Bleaching your hair gray isn’t just eye-catching—it’s also a middle finger to the anti-aging industry. Barbara and Barbara owner Kara Wabbell shows us how it’s done.
To some people, bleaching your hair gray in your 20s must seem as sensible as yanking out all your teeth and buying dentures for fun. After all, isn’t the entire beauty-industrial complex geared toward reversing, or at least slowing down, the aging process—not skipping ahead 30 years? But of course that defiance of expectations is part of the appeal of the trend, which has seen granny-gray tresses pop up on everyone from Gareth Pugh and Giles Deacon models to teenage style blogger Tavi Gevinson.
"As men age and their hair begins to silver, they are typically perceived as sophisticated, wise, and successful,” says Sarah Brewster, a 28-year-old clinical research coordinator living in Humboldt Park, who sports a Miley Cyrus–esque undercut with shaved sides and a tuft of 7-inch long, gray-colored hair on top. “But the beauty standard for women is to dye over their graying hair in order to obtain a youthful look…The gray-hair trend, for me, is a rebellion against this gender norm.”
Sarah finds it’s hard for many people to process the look. "I get mistaken for an old woman all the time! Especially if someone sees me from behind, " she says. But that doesn't stop her from wearing her cut with pride. Aside from the social statement it makes, Sarah insists she finds it “aesthetically appealing. It's unique, it’s exciting, and it looks awesome.”
But if the contrarian appeal of gray hair is understandable, the process of creating it was still a mystery to me. For help, I turned to Sarah’s stylist, Kara Wabbell, the owner of Logan Square’s Barbara and Barbara.
Reach for the Bleach
Trying to dye your hair gray is a mistake, since the hair will lose its color over time due to stress, pollution, and other factors. That’s why stylists don’t dye, but rather bleach hair to obtain a gray color. How dark your virgin color is—Sarah’s roots are about a Level 4—determines how long your hair must process under the bleach.
"It takes a lot of patience," says Kara, whose clients have requested the bleached-gray look for as long as she’s been a hairdresser (about 10 years). In fact, she says most appointments take up to four hours. During that time, Kara concocts a specialized formula of bleach, toners, and developers for each client and relies on her intuition (and years of practice) to estimate how long the ends and the roots should be bleached.
After the Appointment
Though the lengthy process does require quite a bit of art and science, maintaining the gray hue in-between visits isn’t as tough.
“I use purple shampoo,” Sarah says. Kara adds, “Like the kind little old white-haired ladies use.”
Purple shampoo. Seriously?
Kara explains: "You are essentially turning your hair to cheesecloth. It [becomes] so porous it soaks up anything, like hair oil, street pollution, and dirt. So you have to use the purple shampoo…to keep your hair that bright, moonlight white color."
So, what happens when someone doesn’t want gray hair anymore? You just dye over it, right?
“You shave it off,” Kara says matter-of-factly. Dyeing over a large area of bleached-gray hair can be a recipe for disaster because the follicles no longer hold pigment. That’s why some bright-blonde girls end up with a purple tint after box-dyeing their hair brown.
Still, not everyone has to shave their head to start over. Kara says some hair can be salvaged. It just has to happen in steps, and it needs to be done by a professional stylist.
The Real Reason to Do It
Anyone who sports a hairdo that makes them look older, takes up to four hours to create, and requires special shampoo to maintain is clearly going to a lot of trouble to make a statement. But the message may not be as simple as you think. For all the talk of defying social mores, Sarah says she has more personal reasons for choosing the look.
“I don't have grandiose ideas that my gray hair is changing the way society views aging and beauty in our culture,” Sarah says. “Yet my gray hair did help me change the way that I view my aging and my beauty. To be able to walk down the street with a buzzed-gray cut and to feel confident and sexy, well, that's just plain empowering."
Photos: Stephanie Anderson, Groupon