I was 11 years old when I found my first white hair. In fifth grade, my schoolmates would surround me on the playground, marveling over the albino strands that grew out of my part, in stark contrast to my almost-black mane. We'd count them: six last month, seven this month, all roughly in one spot. We thought it was pretty crazy — and totally awesome — that I was a freak of nature. The hero of my favorite novel, The Catcher in the Rye, had grayed precociously, too, and if it was good enough for Holden Caulfield, it was good enough for me.
I had a skunk streak by college. It became my defining characteristic. ("Oh, I'm sure you've seen Maura around — she's the one with that white stripe in her hair.") The thing was so bright that people would stop me on the street to ask if I dyed it. Keep in mind that this was nearly two decades before the Chanel spring 2010 couture show that featured models with streaks of gray. Back then, no one was going to the salon for white highlights.
My hair made me an anomaly not only in every classroom, but also in my family. None of my relatives had lost their follicular pigmentation as quickly as me, and my only sibling didn't have visible whites till her late 20s. But, as British trichologist Philip Kingsley points out, I probably inherited more "gray genes" than she did. Dietary differences might also explain the variation between my sister and me. I've eaten a mostly vegetarian diet since I was 13 and was anorexic for many years, and as Kingsley notes, malnutrition can suck the color out of your hair. "In particular, a lack of B vitamins — most commonly found in animal protein — seems to affect how quickly a person grays," he says.
So yes: As you might have guessed, when I was younger, I wasn't that happy with my body. I also wished I'd been born with a smaller nose, bigger eyes, and a rounder face, but I never struggled to make peace with my hair. I loved being the world's only white-stripe girl. I thought my unique coloring was the one truly beautiful thing about me. Perhaps because I knew I'd never be a conventional looker, I was grateful that it made me stand out — and helped me understand how cool nonconformity can be.
Not long after I graduated into the workforce, however, the one streak became three. And by my late 20s, it became plain old salt-and-pepper. People guessed I was 10 years older, but I still wasn't eager to start dyeing. The idea of wasting three hours in a salon every month — and spending a ton of cash in the process — really bummed me out.
But after one idiotic man said that I resembled Richard Gere, vanity won the day. At age 30, I began coloring my hair. With a single beauty treatment, I turned back the clock by a decade. The change was so dramatic that no one in my office recognized me — and neither did my grandmother. I loved my new brunette hair.
I've been dyeing for five years now, and the maintenance is annoying: My hair grows so fast that my roots become noticeable after only two weeks. To save money and time, I color it myself. Regardless of how careful I try to be about my roots, though, every time I kiss a new guy, I fear he'll run his hands through my hair, only to sit back and scream, "Hey, grandma!"
Luckily, that hasn't happened yet. But once, in a D.C. bar, a Scottish guy approached me and said, "If you're that gray on top, you must also be gray down below." I was horrified — and not just because he'd pointed at my crotch. My private place couldn't possibly go gray, could it? But oh yes, it was possible, as I discovered not long after I turned 30. Realizing that if white could appear there, it might pop up anywhere, I had every last bit of body hair lasered off before it was too late (lasers target pigment, so they don't work on white or gray hair). Now when naked, I bear a striking resemblance to a baby rat.
Sometimes — often — when I'm feeling particularly aggravated by the maintenance, I think about going back to my natural color. At this point, though, I'm about 95 percent snow-white. My former colorist and friend Danica Warren, of New York City's Antonio Prieto Salon, tells me if I tried to bleach out my dyed hair, it wouldn't turn a nice shade of eggshell. Instead, I'd end up with an unattractive egg-yolk orange.
The alternative? Shaving my head bald and letting the gray grow back in. But I'm single, and I can't imagine anything worse for my dating life than no hair at all. Will I ever go back to glorious gray again? I look forward to it — in my 60s.
Maura Kelly is a Brooklyn-based writer. Follow her amorous adventures on Marie Claire's dating blog, "Living Flirtatiously."