The roots of the issue

Aaron Brown of CNN does. Tom Brokaw doesn't. Larry King did, but doesn't anymore. Barbara Walters does. So do Judy Woodruff, Paula Zahn, and Andrea Mitchell. In fact, it could be hard to find a female newscaster who doesn't.

Does? Doesn't? What's the issue here, anyway? Simple: hair coloring. In a youth-oriented culture, these TV hosts symbolize the decisions millions of their viewers face in a culture where the prevailing attitude is: You can add more candles to your birthday cake, but just don't let the years show. The Jack Benny model - remaining 39 forever - still applies in many circles.

This year marks the 70th anniversary of the famous Clairol question, "Does she - or doesn't she?" In 1933, when Clairol launched its ad campaign, hair coloring was almost exclusively the province of women. Now it's an equal- opportunity choice. The updated question for the new century is: Does he or doesn't he?

These days, the decision to start coloring is easy and can begin in one's teens, decades before gray is even an issue. To dye or not to dye? Sure, why not try?

What's harder is the midlife decision to stop. The question becomes: To show the gray or not to show it? These midlifers can be divided into three groups: the Forevers, the Nevers, and the Not Sures. The Forevers insist that they'll always color their silver locks. The Nevers vow to maintain a natural look, claiming that artificial color will never be for them. The Not Sures grow curious about their "real" look underneath that dye.

One stylist at a Newbury Street salon in Boston says the decision to go natural often occurs when clients are in their 50s and 60s, and typically comes down to maintenance fatigue. Hair grows. Roots show. "Beauty" becomes a matter of endless, boring maintenance, requiring quantities of time and money.

As she eases clients through the growing-out process, the stylist helps the ambivalent to appreciate the beauty of silver and gray.

Liberated from chemicals and frequent appointments, some converts to the natural look experience a heady - pardon the pun - new freedom and a new sense of identity: This is who I am.

Or is it? Answers are often not that clear-cut and simple. My own highly unscientific sampling of those who have faced the question reveals varying decisions and varying reactions from spouses, friends, and even offspring.

When one professional woman decided to stop coloring her salt-and-pepper hair, a co-worker warned, "You're going to look much older." She stood firm and grew it out. The result is striking. And no, she doesn't look "much older."

Another woman endured the growing-out process only to have her adult son express dismay. He even offered to pay for the coloring. That wasn't necessary, but she understood the message and went back to banishing the gray.

One man whose parents were older by the time he was born jokes that he never knew his mother before her hair turned blue. Those days of blue rinses are becoming only a distant memory.

My mother remained a lifelong brunette, with help from her hairdresser. Her sister, by contrast, never colored her beautiful gray hair. Each woman's choice seemed right for her. Long live individuality!

For some, the quandary is never truly settled: Should I or shouldn't I? Deeper questions lurk in the background, including: What is youthfulness? And what is beauty?

Whatever the decision, the subject hints at a truth the famous Clairol line never quite addresses: Beauty is more than roots deep, whatever their color.

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