Gray Hair, Don’t Care: Two Green Beauty Founders On Their Journeys to Ditching the Dye
The green beauty community is often viewed as a departure from its conventional cousin: With maker-formulated products that rely on natural ingredients and a priority on health over easy profit, “green” has come to mean “progressive,” and in many ways, that holds true. When it comes to defining what’s beautiful, however, old habits die hard; many of us are still subject to feeling that we must adhere to conventional beauty standards in order to feel—or be seen as—attractive… or even worthy.
Luckily, green beauty has its share of trailblazers who are unafraid to disrupt, redefine and enact change through leading by example. For Sarah Villafranco, M.D., founder of Osmia Organics, and Lisa Fennessy, founder of This Organic Girl, their journeys to letting their respective gray hair grow in was not only a rebellion against beauty standards, but it has also given them lessons on growth, self-acceptance and what being beautiful really means to them.
Tell us about your decision to stop coloring your hair. What drove it? Was it a long time coming?
Lisa: I started thinking about going gray a couple of months before I actually anted up and went all-in. I had just gotten to the point in life where I was needing to color my hair every 3-4 weeks to keep up with the growth and even then I still wasn’t happy with it. It was like, Week 1: Too dark. Week 2: Looked great. And then weeks 3 and 4, I could see my roots again. So what was I doing? Putting all this time, money and effort into feeling good about myself seven days out of the month?! Something had to give.
And of course, I don’t want anything to do with the toxins in hair dye. But as passionate as I am about not poisoning myself, I was also just as passionate about having youthful looking hair. So what’s a girl to do? I turned to Hairprint for a while, which is a truly nontoxic hair color. I loved it, but I grew tired of applying it at home by myself. So then I turned back to ‘organic’ hair dye in the salon which, I hate to break it to you, but organic hair dye ain’t organic. And even though I knew I was exposing my body to toxic chemicals like p-Phenylenediamine (which the EPA says may cause severe dermatitis, asthma, renal failure, vertigo, tremors, convulsions and coma in humans) and resorcinol (which the EWG says is toxic to the immune system and an endocrine disruptor), I did it anyway, because what was the alternative? For some people like me, this predicament feels like choosing the better of two ‘awfuls’ and it’s just so demoralizing.
And then one day I came home and said to my husband, “I’m thinking of maybe not dyeing my hair anymore,” and I will never forget his reaction. He goes, “Oh awesome! You should totally do it.” I thought about his reaction for a couple weeks and then… I dyed my hair again. And when I came home that night, my husband saw me and goes, “Aw! What happened?! I thought you were ditching the color?!” And ultimately that’s what gave me the courage to just go for it. It’s been a little over a year now since I’ve dyed my hair and I’m so grateful for his support and that final push.
Sarah: Actually, it happened almost overnight. I woke up and looked on my calendar for the week. When I saw a hair color appointment, I thought, “Wait, I JUST had my hair colored! How can it be time already?!” The strange thing is that I didn’t really make a decision to START coloring my hair. I’d have stylists offer to put a rinse or a gloss on it to “blend” the grays, and I’d say, “Sure, why not?” But, over time, I started feeling this urgency about covering them when they started to show. I was starting to feel ashamed of my natural hair color, and I had a very sudden realization about the absurdity of that notion. So I stopped. It’s been over a year since I colored my hair with the intention of covering gray. Any coloring I’ve done has been in an effort to let the silver come in gracefully, rather than having it be such a stark transition.
Are you surprised by any feelings that have surfaced since you stopped coloring your hair?
Lisa: So funny you asked this question because YES! I AM! I decided to film, “Going Gray: A Year In Review” for my IGTV. It was just going to be a cumulation of going gray photos from the past year, but the next thing I know, I’m telling a story of personal growth and self love.
Body shaming applies to hair, too, you know. I didn’t realize it at the time, but before I stopped dyeing my hair, I was consumed with thoughts about my roots to the point where it would affect my behavior. I would refuse to sit if others were standing so people wouldn’t have a top-down vantage point. During conversations, I would track people’s eye contact and one-for-one, allow it to chip away at my self-worth every time someone glanced at my hairline. I constantly had this inner-voice dragging me down: They can see your grays. They are looking at your roots. They won’t stop staring at your hair. It was these beauty lies that were defining me and taking center stage. And instead of truly looking at someone and engaging with them, I was more concerned about my position in the room.
And to make matters worse, I was suppressing all of it. My whole life, I’ve identified as a confident woman. And at that time, I wasn’t able to see that this was really unhealthy self-talk because in general, I was really good at life. So even though I was continuing on with this negative self-talk, I didn’t see it as such because it wasn’t my opinion, it was fact. The ‘fact’ being, gray hair is ugly. Now that I walk around with only a few inches left of color-treated hair skimming my shoulders, that veil has been lifted. I keep my head held high, sit whenever I damn please and look people in the eye to engage, rather than tally. That inner voice that used to tell me to stand or track eye contact is dead. I’ve totally broken free from those beauty lies that used to own me and at the age of 40, I am finally living my beauty truth.
Do you view yourself differently since you began this process? If so, how has your relationship with the woman in the mirror evolved?
Sarah: Oddly, I feel more confident now than when I was coloring. It’s such a nice feeling to have all my cards on the table, and be able to share that feeling with others. I think so many things in the beauty industry end up making us feel ashamed of our natural appearance. When you’re walking around in a state of low-level shame about yourself, you can’t give the world all you have to offer. Since I stopped coloring my hair, I feel like I carry myself like a woman with nothing to hide.
Do I still have to work not to criticize myself in the mirror? Of course—that is, and always will be, a work in progress. But letting my silvers shine helps me keep my priorities in the order that makes the most sense for me.
How long into allowing your grays to come in did you begin to really embrace them? Is it an ongoing process?
Lisa: The first three months are the hardest in my opinion, because you walk around looking like you just missed a hair appointment rather than a woman who made a decision about her hair. It’s kind of how I felt when I was three months pregnant too. I didn’t look pregnant, I just felt fat. Same with this! I didn’t look like I was going for the gray hair look, I just looked overdue. It’s this in-between stage that was the toughest to embrace for me.
But soon after that I felt like I could see and measure progress and I caught myself wishing my hair would grow in WHITER! I would love a full head of silver hair, but I think I still have a few more years to go before that happens.
Sarah: About three months after I decided to stop covering the gray, I began to see it coming in substantially at my temples and my crown, and I found it unexpectedly empowering. I’d get excited when I saw a new set of sparkles. Of course, there are days when I wonder if it makes me look a little older, or what it will look like when it’s more like 80 percent silver than 30 percent like it is now. But overall it’s been such a positive experience that I can’t believe I even stressed over the decision.
What do you want other women—and young girls— to know about your decision to no longer dye your hair?
Lisa: That it’s a personal one. I’m not here to preach going gray as the answer to healthy living, because it’s not. Health and happiness means something different to each and every one of us. That means taking the time to honor you. Discover you. Do you. If that means bucking the system and not dyeing your hair, then do it! If that means dyeing your hair until you are 90 then girl, yes. But maybe it means making amends with your mom or an estranged friend. Or paying someone back. Or mustering up the courage to say you’re sorry for that thing that’s really eating away at you. Because guess what? When we are good inside, the outside doesn’t matter as much.
I stand here as a a sister and a friend to anyone who wants to share my journey. What I definitely want to offer is encouragement to the women out there who are in the weeds and can’t see the light. It gets better. It was really weird seeing my hair come in looking like my mother’s. But now that it’s been over a year, I don’t think much about it anymore. I look in the mirror and I just see me.
Sarah: I’m not here to tell anyone what to do, or to say that coloring your hair is wrong. I’m only here to advocate for the idea that a woman choosing to embrace gray hair, or not choosing Botox, should not be equated with the concept of “letting herself go.” It’s simply another, completely viable option on the spectrum.
I also think we need to consider our reasons for coloring our hair or taking other measures to look younger. To whatever extent those reasons are based in shame, I say it’s time to stand up against the cultural tenets that created an age-based shame—especially for women—in the first place. The idea that we are less valuable as humans when we have wrinkles or silver streaks is absurd. Everybody knows that intellectually, but by working so hard to hide our age, we’re actually making a statement in the opposite direction, and setting our daughters up to have to do the same.
Lisa, your blog is dedicated to green living, and has become a trusted source for readers wanting to know about the best in green beauty. Have you received feedback from your readers about your gray hair? What has that been like?
The support I’ve gotten from readers has been pivotal. I’ve had such a positive experience going gray and I wonder if I would have the same sense of confidence if I weren’t doing it publicly. At the beginning, it was really hard to embrace my decision. I felt awkward, ugly and disheveled. But what I kept hearing from my readers was, “You look beautiful, you are glowing and keep it up!” It really kept me going.
Sarah, you embody health and wellness: From your workout routines to your healthy eating habits, you seem to walk the wellness walk daily. How does your lifestyle contribute to your feelings of what’s beautiful?
I think 10 years in the emergency room gave me a strong sense of the full range of human wellness and disease. To have a healthy body is an incredible privilege, and I never lose sight of that fact. Watching my mom get sick and die so young only emphasized the point. Nourishing myself with healthy foods, moving my body and feeling my heart and lungs come alive in my chest, breathing the air the trees have cleaned for me—all of these are privileges, and could be revoked at any moment. That makes me want to drink in all the beauty around me and share it with as many people as I can.
If you had one (or more!) message for the beauty industry as a whole as it pertains to how we view women as they age and their hair, skin or bodies change, what would it be?
Sarah: As Forrest Gump might have said, beauty is as beauty does. It is SO much more important to act beautiful than to look beautiful. If you’ve been kind to the people you love, worked to heal relationships that need attention, contributed to your community or the planet, and you still have time to curl your eyelashes, go for it! But none of your beauty endeavors will ever matter if your beautiful actions don’t come first. And here’s the best part—if you’re acting like a beautiful human being, feeling beautiful is just a natural side effect.
Love all things green beauty? Get ready for the return of one of green beauty’s biggest nights.