Obama's Other Gray Matter

By Philip Rucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 5, 2009

Forty-five days to a grayer you!

Are times so stressful -- a plummeting economy and two wars -- that our young president is going grayer a mere six weeks into the job?

Maybe 754 days is more like it. That's how long it's been, if you can believe it, since a baby-faced senator stood in the winter chill in Springfield, Ill., to declare his candidacy for president. With each debate, after every primary fight, it seems Barack Obama's tightly clipped hair became just a dash saltier.

"The gray, it's not a whole lot, but he has a few strands," explained Zariff, the president's Chicago barber for 17 years, who goes by a single name. "It's quite normal for his age group."

And it's an article of faith, backed by photographic evidence, that the Oval Office ages the men in it. Look no further than George W. Bush and Bill Clinton.

Obama, 47, foresaw his own arrival at a stage of hair life many men prefer to describe as "distinguished."

"Seniors, listen up. I'm getting gray hair myself," Obama quipped at a campaign stop in Indiana last spring.

"The gray is coming quick," he told supporters a few months later in Colorado. "By the time I'm sworn in, I will look the part."

The gray came so quickly, in the midst of his general election battle against 72-year-old John McCain, that the blogosphere was abuzz that Obama might have been dyeing his hair to appear more seasoned. But Zariff dismissed that rumor, saying he never dyed Obama's hair -- "100 percent for sure," he said.

Well, there's always the kitchen sink, and some keen-eyed Obama watchers have pored over pictures and wondered whether some weeks, that gray had been washed away.

Obama's gray hairs are most prominent around his temples and atop his head, visible more clearly just before his regular trims. Theories abound as to why human hair turns gray, and a team of European scientists advanced the latest one last week: Going gray, they say, is caused by wear and tear of hair follicles, which creates a massive a buildup of hydrogen peroxide that blocks the normal synthesis of melanin, which is the natural pigment of human hair, which bleaches the pigment from within, which turns hair gray.

Phew. That's a mouthful.

One of the scientists, Karin Schallreuter of the University of Bradford in England, offered an easier explanation: High stress affects the hair follicle. "Of course," she adds, Obama "has a lot of stress, which would then perhaps be an explanation."

President George W. Bush, whose hair grayed substantially in eight years at the White House, once attributed his fortune to his twins' antics. "You think my hair is gray because I'm president?" Bush said. "No, my hair is gray because of teenage daughters."

As he left office the day of Obama's inauguration, Bush said, "When I get home tonight and look in the mirror, I'm not going to regret what I see -- except maybe some gray hair."

The stress of the presidency may be weighing on Obama, but Zariff said he doesn't appear to be much grayer today than on Inauguration Day.

"If it was a whole lot of gray very quickly, I would've noticed it," Zariff said. So he's still cutting Obama's hair every two weeks? Zariff said he is "still his barber" but would not elaborate on whether he flies to Washington for regular trims at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

A 2004 AARP survey found that 27 percent of Americans said they "always worried about the day I would look into the mirror and see gray hairs." But Obama, said Zariff, is not worried.

"So I don't think we should worry about it that much," he said. "It hasn't affected his basketball game. He still can shoot some hoops."

Research editor Alice Crites and polling director Jon Cohen contributed to this report.

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