You know a fashionable hair trend has gone fully mainstream when an ex-One Directioner hops on the bandwagon.
On Wednesday, 22-year-old Zayn Malik debuted a head of gray hair, joining the trend of "granny hair" — dewy, youthful faces framed by hair a color more often seen on people over 50.
The trend, which started popping up back in March is a jolt to our beauty sensibilities, yet has taken deep root among this year's countless colorful hair trends. And while celebrities like Kylie Jenner and Girls' Zosia Mamet (plus Malik, apparently) have experimented with gray, it's "regular" girls on Instagram who are serving as inspiration for their peers in salons.
It's tempting to imagine that this is an act of beauty subversion, a rallying cry against the constraints of unfair physical ideals. The gray seems like a victory in the battle against ageism in fashion and beauty, another tiny triumph for a list that includes Joan Didion sporting oversized glasses for Céline and Helen Mirren in a leather jacket and red lipstick for L'Oreal.
But closer analysis suggests "granny hair" might not be quite the revolution it seems.
Aiming for edgy, not old: The irony is baked right in. "Granny" is offensive in nearly any context unless someone's actually a grandmother — or young enough to render the term ridiculous and ironic. Granny hair often isn't gray but an extreme shade of blond with silver, blue or lavender tones. The idea here, it would seem, isn't really to look grandmotherly.
David Todd, a colorist and salon owner in Scottsdale, Arizona, said that young clients requesting the look have been asking for a color "beyond natural."
"They're not trying to look old, they're trying to look cool," Todd told Mic, noting that it's the media that chose to call it "granny hair."
Jessica Valero-Gil, 26, a beauty and lifestyle blogger based in Brighton, England, dyed her hair silver last year, saying she wanted an adventurous change and simply liked that gray didn't hinder her clothing options the way other pastel colors might have.
"I deem it in the same category as pastel hair color. I never really associated it with the term 'granny hair'," she told Mic.
Valero-Gil ditched the shade because of the high maintenance and upkeep. The dye job itself can take 7.5 hours, according to Slate, and that doesn't include touchups after mere weeks. Indeed, Todd confirmed silver hair is hard work. "It's not a solution to letting your hair go gray — it's a fashion," said Todd.
All of the color, none of the judgements: It's no surprise that the women celebrated on social media for their silver hair are overwhelmingly young and attractive; by contrast, the gray color only highlights the youthfulness of the rest of their look.
"Of course, fashion loves juxtapositions, so gray hair on a young girl is also a big part of the attraction of the trend," Jaana Jätyri, founder of trend forecaster site Trendstop, told Mic. Instagram selfies of popular silver-haired users like Samantha Ravndahl make use of bold lip colors and exaggerated eye makeup, further distancing the look from a grandma's blue rinse.
But what makes young girls stand out is still what turns older women invisible. #GrannyHair doesn't seem to be changing that the fact that much of the $15 billion women spend annually on hair color in the U.S. may be to cover up gray strands. Such obvious markers of age, while conveying distinguished maturity for men, are liabilities for women and tend to mark them as undesirable.
More than two-thirds of women over 45 report going totally unnoticed by the opposite sex when they walk into a room, and many blame grays and glasses for the snubs.
"Boomer women have a litany of voices and conditioned beliefs about what it means to get old and have gray hair. Will I be invisible as I age? Respected? Loved? Alone? Desirable?" Maggie Crane, author of two books advising women over 50, to Mic.
Young women with gray hair, on the other hand, attract even more attention.
"I love my hair because it's definitely a conversation starter with strangers," Adrienne Lucina, 24, a stylist living in Los Angeles, told Mic. "People will randomly come up to me and tell me that my hair is so wonderful or beautiful."
Youth still wins out: Young women's embrace of gray hair, at the very least, proves that the color can be beautiful. Todd said he gets at least two women a day in his David Frank Salon asking him about going naturally gray.
Stylist Lucina said dyeing her hair silver has prepared her for going naturally gray later in life.
"I'll probably embrace the color since I know it'll look good on me," she said.
In the meantime, though, it's young women like Rihanna and Nicole Richie, not to mention the Instagram stars, who earn outsize praise for pulling off what will likely be a fleeting trend, while naturally gray celebrities like Jamie Lee Curtis don't receive the same adulation.
Instead of breaking down beauty barriers, #GrannyHair goes to show what a powerful trump card youth can be — especially when it's played up to maximum effect.