For many aging people, gray hair is something to dye for

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The question is, "Gray hair: color it or celebrate it?"

There are dyed-in-the-wool feminists who swear by Miss Clairol, and there are ardent anti-feminists who wear their gray like a silver crown. In between, there are all manner of women, and men: those who color the gray, those who don't.

"There are no set rules for gray hair anymore," says Antwine Freeman, of Michael and Co. hair salon in Peoria, Ill. "It's a personal choice."

Hair is a multimillion-dollar industry built out of contemporary necessities. "Bad hair day" is much more part of the modern lingo than "crowning glory." If old attitudes about beauty and aging are falling by the wayside, it hasn't quite gotten to the point that there's a definitive answer to the gray hair question.

"There are still an awful lot of ladies who color their hair," says Richard Anche, the gray-haired owner of a self-named salon. New coloring techniques have given them new options, such as "low-lighting," darkening pieces of hair instead of lightening it. "This way, you can adjust hair color so it's not so gray."

Anche points out that many people aren't pleased with the first signs of gray. "Pure white or salt-and-pepper can be very attractive," he says, "but when you first start graying, it doesn't seem like it."

Indeed, that first sign of gray can be upsetting. A coarse, unruly strand that seems to have its own mind, it usually appears around one's early 30s. The anxiety comes not from what it is, but what it represents: the inevitable.

A few generations ago, women didn't have as many choices, says Margaret Voelker-Ferrier of the University of Cincinnati, who has studied fashion and aging trends. "In my mother's generation, almost every woman was a 'Loving Care' consumer."

Society is changing, she says, but it hasn't gotten to the point that older, gray-haired women are considered distinguished looking in the same way as older, gray-haired men.

Still, no one's willing to say the trend is toward anything other than personal choice.

About 55 percent of women color their hair either at home or at salons, according to surveys by Miss Clairol. And of those who color their hair at home, an age breakout doesn't really give a clear answer to the "should I, shouldn't I" question, because:

*13- to 24-year-olds, 39 percent;

*25- to 39-year-olds, 34 percent;

*40- to 49-year-olds, 39 percent;

*50- to 69-year-olds, 34 percent.

Looked at another way, about the same percentages of women younger than 40 color their hair as their older counterparts.

That's due, in large part, to the growing number of young people who see coloring their hair as a way to express their individuality. (For the sake of fairness, 11 percent of men color their hair, though there is no breakdown by age group.)

A look at Miss Clairol's most popular color choices does offer a possible clue. The largest group of women who color their hair choose a brown shade (37 percent), followed closely by blond shades (34 percent). Red or auburn shades come in third at 24 percent, and shades of black hang in there with just 4 percent.

Meanwhile, only 1 percent choose shades that enhance the gray.

Despite this low percentage, Voelker-Ferrier thinks more women want to celebrate their gray hair and the numbers will only increase as the baby boomer generation ages.

"They're saying I've earned it, I'm proud of it and I'm going to wear it, and they're making aging more acceptable."