Barb Shelley had a severe allergic reaction to hair dye after thousands of dollars and years of salon visits to keep her trademark red mane intact.

All three learned giving up hair dye is a more complex undertaking than one might expect.

The trio are part of a group of women who gather monthly as Salt Lake's chapter of the Silver Sisters, a kind of social club/support group for women who are choosing to stop covering gray hair. Ask them why they need a group and they pelt a visitor with the challenges they've faced on the journey to let their hair be exactly whatever color it really is: The husband who said one should dye her hair, the boss who perhaps accidentally adds pressure by her perfectly coiffed, unrealistically dark hair, the kids who say "Mom, you look old." There are fears about getting jobs and losing jobs and how the workaday world will react. And that's just the start.

There are also concerns about dyeing hair, including health and environmental ones.

Says Chris Critchfield, "It gets expensive and there are health issues and why would we want to add more chemicals to our bodies or our world?"

Shelley had no option, given her sudden violent physical reaction to the chemicals. But she was surprised by how much the thought of not dyeing her hair shook her self-confidence.

Besides that, she "didn't know what to do or how to do it. Not only did I not want to be the only one in the world going gray," she says, but she wasn't sure if growing out the hair she'd been coloring for 20 years would mean a clear line between where the red ended and the gray began. A head band, perhaps?

The women laugh at that, since they've all chosen different ways to transition their hair to a shade that one calls "reality."

Seven months in, Shelley says she's "never going back." A communication specialist who's no stranger to getting things and people organized, she calls this her "gray-roots effort to change things."

The kicker came when her research showed that women who color don't necessarily gain that much in terms of looking younger. "People looking at a photo of you (with hair dyed) can guess your age within three years," is what she found in published studies. Thousands of dollars and lots of time and "I could have been reading a book or going to a movie," she sighs. "To look three years younger."

Her search of the Internet for information led her to Diana Lewis Jewell, author of "Going Gray, Looking Great" and creator of a website by the same name. Goinggraylookinggreat.com bills itself as "the official website of the first — and only — beauty bible for women of all ages who want to know how to make every stage of going gray absolutely gorgeous!" Jewell also launched the Silver Sisters. Shelley started the Salt Lake area chapter soon after she found Jewell and her Website. There are several chapters nationwide and one formed recently in South Africa.

They don't care if others choose to dye their own hair, but these women want their own choice recognized as valid, as well. And it's not always an easy I-will/I-won't decision. One woman in the Salt Lake group still dyes her hair dark brown. Since she doesn't want her name used in an article, she's "The Holdout." She's seduced by the idea, she says — would really like to stop dying her hair. But where The Holdout works it's kind of expected and people are already pretty critical of each other. She doesn't think she can risk it, at least yet, though she admits she's working up to throwing the dye away.

When she decided to let the gray go, Debbie Schoenberger had a professional give her mod-looking streaks of ash blonde that looked like a fashion experiment, not a transition plan. And her own gray has gradually blended in with it. The drastic step was needed, she says, because she didn't want to cut her hair just to shorten the transition's duration "like Jamie Lee Curtis did" when she quit covering her gray, which is how they refer to it, rather than as "coloring."

Mengucci, on the other hand, cut her hair short. And so did Mary Higgins, who still has more brown than silver in her short hair. She says she's seen women still covering gray at 75 "and I don't want to be that woman." So she's changing now.

Some of the Silver Sisters are also flaunting another women-of-a-certain-age tradition: that long hair is for younger folks.

Critchfield's mass of long, silvery hair is so striking that during the group's recent meeting at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts, where they looked at painter Trevor Southey's use of silver and gray tones, a stranger asked her if she'd consider doing some modeling. And Milne's hair is inching toward her waist.

They need a support group for several reasons, the women agreed. While they all enjoy the planned activities and mostly new friendships (Critchfield and Shelley knew each other before and Higgins turned out to be best friends with Milne's sister) much as anything, they're helping each other in a tricky transition, too. Schoenberger says they've together come up with good ideas on how to gently but firmly respond to the inquisitive or disapproving. Mengucci says they've helped each other figure out the dynamics of a color transition that doesn't feel unattractive. When one mentions hair that's more "yellowy" than gray, there's a chorus of "we know how to deal with that." And laughter, which is one of the group's staples, as well.

The Salt Lake City Silver Sisters has a social group on www.meetup.com discussion board and Jewell created a Facebook page for women from around the country. The Salt Lake chapter draws members from along the Wasatch Front. Each month they gather at a different location for an activity and discussion, all decided the meeting before.

For more information, contact Shelley at shelleycomm@comcast.net or call 801-520-5352.

e-mail: Lois@desnews.com

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