It was almost two years ago this month that Jane DeSimone had what she calls her "Come to Jesus moment." This was not about finding God -- the 48-year-old Ben Avon resident already was a faithful churchgoer -- but losing the hair dye.
After a mishap at her local hair salon, which resulted in scalp burns and an enforced vacation from coloring her gray hair, Mrs. DeSimone's husband heard her making an appointment to go in again.
"And he said, 'Are you nuts? You're not actually going to go back and put chemicals on your head, are you? And I thought, he's right, what am I doing this for? I didn't have children until I was in my late 30s, and in a nutshell, I think I was afraid people would think I was my children's grandma."
Today, Mrs. DeSimone is one of only a minority of baby-boomer women -- those between the ages of 45 and 61 -- who do not dye their hair. According to a Procter & Gamble study, more than 65 percent of women use hair color, up from 7 percent in the 1950s, a statistic that leaves Mrs. DeSimone unfazed about her decision. "I haven't yet been mistaken for my mother," she laughed.
Anne Kreamer, a columnist at Yahoo.com, creator of Nickelodeon magazine and a freelance writer, is another successful convert. Her moment of truth -- "when the fog lifted," she said -- came three years ago when looking at a photo of herself, her daughter and a friend on a trip, "and I saw myself with these very dark heavy bangs, heavy hair, this heavy color, and I thought, I look kind of fake."
So Ms. Kreamer stopped dyeing her hair, and wrote about the experience for More Magazine, which prompted an unprecedented response from its readers, mostly older, affluent women. That in turn led to a book: "Going Gray: What I Learned about Beauty, Sex, Work, Motherhood, Authenticity, and Everything Else That Really Matters," and a four page-spread in Time magazine, complete with Photoshopped photos of Condoleezza Rice, Katie Couric and Hillary Clinton, among others, with and without gray hair.
In "Going Gray," Ms. Kreamer believes she has identified yet another issue dividing the already famously argumentative baby boomers. This time, it's the tension between that generation's obsession with youth versus 1960s accept-me-as-I-am feminism -- which regards hair dye as a tool of denial rather than a critical tool in the baby-boomer woman's anti-aging arsenal.
"On some level we've been brainwashed to feel that gray hair makes us drab, invisible and the solution is hair color," said Ms. Kreamer in a phone interview. Ever since women began flooding the work force 35 years ago, "We've been conditioned to think this is an essential tool in establishing our identity as non-housewives. Plus, there is genuine prejudice in the workplace against age in general, and hair color is the most visible single sign that we are no longer 30."
While the "gray wars," as she calls them, may not pack the same wallop, at least in the media, as the "mommy wars" battle between working and stay-at-home mothers a decade or two ago, "it's as mutually judgmental," she says.
Indeed, in testing the hypothesis that a woman with gray hair still possesses sexual power and attractiveness -- with herself as guinea pig -- Ms. Kreamer made some surprising and sometimes contradictory discoveries, suggesting that Americans are still all over the lot on this issue:
Married for 30 years to New York writer Kurt Anderson, she nonetheless ventured out to bars "as a gray-haired pseudo-single" and found plenty of interest, along with getting "hey, beautiful!" calls in the street.
Posing as a job-seeker, she interviewed corporate headhunters and image consultants, who all said her gray hair was a non-starter in the boardroom, advising her to dye it.
In a survey of 500 people (400 women and 100 men), more than 90 percent told her they'd rather be thin and gray-haired than overweight with dyed hair.
Those same respondents preferred Hillary Clinton as a blonde, finding her more attractive, intelligent and believable than in a Photoshopped version of her in gray hair.
"Dating" on Match.com as both a gray-haired woman and a brunette, Ms. Kreamer was startled to discover that "three times as many men wanted to go out with the gray-haired me."
Caveat: Ms. Kreamer's photo on her Web site, AnneKreamer.com, reveals a swan-necked, elegant woman with a well-behaved silver mane, with all the chic of a (younger) Meryl Streep in "The Devil Wears Prada." By contrast, the photo of Ms. Kreamer's brunette self seems almost drab.
Not every woman will be as successful as Ms. Kreamer by going gray, warned Arnold Zegarelli, stylist at Izzazu International Salon. "She has to have the right complexion and the right hair texture, or else she will look older."
Mr. Zegarelli admits he's a bit biased because he's in the business of hair color. But for every 10 women who march into his salon and announce they're growing their dyed hair out, seven of them change their mind when they see the result, he estimates.
Mrs. DeSimone isn't one of them. "I love my gray hair. It's thicker, fuller and healthier," she says, adding that she "absolutely rejects" dowdy clothes and makes a point of dressing in clear bright pastels, which didn't really suit her before.
"The one thing I like to do is confuse people a little bit," she says, adding that she feels as youthful as ever. "I like the idea of them asking, 'How old is she?' and not knowing the answer to that question. Young people might write me off, but I don't care that much about their opinion."
In Pittsburgh, though, looking young isn't just about vanity, it's sound business sense. Several years ago, in fact, Point Park University's then-president, Dr. Katherine Henderson, was quoted advising middle-aged career women to color their hair rather than let it go gray, because, she told the Post-Gazette, "it's something you can do that's easier than cosmetic surgery, and it does make a difference."
That bias against the silver-haired female executives still exists today in Pittsburgh, says Deborah Moses, former executive director of PowerLink.com, a company that helps businesses become more profitable.
"I think people here judge you by your age, and when I'm job hunting, I want to be seen as ageless," said Ms. Moses, who colors her hair and declined to give her age "because most people seem to think I'm younger than I am."
Interestingly, two women who felt completely comfortable with their choice to go gray both work in schools, traditionally female-dominated workplaces, rather than in Pittsburgh's testosterone-charged corporate world.
Mattie Susko, 58, of Washington, Pa., remembers students commenting on the "neat white strip" down her center part after her roots had started to grow out when she had skipped a coloring session. "I had to laugh," the Trinity Middle School teacher said. "And then I thought, this is ridiculous, so I decided to grow it out and haven't looked back."
Elizabeth Perry, a technology integration specialist at Ellis School in Shadyside, has never dyed her hair. Now 51, she remembers the double takes she got when she walked down the street, a 40-something pregnant mom with white and silver hair.
"It didn't bother me at all," she said. "I think it's actually kind of fun. I would never even think of dyeing my hair." Nor would her husband expect it of her.
On the other hand, Donna Kell's husband "keeps making comments" as she grows her dyed hair out.
"It's kind of patchy looking right now, and he doesn't like that, but I don't care," said the 52-year-old Shadyside resident, who owns a medical billing and consulting business. "To me, it's just a transition until I'm all gray. My female friends are mostly supportive, although some of the younger ones seem pretty freaked out and tell me I look old, which is something I don't understand."
She blames a culture biased against older people, a culture that doesn't respect the wisdom of age and experience. "But mostly, it's about comfort and time and money. The older I get, the more valuable my time becomes, and I'll be damned if I'm going to spend three hours on a Saturday morning in a salon doing this for the rest of my life."
The trauma of 50-something women confronting their mortality, who choose to cling to the Clairol even as the wrinkles deepen, may make for some interesting sociology dissertations. Indeed, Arizona State University sociologist Rose Weitz, in her 2004 book "Rapunzel's Daughters: What Women's Hair Tells Us about Women's Lives," notes that hair is a primary declaration of identity, sexuality, age, race, social class, health, power and religion.
Still, most Pittsburgh-area women of a certain age laughed off the idea that hair color could ever match the significance of other personal and cultural battles they've fought in the past and face in the future.
"There may be those who whisper behind my back and say, 'Oh, my God. She's done this. She's let her hair go,' but mostly I've had people say, 'I think you are so brave,' " said Mrs. DeSimone. "Now, honestly, running into a burning building to save someone is brave. Growing out your dyed hair shouldn't have to be."
Mackenzie Carpenter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1949. First Published October 8, 2007 4:00 AM