I’m not brave for letting my hair go white. My hair salon closed as the Covid pandemic lockdown began in New York City, in March 2020, right when I was due for my mandatory every-three-weeks color. They were closed for a few months, which gave me enough time to grow a solid two inches of pretty cool white hair we suspected was there, but weren’t sure.
Right as they reopened—my colorist is married to my hairstylist, and they are two of my favorite people—I met them outside to consult, and they both said go for it. Grow it out!
I’d been told the same by other colorists over the years—and also, by the people who did my hair on TV. They could see the white at my roots, right before the three-week color mark, and most thought it was beautiful. But one of them told me to look at my contract, because he thought it had a clause that said you can’t dramatically change your look without consultation. He was right.
Since I lost my TV perch during the pandemic, I had the freedom to just keep going. A stint on television promoting our documentary The Sit In: Harry Belafonte Hosts The Tonight Show, in the fall of 2020, scared me a little. My hair was a weird two-tone. But if I pulled it back, which highlighted the white, it actually looked OK, to me. To others, too. I got amazing positive feedback on it (and on the film, which matters more).
I have to underscore how unusual that kind of positive feedback is for a woman, especially an older one. I have spent my 16 years in television trying to ignore creepy comments about my looks (even some of the positive ones were creepy too). But mostly I mean critical. From women and men: You’re too old to go sleeveless; you should wear clothes that make you look “younger.” Your eyebrows are too dark; your eyebrows should be darker. Your hair is too long, or too short. Smile more, smile less. I stopped caring a decade ago at least. At least, I tried to.
Compliments were unusual. But as I grew my hair out in the last 18 months, the volume of compliments skyrocketed—not just from social media but also on the streets of New York. I learned there was a “look” called “ombre,” which people thought I’d paid for, because I had white hair with brown tips. “Where did you get that done?” women would ask. “Um, I just did it, on my crazy head,” I would answer.
When I went my full white—it’s mostly salt, but still some contrasting pepper—that’s when the (literal) shoutouts began. From women. (And a few men.) Total love on Twitter for my TV appearances (I’m back on MSNBC), but the in-person shoutouts were particularly amazing. Women either stop me on the street, or yell at me from afar if they can’t. “Your hair is gorgeous!” “I want that hair!” “How did you do that?”
And sometimes just, “You’re so beautiful.”
The time last month I heard that in Washington, D.C., walking my dog Sadie with my daughter, Nora thought the woman was talking about Sadie. But I knew from experience the woman meant me. (Sadie is adorable, too.) I heard it again just today from an older woman in Central Park.
I think I’m getting these shout-outs because women of a certain age are underrepresented in most spaces—and younger women notice that. If we’re there, we’ve kept coloring our hair, kept trying to signal youthfulness in any way possible. I do not judge women who are still coloring—really. I would not have let my hair grow out, if it were not a kind of excellent white. I think I look good. If I didn’t, I think I’d go back to dyeing it (TV contract or not; and I don’t have one).
Please don’t get me wrong: I don’t mean to compare the experience of white-haired white women with underrepresented people of color, especially women, on television or elsewhere. But I have to say, since I live in Harlem, most of the women who stop me, or yell compliments, are Black. There is something going on. These women are every race, and also, every age.
And a lot of them are young.
I have long noticed that I’ve been one of the oldest women regularly on cable television. Almost all the men I came up with are still there, with gray hair, or sometimes badly dyed, or tinted (ugh), or God knows what. I’ve noticed that the few women older than me seemingly still color their hair (I say seemingly, because hair is amazing, and some people have their natural color until they’re way old. My father happened to.) Let’s not name names, of either gender; let’s just say we know something’s not fair.
During the pandemic, I have to admit, I’ve often wondered why more women in public spaces—in Congress, media, and high in corporate America—haven’t just let it go. It was so easy, and honestly? Restorative.
I assume it’s because they’re still in the marketplace from which I’ve been, mostly, released. I just wish more of them would release themselves.
Many more women need to see what we look like as we age. And they appreciate seeing it. Which is actually kind of beautiful, or so I hear, for now.
(My title, in case it isn’t obvious, is an homage to Rebecca Solnit’s book Men Explain Things To Me.)