One Silver Fox

Spencer Silverthorne, whose given name is completely coincidental, shares a series of vignettes on his experience going gray at a young age.

Rona Pondick, Monkey with Hair (grey), 2002. Stainless steel and modacrylic hair. Courtesy

I’ll never forget the day I noticed my first gray hair. I was in the fifth grade. We were reading Island of the Blue Dolphins. Sadly, I remember nothing of the story, perhaps because I was too busy playing with my hair, which was then fully brown. As I swiped my hand through my hair, a strand of a different color fell onto the lacquered desk. The fallen strand didn’t contrast the color of the surface. It almost blended in. I picked it up, inspecting it as if to make sure it was my own. How could this be happening to me now?

My first run-in with puberty would not be an octave drop in my voice or a sprout of fuzz under my chin; it would be a change reserved for middle-aged men. When I told my mom about my first gray hair, she wasn’t concerned. She had seen her first gray strands in her twenties and reminded me that her two younger brothers also started graying earlier than expected. She assured me that at least I wouldn’t be balding.

My classmates didn’t notice the change in my hair until I entered seventh grade, which was just in time for everyone to show their worst possible selves as a way to cement their position in the obvious but at the same time arbitrary social hierarchy that is middle school. It was bad enough that my hair was too wavy to adopt a bowl cut. Instead I was stuck with the standard short in the back and sides, parted to the left. It made me feel like an extra on Leave it to Beaver. The gray, along with my thick-rimmed glasses, was way more vintage than I was ready to embrace.

“Why don’t you use JUST FOR MEN?” echoed down the hall, in the recess yard, and on the bus. There was nothing I could do. If I did dye my hair, I would look weak, disguising something they already knew to be true. If I were to change anything, it would have to be something radical, but our school dress code forbade “unnatural” hair colors and mandated cuts of a certain length. I began to see my gray hair as nature’s way of telling me that I was an outsider.

Hair can be a measure of our vitality, abundance, and strength. As melanocytes, the cells that produce color in hair, decline, which often happens naturally with age, gray hair emerges. It represents the death of pigment, a source of dread in our culture, something that we must hide as if to avoid our own mortality. I wonder if my classmates felt this when they saw my hair begin to change. By shaming my gray, they could ignore their inevitable old age.

Despite the fact that I exited high school with only patches of brown in tact, my hair still grows fast. My father used to take me to a barbershop every four weeks that was open from 5am to 1pm on Saturdays. The owner kept these hours to accommodate the farmers coming into town from the western edge of Chester County, Pennsylvania. Consequently, the barbershop felt very butch, even though at the time I only knew that word as a man’s name, not a masculine identity. Like many barbershops it was a place where men could meet up to discuss politics, sports, and other matters without having to worry about the company of women. I was never sure where I should chime in the conversation and preferred to bury my head in a stack of Rolling Stones. I liked for Fran to cut my hair because he didn’t ask any questions and he had a wallet chain. My father told me he sometimes ran with a group of bikers and trekked every Labor Day to Mount Washington in New Hampshire. I thought he was kind of a badass.

Years later, I would opt for a salon where I could confide more comfortably about everything from dating boys who’d never call back to my problems at work. My stylist spoke with a kind of authority not even therapists dare to assume, and although I’m sure her interest in my life was based on customer retention, she did help me come to embrace my hair color. She was also the first person to shape my hair in a style that was actually flattering. I always left the salon with a bounce in my step.

When my family visited friends in Vermont, we’d sometimes make a day trip to Montreal. My father would elbow me when we’d walk by men and women in mohawks or fluorescent-colored hair sitting by a fountain and busking for change. His gaze registered “freak show,” while their looks inspired in me an allegiance to a subculture or, at least, a taste for punk music. Each time he’d say, “Look at the girl with the pink hair,” I would remind him that it’s rude to stare.

Five years later, my father was not happy when I took a page from the Montreal punks’ style book and dyed my hair pink. I was on my way to a music festival and it was one of the only times I can remember since grade school that I really wanted to fit in with a crowd. I also hoped it would attract the attention of punk boys (it didn’t). Even as my mother warned me about my father’s reaction, she helped me with the dyeing process, which took place outdoors in a kiddie pool that we kept solely for the purpose of giving our dog a bath.

My mother was right and my father went through the roof when he saw me. We were scheduled to visit a series of colleges and he insisted I look presentable to the admission officers. In an effort to appease my father, I shaved my head, which then set my mother off. She found it too militant. The battle over my hair was exhausting and it would be years before I tried any more experiments.

The second and final time I attempted to dye my hair was in college. A friend of a friend was visiting from out of town and brought black-blue hair dye. She had extra left over, and, on a whim, I asked if I could use the rest. However, unlike my Catholic school classmates, many of my friends embraced my natural hair color. They referred to me as a "silver fox" and considered me a dapper, urbane-looking individual. Other classmates must have shared this sentiment because, once my hair changed, their impression of me was altered, as if I had given up an important part of my identity. A girl I didn’t know very well—and who I suspected didn’t particularly like me to begin with—approached me in line at the cafeteria to admonish me for this new look: “What were you thinking? I don’t even know who you are anymore.”

I’ve always downplayed the uniqueness of possessing premature gray hair. Sometimes I still think of myself as a brunette, which I recognize as slightly delusional. It usually takes a photograph to break that spell, especially one that captures me and my mane in sunlight. With just the right filter on Instagram, my hair appears to fade into air. Several people I’ve encountered have talked to me about dying their hair gray, emulating celebrities like Rihanna and Kelly Osbourne. The thing is, I’d know if they were faking. A dye job has a bluer tint.