The day my job ended — sending my own personal economy into an immediate recession — I gave up our housekeeper. Ditto my morning lattes (OK, so maybe I cut back!). I stopped buying organics and began clipping coupons. Cancelled the vet appointments and told my cats to buck up. The one thing I refused to lose: my monthly sessions with Thomas, the stylist who keeps my graying strands a chocolatey shade of brown that, I hope, somewhat resembles my original color.
Turns out I'm not alone. For many women, even in tough times, hair color is non-negotiable. According to my highly unscientific poll of 25 women who have their hair dyed, more than half said they've thought about giving up luxuries — and some necessities — for the sake of their hair color. Topping the list of potential sacrifices: new clothes (60 percent) and lunches out (48 percent). One had even considered cutting back on doctor visits and prescriptions (not recommended, for obvious reasons).
It gets worse. "I have a client who's getting a divorce and is virtually penniless, but she keeps up her hair color," says San Francisco stylist Sandra Taylor-Furst.
I know what you're thinking. In the grand scheme of things—world hunger, healthcare reform, the fate of polar bears—hair color is not a big deal. But on a personal level, many would say it is. "The way their hair looks is important to how men and women feel about themselves, and how others think about them," says Yale psychology professor Marianne LaFrance. "We think hair is supposed to say something about us, and in fact, it does."
At a time when thousands of laid-off workers are competing for jobs, the question of hair color turns serious. A recent survey says 80 percent of executives believe there is "moderate to severe age discrimination" in the workplace. Mara Woloshin, 51, of Portland, Ore., has seen that discrimination firsthand. "I'd love to go gray, but experience has taught me that gray-haired women are treated differently in business," she says. Woloshin compromises by coloring 80 percent of her hair, weaving the dark into the gray. "A little gray is good," she says. "Too much and you become invisible."
Still, experts say gray hair is nothing to, well, lose your head over. Hair guru Frederic Fekkai says when it comes to landing a job, it's confidence, not hair color, that counts. "I've noticed more women choosing to embrace their gray. If you combine a chic haircut with gray hair, the result is amazing."
Stacy London of TLC's What Not to Wear agrees. "Some employers may see gray hair as a badge of honor," she says. Her advice? "Ask yourself if you only want to color your gray because other people think you should." London says her own silvery streak came in when she was 12. "I love my gray," she adds. "It's part of me."
Some women say going gray has an important payoff: a truer sense of self. "It's healthy to accept the age you are," says Anne Kreamer, author of Going Gray: What I Learned About Beauty, Sex, Work, Motherhood, Authenticity, and Everything Else That Really Matters. When you color your hair, she adds, "no one is fooled but you."
LaFrance says such a desire for authenticity is understandable, but a bit unrealistic. "If you want to put energy into coloring your hair, so what? It's naive to say women are not evaluated by how they look."
Ouch. I'm all for authenticity, but maybe LaFrance has a point. In these tough times, I can save money on my hair or make tradeoffs to afford the upkeep. It all comes down to priorities. Someday, maybe a sassy gray cut will suit me just fine. For now, though, I'll stick with Thomas — and learn to live without the lattes.