The hairdresser stopped snipping and gasped. As a rule of thumb: never gasp when looking at a part of someone’s body that they can’t see themselves. It’s extremely alarming. Especially when you’re a self-conscious 16-year-old girl, which I was when something on my head elicited this audibly shocked reaction. What had he found? Head lice? A pustule that had burst under the pressure of thousands of newly hatched spiderlings? The Ark of the Covenant?
I felt a sudden sting. The hairdresser had taken it upon himself to remove a single grey hair from my head. He showed it to me. I felt my face redden as I stared at the silvery strand, contemplating either the inevitability of death, my own ugliness, or both. At the time, the hairdresser was just a camp messenger – the harbinger of the fundamental truth that we are all doomed to age and then die and then dissolve into the hungry earth like a Berocca into a glass of water, but way more gory. In retrospect: he was a dick.
As far as I’m aware, this was my first grey hair. The first of what – by my mid-twenties – would be quite a few, and by 30 would be too many to pluck out. The greys now line my temples, transforming me into a lesbian Paulie Walnuts. Like so many other aspects of our appearance and personality, there’s a gender-based double standard when it comes to grey hair. Grey men get to be “silver foxes”, while grey women are haggard. I’d pretty much decided to start dyeing my hair, when another encounter with a hairdresser changed my mind.
“How much grey can you see at the back?” I asked, feeling not quite the same raw embarrassment I did when I was 16, but still falling somewhere on the shame spectrum.
“Hmm, not that much,” my current hairdresser – a contemplative German man – said.
“That’s good,” I said, “It’s really starting to bother me.”
“You know,” he said, “grey is actually a really hard colour to create with dye. You should embrace it.”
For the first time, I saw my prematurely hair as beautiful in its own right. If my more pigment-haired friends tried to go grey, it’d look shit.
But I suppose I was hoping to have accomplished more before I started going grey. Grey hair is so Susan Sontag; so black turtlenecks and pensive author’s photos on dust jackets. How can someone who just found a crumpled Iced Gems packet under her pillow be going grey? That’s just disturbing.
The other day, I got ID-ed buying a bottle of wine in Morrisons. Having no ID on me, I used my head. Literally.
“Come on,” I said, pulling at my hair, “I’m going grey.”
The cashier frowned.
“Oh yeah,” she said, with a twinge of pity.
She shrugged and let me pay for the wine, which – presumably – she thought I needed as someone with the face of a child and the hair of Jamie Lee Curtis. But I was just grateful not to be the 30-year-old woman who has to skulk out of a supermarket like a 15-year-old who has to tell her friends waiting outside she didn’t manage to get the WKDs. Maybe – after all – my grey hairs are demanding that I be taken more seriously.
“I like your grey hair,” my dad said recently, “It’s very distinguished.”
I wonder if “distinguished” is what Pantene had in mind when they launched their #PowerofGrey campaign, which encourages women to feel empowered by their grey hair. While – of course – spending on products to make sure it’s the right sort of grey.
This effort from the hair care brand is yet another offering in the current trend for cosmetics and fashion labels promoting some kind of body positivity. See the Dove ads that feature a variety of body types, and Nike’s recent introduction of plus-sized mannequins to its stores. Motives aside, it’s hard to knock all-powerful conglomerates for – at the very least – making a stab at diversity. And if grey hair is next in the “you’re perfect the way you are” milieu, I’m here for it.
I often think about the fact that I never saw my mum’s natural hair colour. From when I was born to when she died, she coloured it various shades of red and auburn. Sometimes her roots would show, but she’d speedily take care of that. One of my enduring images of my mum will always be her in a towel, hair slicked back, and red dye seeping out around her face like blood. That was who she was though, and I respect that. I’m hardly going to have a go at my dead mother for not having “embraced her inner grey goddess”. In fact, I can practically hear her groaning at such a notion from beyond the grave. And if this entire situation isn’t some dark metaphor for the futility of trying to cheat death, I don’t know what is.
For now though, I’m starting to like my grey hairs. And accomplishment-wise – I hope – I have plenty of time to grow into them. Just like my ever-deepening frown lines, they’re a part of me that would be expensive and – in the grand scheme of things – completely pointless to “correct.”
Bring on the wisdom.