Sunday, April 11, 2010

The great hair color debate: another place to compromise

This is Part 1 of Poppy's Excellent Hair Dye Adventure. You might want to finish the series by reading Part 2: Drugstore Color and Part 3: How to be a Silver Fox.

A college classmate of mine emailed me recently asking me--the recently minted expert in all things stylish and beautiful--where I stood on the subject of dyeing one's hair. It turns out I have a lot of thoughts on the subject. Too many to include in an email. Too many to include in a single blog post. So welcome to Poppy's Excellent Hair Dye Adventure, Part One.

Susie Sunshine, Goon Squad Sarah, and Poppy Buxom's dyed hair at last year's BlogHer conference
I should start by outing myself as insanely high-maintenance and extravagant. Because I can't stand gray hair. Snow white heads of hair a la Crystal Gale are all very well and good ... but my gene pool seems to run to years and years of dull and dreary salt-and-pepper.

Also, I'm hair-styling-challenged. When I was growing up, hair was long, straight, and parted in the middle. No one used rollers or blow-dryers. We washed our hair and let it dry. Which means I didn't even dip a toe into hair-styling waters until I was well into my 20s.

Now, to my mind, hair-styling is like downhill skiing or stock car racing--it's probably a good idea to get started when you're young. And since I didn't even try to blow my hair dry until I was in my 20s, I'm at a permanent disadvantage. Those long layers that look so great when somebody else styles them end up confounding my attempts. Which means a lot of the time, my hair looks messy and disheveled.

And what's worse than messy, disheveled hair? Messy disheveled hair that's gray. So my theory on hair color is this: I have to color my hair, because if I don't, I'll look like one of those wacky old peasant women who hung around watching people getting guillotined during the French Revolution, knitting and cackling in unholy glee.

L-R: Sydney Carlton in A Tale of Two Cities, a French soldier, and Poppy with her knitting

Or maybe, because I'm a singer, like a member of the chorus in an amateur production of Les Mis.

So I get my hair colored at Pascal Pour Elle, a la-di-dah salon in Glencoe, Illinois. (If you go there for color, ask for Priscilla. She's a genius.) I used to get a semi-permanent base color, to which were added highlight, lowlights, and a glaze for shine.

OK, this picture is maybe not so great of my gorgeous friend Liz
or even of me, but it does show off my high- and lowlights

I still do the same thing, but with permanent color for my base. The permanent color covers the gray better, but it does make for a more dramatic demarcation when the gray hair grows in. Around here, we call this "skunk head."

When I get skunk head, I start to freak out. I do everything I can to avoid standing next to anyone taller than 5' 10" because OMG they might notice my roots!!! Then, when I remember that I might have to bend over at some point, I head to the drugstore and pick up a box of Clairol's Nice and Easy Root Touch Up, which I've raved about before. I use this to touch up the roots along my part and my hairline. It works well, although I do end up like a guy with a comb-over--one stiff breeze and my subterfuge will be exposed.

Obviously, I have a hair-color fixation. Having me list alternatives to going to the salon every month smacks of hypocrisy. As much as I resent the time and money I spend there, I'm satisfied with things at present.

But let's assume that unlike me, you're not mental on the subject of hair color. Maybe you don't want to spend that much money. Maybe you don't want to go through all that angst. Maybe you want to stand next to as many tall people as possible. What are your options?

Tune in tomorrow for Poppy's Excellent Hair Dye Adventure, Part 2: Drugstore Color.


  1. Oh, you've struck a chord with me! I have been coloring my hair myself lately, which turns out much better than I would ever have guessed. My big issue now is whether to use Medium Brown or Medium Ash Brown. MEdium Brown is too reddish, Medium Ash too greenish. I've been told that I should actually mix them together and it should be okay, but I'm too chicken. Right now, I'm kind of ...gray.

  2. I used to be just like you in that I freaked out at 1/4 inch of roots and was coloring every three weeks.

    I'm now in my fifth month of going gray and I'll never go back to color. I'm not talking old lady gray. You definitely have to stay on top of your style game with gray hair to avoid the frump factor.

    Once you get over the idea that everyone is staring at your roots, its much easier. Also chopping to a pixie helps too.

    Call me crazy, but it feels very empowering to go against the conventional wisdom of aging, while still staying/becoming stylish.

  3. When I was blond, and I first started going gray, it looked like highlights. How lucky is that? Now it looks like dirty dishwater, so I definitely color. Base and highlights coming on Tuesday!

  4. I am on a similar path as Kathy is. ok, lets say I was, because my bra-strap-long hair has not an inch of color left. All natural, with grey inbetween. The reason I quit (only after 2,5 yrs of color, I started at early 30s) was that I left my old hairstylist and his great redken-color (not as harsh as color, more like semipermanent) and my new hairstylist, how did better cuts did not have redken, only the harsh true chemical bombs. since I was not THAT grey back than I said: ok, lets stop the color.

    I receive great compliments, especially from gay make up artists. they ask if this is natural or color. and that I must never change the natural look.

    It disturbed my mother I lot that I turned grey while she still is in color. Maybe I enjoy being different, like Kathy said, empowering ...

    And it is quite a release from the skunk-horror I experienced. :-)

    It is true, grey hair tends to become frizzy. Because of that I use a flatiron from time to time.

    I enjoy your Blog!

  5. I have to dye out my blonde (ha ha) roots every 3 weeks. But I'm not going grey (well, I am, and have been since I was 15, and have been dying since 22), my kids see grey hair and say that it's grandma hair - and they don't want me to look like a grandma.

    I do dye my own hair, so much cheaper, and as I don't do highlights, easy as pie.

    In between I use one of those brown hair lipstick things, they are great for disguising the skunk streak.

  6. Ugh. My hair. THe color has gone flat, but I don't have enough grey yet to do anything. But it's flat. Last year, I had some "red" highlights put in.

    BIG mistake. Big. HUGE. Because red becomes brassier than the 4th of July parade here.

    So, it's back to dark brown. But, I need to do something!!

    I really like your blog, too!

  7. So...I'm mousy brown and I highlight. In this economy, I haven't been able to go to the salon since December. What do I do to help my dark roots? They're about two inches right now, on either side, which is a four-inch strip of dark in the middle of some nice blonde highlights.

  8. I would go to Pascal too, now that I've met him ...
    Please, I started going grey at 17, used henna for may years and then with huge sadness had to frop it as grey were now so many that I started looking like Carrot Top here. Currently on semi permanent color until I'll be able to ... every 21 days, sharp.
    I hate it! I always talk about chopping the whole hair off but people, it's an impossible decision to make when you have natural curly shoulder length hair. Anyway, you look greeat in that picture where you are both smiling. I love it!

  9. I will fight my greys on the streets, on the beaches, in the trenches, in the salon..Grey doesn't suit me. Pops your do looks very nice in these photos.

  10. Beauty Boomer, you can at least eliminate half of your hair problem in terms of you quarrels with gray hair...our company, Rise-N-Shine, LLC has come up with a remarkable all natural supplement called Go Away Gray, which turns your hair from gray back to its original color within 4-6 weeks of use. go to for more information!

  11. I color every four weeks at the salon without exception. Skunk head not allowed as I have red hair.

  12. I think you are referring to Emmylou Harris rather than Crystal Gale. Crystal Gale is the one with hair down to her knees, Emmylous Harris has the white hair.

    I have shoulder length hair and am one year into growing out the ugly dye and letting the gray come in (a long hellish process). Only about 3 inches left of color and I'm liking the new natural hair.

    It's so liberating to be off the bottle. I got very concerned about dumping those toxic chemicals over my head once a month plus the time and expense.

    I think natural gray hair looks so much better than dyed brassy hair(seems like once you are gray no matter what color you use it turns red).

    Anyhow - people have strong opinions on this subject and that's mine. I respect other's choices in hair coloring.

  13. I avoided coloring until I HAD to. Well, now I HAVE to. So I decided to go red, because I love red hair. My hope is that my red hair is as pretty as your friend Liz's. I sure spend enough money on it.

  14. Skunk head, funny! I hate getting those silver roots on top. The rest of my head's roots still have LOTS of auburn mixed in. I have a 12 year old son and just don't want to look too old before my, I color to look and feel like the young me I still think I am. Does that make sense?

    I do like to see beautiful silver or white hair on peeps like Emmylou Harris - it looks great on her! But I'm not ready for it! Nope, no way, no how! Not yet....

  15. I am in the final stages of growing out my gray which is an interesting blend of pure white and silver at the front tapering to dark silver and black toward the back. I am 54 and blessed with good skin so the contrast is rather striking. I began going gray in my late 20's and by mid 30's had to use a permanent base color. After all these years I am DONE with all that! So almost a year later I have gone from a shoulder length brunette bob to a short modern shag cut. Still using a few lowlights to blend in the residual color left but I get compliments all the time! It has been a great journey!


Gentle Readers:

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xxx, Poppy.