DYE HARDAll across Korea, men -- and a growing number of women -- in their late 70s and on into their early 80s, folks with hunched backs and canes and more wrinkles than a college student’s bed, look their ages except for one startling characteristic: their hair.
What’s the deal with the shiny, coal-tar -black tresses?
Indeed, on these folks there’s not a white strand in sight, not a gray follicle in view. Instead, these men and women have a thatch on their skulls as black as the inside of a blueberry pie.
Do they touch up their locks? Do dogs like bones?
A more important question is why. Why would a senior citizen want to shuffle down to the corner market with hair the color of a raven’s backside?
The easy answer: “Hair dye makes people look younger and more lively,” says Jeong Cheol-su, the owner of Westin Chosun hotel’s barber shop.
Mr. Jeong says that businessmen get a dye job to maintain good relations with colleagues younger than themselves. “As for politicians, it’s all about how to make yourself more approachable for the younger generation.” (Translation: It’s all about getting a lot of votes).
Do elderly “colorists” think they’re fooling anyone? Not likely. Rather, hair dying is more like fine-tuning for comfort’s sake, for peace of mind, for, well, the “v” word. (Hail, thee, all-conquering vanity).
This is not a case of does he or doesn’t he. It’s more like, when do they do it? Mr. Jeong says men in their 80s troop to barbershops from one end of the peninsula to the other to hit the coloring bottle as often as every two months. Six weeks is about the usual to apply creams, rinses or those shake-vigorously-before-using containers.
Hair dye is widely used in Korea because older generations of Koreans regard white hair to be a sign of helplessness. How do I know this? Because my 76-year-old grandmother says so. “Having white hair on my head makes me feel out of my mind,” she says. “I have to dye my hair in order to think straight.”
There’s a general perception in Korea that people with white hair appear weaker compared to those of the same age with hair the shade of a mountain cave.
Traditionally, politicians have been more inclined to dye their hair black than anyone else. President Kim Young-sam and former presidential candidate Lee Hoi-chang dyed their hair regularly and if anyone noticed, little was said. Mr. Kim dyed his hair black-on-black after taking his oath of office in 1993, while Mr. Lee, who kept his hair white during a long and illustrious judicial career, reached for the dye when last year’s election approached. Former President Kim, now 76, no longer colors his hair as rigorously as he used to when he was in office, and in recent days he has been seen out and about with his what can only be described as a snow-white lid.
National Assemblymen frequent the Manhattan Hotel’s barbershop because of its proximity to the Assembly Hall in Yeouido. Here, famous and infamous politicians have sat down and had their hair blackened for decades. Some may want to look younger, but most are simply there to polish their public patinas, reaching for a softer impression on and off screen. A barber, who refused to give his name, has been working at the hotel shop for more than 10 years and says, “The perception among politicians is that any white hair seen on TV is hideous.” Some politicos, wary of the cameras, visit the Manhattan as often as twice a month.
President Kim Dae-jung, 77, reportedly dyes his hair for photo-ops, while President-elect Roh Moo-hyun darkens his whenever the mood strikes. Mr. Roh’s “image coordinator” Park Cheon-suk says, “During the election, he dyed his premature gray areas for picture sessions. He does not dye his hair constantly.” O.K., whatever.
Perhaps image is everything. Perhaps it’s because people are sick of the “nursing home look” that dominated Korean politics in the past 25 years. Perhaps voters are tired of grumpy old salt-and-pepper-haired men. Black hair -- and the blacker the better -- means youth, vitality and maybe even some distance from a scandal or three.
Celebrities are known to touch-up their topsides, too. Song Hae, 76, a former comedian and now a well-known emcee of a TV talent contest, has barely a wisp of white above his ears. In fact, it’s been said that if anyone sees a pale spot on Mr. Song’s head when the studio’s green light comes on, the following week that spot will be eradicated. Erased. Washed away. Painted inky.
Won Sung-yong, 25, has been dying his hair auburn, black and magenta since he first discovered few filaments of ash four years ago. “It freaked me out,” says Mr. Won, who swears that his grayness is hereditary. Dying hair in youth or on the cusp of middle age is nothing out of the ordinary for Koreans. It’s a well-accepted fact.
The first national brand of hair dye appeared in the early 1960s when Dongsong Pharmaceuticals came up with Yanggwibi (“Poppy flower”). In the past, hair dye products were mostly used to conceal white hair. But now, hair dye has become a way of life, as common as chewing gum. What used to be only sold in pharmacies is now found in hair salons, supermarkets and even cosmetics stores.
The hair dye industry has split into two main segments -- dye to hide white hair and dye for fashion purposes. Fashion dye products are frequented by the younger generation who prefer to use such brands as Wella and L’Oreal. According to industry insiders, almost 80 percent of women have tried dying their hair or continuing to do so. And few of these women apparently heed the fears that dying hair regularly can lead to hair loss, dandruff, frizziness, deteriorating eyesight and possibly even cancer.
Apparently, once you take the dye route, you never want to go another way.
“It’s better than having white hair,” says Kim Ho-soon, a housewife in Bangbae-dong who turns 75 later this year.
Ms. Kim has been dying her hair for 30 years, ever since the morning she looked into the mirror and gasped. Dying for her is like breathing, and so every couple of months she gives herself a good coloring. When taking a bath, Mrs. Kim puts the dye on her hair and lets it soak for 10 to 20 minutes. The result is an esteem-boosting, ebony-colored mound.
“If your hair is all-white,” Ms. Kim says, “it’s like you’ve given up on life.”
by Choi Jie-ho