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LETTING THEIR HAIR DOWN

Decades ago, when beauty experts believed teasing your hair and sculpting it high as a smokestack was the epitome of chic, somebody somewhere decreed that women over 40 should not have long hair.

Of course, that was before Botox and step aerobics and antioxidant face creams. It was before hair weaves and hair extensions and extra-hold mousse.

And it was definitely before country music queen Loretta Lynn sailed into her 70s with black hair falling decidedly below her strong shoulders, and author Toni Morrison accepted the 1993 Nobel Prize for literature (at age 62) with a wreath of silver dreadlocks gently gathered at the nape of her neck.

In other words, sometime between then and now, the long-hair rule was conclusively broken, and today women are boldly allowing their midlife manes to grow with the flow.

"I always thought I'd chop it off," said Lisette Shirdan-Harris, past president of the Pennsylvania Coalition of 100 Black Women, whose hair skims her shoulder blades.

"But then I turned 40, and I wasn't ready," she chuckled. "And now, I'm turning 49 and I'm still not ready. To be honest, I don't see myself cutting it anytime soon."

In Hollywood, the scissor ban has set in strong among older actresses such as 42-year-old Demi Moore, 53-year-old Kirstie Alley, and spunky Sarah Jessica Parker, who turned 40 this year.

They aren't the only ones. "Today Show" news anchor Ann Curry, 48, is wearing her hair long, as is pop singer Sheryl Crow is 43.

It's no surprise, said Julio Zoeiro, co-owner of L'Etoile hair salon in Jenkintown, Pa., "since 40 isn't old anymore."

According to him and other beauty practitioners, age is no longer the determining factor. Lifestyle, looks, and the overall condition of a woman's hair is what really matters.

"It's the way she dresses, the way she carries herself, and how the hair looks," Zoeiro said. "It shouldn't be dry, or thinning or fly-away. "