ODE TO GRAY by Michele Maggiora

Ode to Grey

I made the decision to stop, many times. But I kept at it; the ritual of dyeing my hair. I have colored my hair since my twenties long before I started to gray. I used cellophane rinses, colors of eggplant, red, and burgundy until THOSE telltale hairs began to show. Then I began to wash that gray away and continued until my fifty-eighth year.

This monthly ritual escalated into a bi-monthly project in later years to hide the silvering roots that glared from the crown of my head. I never questioned my need to dye.

Everyone does it.

My older sister never dyed her hair. Often we share the same soapbox on women’s issues but I just kept dying. After all, I’m still young. Why shouldn’t I look young for as long as possible. My sister looks great with her wild hair but not for me. I was convinced I needed every tool to survive! My husband is completely silver -gray. “Don’t dye your hair for me,” he kept saying.

“I’m ready to go natural,” I answered. But that night he came home to a reddish-brown head of hair and was disappointed.

“Why?” he said. “You said one thing and did another.”

My stomach tightened. “I can do what I want to do, it’s my hair,” I screeched. “I’m tired of trying to please everyone else all the time. I’m going to do what I want to do!” I burst into tears. “I’m afraid!” I cried. “I’m afraid of losing something, of losing the power of beauty and youth. I’m scared of getting old!” In that moment, I refused to see that “doing what I wanted” was more attached to survival programming than to my authentic self. In the world today, most cultures hold fear-based attitudes about women and aging. I found relief in the exquisite photos of Native American women; faces that expressed beauty, intuition, and power. They were the gray-haired, the elders and wise women whose faces, carved deeply with lines and surrounded by gray, proudly told of their lives. They had achieved wise woman status. They were part of a cultural reality that revered the elders and their medicine.

While living in Oaxaca, Mexico, I worked with indigenous Zapotec women from around Salina Cruz. The older women grayed naturally, tying their hair into long braids woven with strips of brightly colored cloth — luminous faces, luminous hair. The non-indigenous Mexicanas were as raven haired as I, so I kept dyeing.

I remember my mother, a beautiful and creative woman who did her best to give me the tools she had used for feminine survival. Once, after expressing resentment about the annoying invasion from construction workers with their hoots and whistles, my mother replied, “You’d better start worrying when they stop whistling!” Other “tools” included her suggestion to fake orgasm to protect the frail male ego and the constant evaluation of my hair, my make-up, my figure.

I have forgiven my mother because she was giving me the same tools she was given: the legacy of female survival as it is passed through the ages from mother to daughter. The intention of this survival training was not to stifle the spirit (although it often did) but to help one survive in a male-dominant culture. The sad reality tells of the limitation of available power for women. Historically, women have been taught that access to power is through their connection to those who hold it, men.

There is change. Women have more access to positions in the world although it is still defined predominantly in male terms. What I see, even in young women, is that although they have more access, there remains a deep need to be loved by a man in order to be validated. When we as women limit our spirit in any way in order to be validated, that is, to survive, we maintain and perpetuate this limited and distorted model of reality. We are left with few alternatives. As young women we can indulge in our sense of power using feminine wiles to manipulate, coax, and get what we need. Then as youth begins to fade, we can scramble to the plastic surgeon or to the salon for color and try, desperate as it may be, to uphold this illusion as long as possible. We can continue to believe (and therefore uphold) a reality where we access power by being objectified, competing against other women, paying billions to the cosmetic industry, growing empty and powerless as we age and never take the courageous step to shift this old paradigm to a new one.

Or we can begin to unravel this limited core cultural reality, and see it for the illusion it is. Is it easy? No! Does it take courage? YES.

It happened a few months ago. I was visiting my sister. I was telling her of my intention to mentor younger women.

“So you are going to mentor younger women? How can you do it with that hair!” My sister went for it. I looked in the mirror and saw the faded red-brown hair; hair I always disliked on old women. I was that woman. I was trying to prop up an illusion and was losing the battle. I looked harsh and faded. I saw fear in my eyes.

When I got home, I called my hair stylist. He gave me an appointment immediately. Perhaps he felt my fear and my resolve. Carlos began to strip the color from my faded red hair. “Michele, it’s not about looking young, it’s about looking good,” he said. And now after some months, I know it’s not only about looking good. It’s about embracing our MEDICINE, the Medicine of the elder, the wise woman.

So how do we do this? What does it mean? It means being willing to become aware. It means beginning to unravel our thought pattern and the programming that creates it. It means listening to how we feel about ourselves and seeing how these feelings come from the programmed thoughts. It means being ruthlessly honest and courageous even when we are shaking in our boots. It means beginning to redefine age, beauty, power, value, and what brings self love.

I realize why I love the old faces of Native women…because they are truly beautiful! These are faces filled with personal power. They respect themselves as they are honored by their people. Getting old holds no disgrace. On the contrary, it is an honored era in a woman’s life, a time of wisdom, beauty, authenticity, and personal power.

We have a duty, an obligation to shift the legacy, to break the chain. As we begin to take ownership of our beauty, our wisdom, our relevance, and our substance, we open the possibilities of a new reality for ourselves, our daughters, all women, and all humanity.

Michele MaggioraMichele Maggiora stopped dyeing her hair shortly before turning 59 years old. She has always championed women’s issues, but feels that this one took the most courage. “It brought up all of my fears and showed, without a doubt, how my actions perpetuated the lie of cultural reality.” ¬†Michele has worked as a designer, visual artist, poet, and chef.¬†

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  1. Hi, I came across a 1991 gourmet magazine with a request for a dessert from ‘Bellisimo” .
    To this day we continue to drive CA enroute to Oregon & overnight in Mt. Shasta.
    Our food memories always always go right to your old spot.
    I bought your book ‘The Liberated Gourmet’ on one of our visits!

    thanks for the many delicious memories,

    Mary Anne

  2. Michele,
    Found a recommendation for your design services on Berkeley Parents Network. Do you still do design work? Would be interested in working together with you. My giclee prints can be viewed on my website: http://www.greetingswithheart.com.
    Viktoria Vidali
    P.S. Well written article … I love my gray hair, too!

  3. I thoroughly enjoyed your article. The part about Native women embracing their maturity brought tears to my eyes. I am a Native woman and even we need to be reminded of this from time to time.I am 41 and doingthe “dye” thing also. Mostly because of the comments I recieve from people once my hair grows out about 2 inches. They include, but are not limited to the in public, and in a very loud voice, “Oh my god, your hair is gray!” Why people feel the need to “inform” me of something I already know, is beyond me.

  4. Hi, I’ve been looking for relatives of Velma Maggiora. Are you her daughter? I got a lovely afghan she crocheted, at a thrift store here in San Francisco, a couple of years ago. It has her label in it. I wanted to give it back to her family if you want it. Alexandra Fiona Dixon, San Francisco – alexandra@t-hunts.com