As actress Helen Mirren stepped onto the red carpet for the 76th Annual Cannes Film Festival in May of 2023, the crowd let out a surprised gasp, then a wave of appreciative “oohs” and “ahhs.” The 77-year-old Oscar-winner is admired for her unwavering poise, incredible talent and her acclaimed 58-year career, but on that day it was her bold, vibrant blue ombre “mermaid hair” garnering all the admiration.
But Helen isn’t the first star over 60 to throw caution to the wind and dive into the siren trend by turning her silver strands a striking shade. In fact, she follows in the footsteps of legends such as country-crooner Tanya Tucker, who opted for a hot pink pixie, and many others who have embraced the rainbow.
But is there more to this color choice than meets the eye? Here, we asked two top psychologists over 60 why they think women of their generation are transforming their grays into colorful confidence.
What is mermaid hair?
Mermaid hair is a vibrant hair color trend inspired by the mythical creatures of the same name. It typically involves using a combination of bold, pastel or neon dyes to create a multi-tonal effect reminiscent of the ocean, and the coral-reef hues often associated with mermaids and their iridescent tails. The look can be achieved through various hair coloring techniques such as balayage, ombre, or full-head color application, depending on the desired look.
Why is mermaid hair popular?
Understandably, mermaid hair first went viral after catching the attention of younger women and even children, who were thrilled to experiment with the bright colors. But what makes it appealing to the grande dame of cinema and other women of her generation? “It’s all about returning to our rebellious roots,” reveals psychologist Carol Orsborn, Ph.D., author of over 30 books on the Boomer generation, including The Making of an Old Soul: Aging as the Fulfillment of Life’s Promise. “One thing that characterizes Boomers is that we are adventurers and we have the tendency to challenge the status quo,” she says. “We were always on the cutting edge, doing all kinds of crazy things with our hair in our teens and 20’s—the musical Hair that reflected our generation was all about letting our ‘freak flag’ fly—but by our 30’s many of us started to toe the line and return to traditional hair color.”
Why are women over 60 opting for mermaid hair?
One reason more women are trying mermaid hair today can be traced to the pandemic. When salons shuttered, going gray, silver or white was thrust upon us, and a funny thing happened: it wasn’t so scary after all. In fact, it was freeing, and for a lot of us, our natural grays served as the ideal blank canvas, inviting us to experiment with light, bright colors we wouldn’t ordinarily consider. “It can be energizing and invigorating to do exactly what you want with your hair—fun pastel hues are a form of self-expression, of creativity,” observes Orsborn. In fact, this freedom can only come with the wisdom of having a few years under our belt. “I remember being a teenager and all I cared about was what people thought. But the beauty of aging is that you care less and less and can just be you.” Or indeed, a more colorful version of yourself.
And the fact that such striking hues are often temporary only enhances their appeal, adds developmental clinical psychologist Susan Whitbourne, Ph.D., Professor Emerita of Psychological and Brain Sciences at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, known for her work on personality and identity over the lifespan. “Hair has a lot of meaning—it’s the way we decorate ourselves in the most visible way possible and the novelty of a pop of bright color you can change any time can help you get out of rut and brighten your mood,” she explains. “Nobody really expects you to change your hair color in this way, so you’re getting this exclamation point of really being seen.”
How does mermaid hair boost confidence?
If taking a page from Helen’s “blue book” and dying all your hair a funky shade sounds intimidating, consider baby-stepping your way into the trend with the uplifting power of a single jewel-toned highlight. “I have a friend who put a purple streak in her hair,” recalls Orsborn. “She was in the public relations industry that was getting younger and younger, and she was one of the only older women in her department. We had many conversations about it—she did it to make a statement that she was still in the game, that’s she’s young, she’s innovative.”
While the inspiration to go purple may have come from outside pressures, most notably ageism in the workplace, the power of purple quickly had a positive effect on her inner confidence. “She became much more outspoken, much more assertive about the type of work she would and wouldn’t take on.” What may have started out as an act of defiance became an act of self-determination. “The biggest takeaway is we should give ourselves permission to be whatever we want—I want to be visible for the right reasons and finding out what that means is part of the experimentation and freedom of aging.”
Will mermaid hair make me look silly?
If you want to try a bold color, but are still hesitant, consider using it as a way to bond with others. While Helen Mirren is making a statement with blue, country music legend Tanya Tucker has opted to be pretty in pink, and her reason for doing so is far more than “hair deep.” In solidarity with a friend battling breast cancer, Tucker dyed her hair the color of the cause close to hear heart.
“When a cultural icon like her does something so visible and meaningful, it serves as inspiration for us all—we look at her and say to ourselves, ‘It’s okay if I do this, too,’” says Whitbourne. In fact, playing with hair hues can help you bond with those closest to you for “causes” both big and small. “My eight-year-old granddaughter put a blue streak in my hair because it was the color of her soccer team—it was a way of bonding and signaling that we’re all gelling as part of this group. It was fun for me, and I know she loved doing it; she thought it was hilarious.”
Whether you want to inject some well-deserved playfulness into your life with a pretty pop of unexpected color or are choosing a hue with greater personal meaning to bring you closer to loved ones, the reasons to hop onto this fun trend are as varied as, well, the many hues in the rainbow are nuanced.