I accepted defeat in the battle against white hair not too long after I started having children.
It was a crusade I had waged for decades in defense of my natural hair color, darkish brown with a slightly reddish tinge. It’s a color I like, even though I tinkered with it a few times over the years with do-it-yourself kits to make it redder. And that one time I tried to give myself bleached blonde highlights. (Not my best idea.)
The white hairs on my head — not gray, white — first started appearing underneath the bulk of my coif, somewhere behind my ears. When I first noticed them, sometime in high school, I was amused.
Then, for a long time after that, I pulled the hairs out, one by one, with morbid satisfaction. I marveled that they were so purely white, with no pigment whatsoever. Each white hair has a funny squiggle and kink to it that makes the ones that have popped up on top of my head literally spring off of my scalp.
I found myself confessing to other people that I had white hair, as if to get their approval. I’d show them my proof, and most of the time they couldn’t see it — but I knew. I knew it was there, and at some point, there would be more.
It’s to the point now that an old colleague I ran into the other day, whom I hadn’t seen for years, took one look at me and wryly said, “What is all of that in your hair?”
I’ve often wondered if it's stress that has caused me to have white hair or if it’s my genes. On the surface, I think I tolerate stress very well. Stress is an occupational hazard of my chosen career, but I like to think I’ve handled the deadlines and difficult questions and uncomfortable assignments of the job quite well. I tend to grind my teeth and get tension headaches, but, on the whole, stress doesn’t make me shut down completely.
Then again, it’s highly possible that I internalize my stress so deeply that it squeezes out through my hair follicles and turns them white.
Or maybe it’s my genetics.
My mother’s hair is a soft, honey-colored brown that in the 1990s curled in a bob down to her jaw. Back then, she sprayed her bangs in a wave that feathered onto her forehead just next to her eyebrows.
One day, she told me it was dyed.
“What do you mean?” I said, probably with that high pitch in my voice that comes when I’m shocked or outraged. “What color is your hair normally?”
And I think she laughed, and said something like, “Well, it’s probably 100 percent gray right now. Salt and pepper.”
My mind exploded trying to imagine my mother with salt and pepper hair. I could not conceive how her light brown, bordering on blond, hair could be gray.
Her mother’s hair was gray. Not my mother’s.
In my earliest memories, my grandma’s hair was always cut short, curled loosely and colored gray. She never dyed it. In the beginning, her hair was a dark gray mixed with streaks of dark charcoal, but then she became a widow, twice, and it lightened to white.
Whatever the reason, I’ve come to accept that my hair is what it is. Maybe each silvery strand on my hair represents each time I kept my cool when I wanted to explode at my kids, or the late-night hours I spent in a newsroom on election night. Maybe those white hairs are a tie between myself and the generations of women in my family before me — a reminder that we are forever linked.
Either way, they’re reason to be proud. And grateful.
And now that I now have enough white hair sparkling among the brown, perhaps I should amend my description of my natural hair color: It’s darkish brown with a slightly reddish tinge and wisps of white throughout.
My natural highlights.
Amy Choate-Nielsen is a full-time mom and part-time writer. She spends her days at the park and her nights at the computer. She writes about her quest to understand life while learning about her deceased grandmother, Fleeta, and other relatives.