Looking for a salacious insight in to my sexual predilections? A kiss-and-tell spread (fner, fner) ripe with titillation? Well, bad luck folks, nothing to see here. I’m not talking whips and ropes, oh no, I’m on a missionary (see what I did there?) to talk about hair. The stuff some of us are born with, the stuff some of us die with. And the stuff a lot of us mess about with in the interim.
I live by the mantra, ‘life’s too short for boring hair’ and have undergone various hair transformations. I like to think I’m Madonna’s kindred spirit (the singer, not the virgin, obvs…) in that every few years I ‘reinvent’ my look and emerge, chameleon-like in to the daylight sporting some new hair colour/style/cut. I’ve had long hair, short hair, curly hair, straight hair, red hair, blonde hair, brown hair, the full spectrum. But NOTHING has garnered quite so much interest (to me, or others) as my recently-dyed grey hair. And it’s not my changed appearance that’s at issue, it’s the changed social attitude that’s most interesting, and which has led me to think about why us women are slaves to hiding any sign of familiarity with Mr Grey.
I started going grey in my early twenties. I wasn’t bothered as I had visions of growing a striking silver streak in the style of Caryn Franklin (remember her from The Clothes Show? That ages me more than my hair!) or , failing that, Cruella de Vil (obviously a style icon to emulate…). But sadly, there was no such statement hair to be had; the grey appeared in a random salt-and-pepper manner and only served to dull my already bog-standard mousey-brown hair. So I irrevocably (or so I thought) turned to the dye. And I’ve done them all – highlights, lowlights, Sun-In (shuddering at the memory), Nice ‘n’ Easy, Olia, L’oreal (because I’m SO worth it). And they’re fine, they do the job of covering up the grey. Well, for six-weeks (if you’re lucky), and then you’ve got to go through the rigmarole again, plastering noxious chemicals onto your scalp whilst ruining every towel or white bathroom tile you ever had.
Regular readers will know that I underwent some form of damascene experience (that sounds *so* much better than breakdown, doesn’t it?!) in my 40th year and began to question what it really means to be a middle-aged woman, and (more importantly) what it takes to be a happy one. And so, every few weeks, as I put on the rubber gloves (no, calm down, I’m still talking hair, not sexy time) and massaged the gloop into my head (everything is a euphemism now, isn’t it?) I became more and more resentful at having to do it.
Why do women feel that they have to pretend their hair isn’t grey? Why do we plaster this stuff on to give the illusion (hair-wise at least) that we’re still in our 20s/30s? Why aren’t we allowed to just go grey and be accepted for it?
Well, I got myself a bit fired-up about this. And simultaneously (and the irony isn’t lost), it became fashionable for 20-somethings to dye their hair grey. What the Hell?! The young dye their hair grey and the world declares it wonderful, and something to aspire to (how many articles praising ‘granny chic’ have there been?), but a woman over 30 who – shock horror – allows her hair to grey naturally is a pariah (can you think of many 30/40 year-old women in the public eye sporting grey hair? Nope, me neither). Think about the women YOU know in their 30s, 40s and 50s. How many are their natural hair colour? Not many, I’ll bet. Why is this? Why, as a society, are we unaccepting of grey-haired middle-aged women?
So I conducted an experiment. After much to-ing and fro-ing, I took the plunge and bleached what’s left of the colour out of my hair and then dyed it silver (see, I’m so socially-conditioned against grey, that I call it silver, it sounds so much more exotic, doesn’t it?). And by the way, isn’t it interesting that the model they use on the dye box can’t be a day over 20? You see: grey is a statement if you’re young, but it’s a failure, a lack of self-care, if you’re not.
I won’t lie. For all my strident views and railing against the patriarchy, as the colour leached out of my hair, my confidence leached with it. It’s an odd moment when you look in the mirror and are confronted with what you truly are looking back. For looking back at me was a mixture of me, my Mum and some woman I didn’t quite know. Yikes. What have I done?
But actually, when I really looked at myself, I felt a strange pride. This is reallyme. Not me hiding behind the dye of youth, but me, a 42 year-old strong, unafraid, unashamed woman. Woooo – go me and my feminist power.
Stepping out with my greyness was quite a different, and less empowering, experience. People didn’t quite know what to say. Some (mostly men) said…nothing. That in itself is odd given that I look completely different – it’s not as if I’ve had a slight tickle of Botox and there’s something ‘just a bit different’ about me. This is wholesale, bang, ‘what have you done?’ territory. And so to say nothing is just plain weird. Presumably it’s because these people just don’t know what to say and/or don’t want to say the ‘wrong’ thing (after overthinking this, I assume the ‘say nothing’ people don’t like the grey, as it’d be so easy to just say, ‘wow, it looks great’ but their not doing so speaks volumes). That’s fine, I get that it’s a bit out-there for a woman to go completely grey before 60, so it’s probably just the shock-factor. But let’s think about this a bit more.
Why is it surprising to see me with grey hair? Why is it the norm for women to dye their hair and for men not to?
Indeed, the sexes are treated as polar opposites – women who don’t dye are the exception and men that do are ridiculed (oh, look at him, been at the Just For Men again, etc). There are loads of positive phrases for grey-haired men: silver fox, a Clooney, distinguished. Grey hair on a man is synonymous with experience and authority, a man who knows what he’s about, it’s sexy. But for women? Oh no, you’ve let yourself go, you’ve aged (because that’s a bad thing, right? Grrr), crikey she’s no Helen Mirren is she?
Then there were the people that did comment on the change. Mostly women, they fell in to two camps. Firstly, the ones who simply said, ‘like the hair’ whilst then changing the subject but throughout the remainder of the conversation, their eyes would keep flicking up to my hair, trying to get a better look and presumably process why in the world anyone would want to do that to themselves. I imagine it must be what it’s like if you’ve got big boobs (sadly, I don’t speak from experience) as I understand such women spend their lives endeavouring to get their fellow conversationalist to lift their eyes from their chest, to make eye contact.
And then there were the, ‘oh my God!!!!’ people. I love these people. The ones, like me, who despite best efforts just can’t filter what’s in their head before it comes out of their mouth. These are the very best sort of people in my book. They can be relied upon to say it how it is. And their reactions ranged from, ‘Jesus, you’re brave’, to ‘you look ten years’ older’, to ‘I love it!!!’ and, my personal favourite as it can mean a whole host of things, ‘it’s SO you!’. And it’s these people’s reactions that have been most interesting as we then tended to go on to chat about why I’ve done this, and whether it’s a good thing.
When asked why I took this step, I’m honest. I say it’s because I’ve been going grey since 20, I’m tired of dying my hair and I’m fed up of having to pretend that I’m neither grey nor a middle-aged woman (you can see why I don’t get invited to dinner parties, can’t you?!!). On the whole, other women of my age have agreed with me, that it’s all a bit shit isn’t it, but, interestingly, they don’t then go on to say, ‘what a great idea, I’m going to do the same’. I can take this one of two ways. It’s either because: (i) I look an absolute fool with grey hair; or (ii) the negative social stigma of actually looking your age is so ingrained, that the fear of sticking two fingers up to it is incomprehensible. Now, I may be deluded, but, objectively, I don’t think I look a fool. So I’ve concluded that it must be the second reason. And that reason is predicated on fear. Fear of what other people will think if, God forbid, your roots show. Fear of somebody realising you’re 42 and not 35. Fear of whether the other sex (nope, still not that sort of sex), or the same sex even, find you attractive. It’s sad. Sad and pointless. Am I any less ‘me’ with grey hair? Am I less funny, relevant, attractive, sexy? Course not.
It’s ironic that, in erring towards that which is natural, I’ve fallen outside of the norm – that admitting my age and allowing myself to look it is somehow anarchic. Isn’t it weird how much value we put on youth, as opposed to experience? That hair colour can dictate how a person is viewed, with judgments being consciously or unconsciously made about a person’s age, relevance and usefulness to society, is quite extraordinary. And what is even more extraordinary, if you really think about it, is why this particular perversion of society has fallen to prejudice primarily women. Older, natural women barely figure in TV or media and yet no one bats an eyelid at Alastair Stewart reading the news to millions each night, despite him clearly looking his age. And if older, natural women are not seen in the media, filter that down to real life and we’re pretty-much invisible – past-it, dried up, of little use nor ornament. But behind the grey, there’s a life lived, laughter and tears, compassion and passion, everything that makes a person interesting and engaging. Why on Earth isn’t this celebrated instead of maligned? It’s baffling.
So, come on women. Stop being submissive. Stop conforming to this warped gender-biased society in which we must pretend to be something we’re not. Stop cowering in the face of Mr Grey. Get up, wash that man right out of your hair and celebrate ageing naturally. Because, my God, what a gift age is.