Was Lisa LaFlamme’s silver hair used as a weapon against her?

In the flurry of coverage surrounding Lisa LaFlamme’s resignation from CTV’s flagship nighttime news, social media experts were quick to spot the semblance of ageism at play. 58-year-old LaFlamme is a hero to many women, not only because of her constant presence at the helm of major news stories, but also because of her pandemic decision to go gray in front of the cameras.

Week after week, LaFlamme boldly grew her roots, a reflection of the harrowing reality of what we were all going through together. That look later morphed into an elegant silver bob.

The fashion world – admittedly a bubble where trends are blown out of proportion – has embraced gray hair for women in recent years, but the natural aging movement is largely untried in the larger business world. While male anchors (and other leaders) are prized for their silver temples, long seen as a sign of wisdom, women sitting in the big chair rarely make that leap. Could LaFlamme’s decision to celebrate the most visual symbol of aging have been used against her? And if so, what does that mean for the rest of us who want to avoid the expense of the salon (both time and money) and embrace our natural gray?

LaFlamme’s choice inspired her audience, but a recent report suggests it was also the subject of discussion with senior CTV officials, who reportedly questioned who allowed LaFlamme to “go gray.”

Hannah Mauser is a beauty analyst at the international trend spotting agency WSGN, which produced the report Key Trend 2023: The Gray Hair Movement. The movement, Hauser says, is about giving people the opportunity to fully embrace themselves. “Whether you choose to hide the gray hair or not, it’s about letting people know that it doesn’t change how they’re viewed either way — they can live authentically as themselves and celebrate the journey of going gray.”

Sounds great, doesn’t it? But is business ready for all that progress?

Straying outside the norms of acceptable presentation in the workplace can have tangible consequences, says Jacyln Wong, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of South Carolina whose research focuses on the relationship between how people look and how much money they make. “The main finding is that attractive individuals earn about 20 percent more than people of average attractiveness,” says Wong. For women, Wong says, the gap is “fully explained by grooming.”

“Workplaces are gender-based spaces,” Wong says. “When workplaces reward grooming — including beauty work to ‘look young’ — in women, they reproduce what it means to be a woman in our society: objects that are beautiful to look at.” In this way, she says, “Workplaces can direct people’s behavior.”

In other words, play the game and you will be rewarded; don’t play and you will be punished. “Grooming signals individual women’s participation in this system of patriarchal domination,” Wong says. “Women can be rewarded for playing under these gender rules, and women who deviate from what is considered an acceptable presentation can expect those rewards to be withheld.”

Toronto celebrity hairdresser Jason Lee, who has many powerful heads, says his clients have more leeway in creative areas to go gray with impunity: “My clients who are businesswomen are constantly worried about looking young.” Lisa LaFlamme, he says, made a “groundbreaking” statement with her hair: “She brought the conversation to the fore.” That strong position may have been the problem, he says. “Women have to play the unspoken game of looking a certain way in order to be treated a certain way. A public figure, broadcast every night in everyone’s homes, is a statement of a different magnitude.”

Long-time beauty editor Liza Herz runs Oldish.ca, a site about aging with gusto. “CTV was a very prominent position for LaFlamme to go gray,” Herz says. “It showed tremendous confidence. Think of female TV journalists and what percentage of their mail and comments is about their hair, makeup and the neckline of their clothes.” Herz points out that while unusual for prime time in its hue, LaFlamme’s hair is as polished as any head on TV. “It’s an incredibly sophisticated look. Even in LaFlamme’s video message.” [announcing her leaving the network] at the cottage. Who looks like this in their house?”

When it comes to deciding whether or not to age naturally, freedom of choice is key, says Dr. Jacqueline Makerewich, Toronto-based cosmetic surgeon. “Socially, women fear that they will lose value as they get older, and unfortunately these fears extend to the working world. There is tremendous pressure on women to appreciate a youthful appearance, and this pressure is further distorted on social media. This creates a cycle of women who are both tormented and obsessed with unattainable youth, and unfortunately also dictates what our population wants to see more or less of.”

This summer, people have seen a lot of the ubiquitous seaside grandmother look — think Diane Keaton in an oversized cardigan strolling along a Hamptons beach — which seemed to be a hopeful cultural sign of aging. But this fall, that gray-chic blip is being replaced by a new trend: the “coastal granddaughter,” in which twenty-somethings experiment with dyed silver hair and linen.

All of this begs the question: is silver hair like LaFlamme’s only really acceptable if it’s a costume?

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