Going grey

I’ve never heard anyone, man or woman, talk about the greying of their hair in a way that expresses how I feel about my own ‘going grey’.

The usual comments I hear are from younger women announcing that – OMG – they’d just found their first grey hair. Downward slope, etc., etc.

For sure, there are many fears that go along with turning grey. Fear of growing old. Fear of looking old. Fear of being treated old.*

There is the fear that, if the grey is not disguised in some way, a woman may be seen as being ‘past it’ – with all that suggests about lack of energy, productivity, etc.

There is the fear that, if she doesn’t disguise the greying of her hair, she’ll be seen as not ‘making an effort’ to look her best. That her self-respect is slipping, and that perhaps she no longer regards herself as quite as interesting/desirable/worthy.

Tracey Spicer is an Australian ABC TV presenter who decided it was time, prompted by questions from her seven-year-old daughter about why women wear make-up and men don’t, to try doing things differently. She started by cutting back her make-up to a ‘bare minimum’; doing without spray tans, hair treatments and serums; cutting back on blow-dries and dye jobs; no longer shaving her armpits, and contemplating the same for her legs. Despite all this, she continued to dye her hair, saying, ‘Sadly, I don’t have the confidence to tackle that one yet.’

This from a public figure who had the courage not only to effect all the other changes within her professional (not just private) life, but to do a TEDx talk on the topic which involved her wiping off her make-up, spritzing her hair to encourage it to jump back to its natural frizz, kicking off her high heels, and peeling off her dress to reveal a plain tank top and shorts beneath. This woman is brave.

Even for her, though, going with hair au naturel is too difficult, too charged. At least for now.

* * *

As for myself: watching the number of silvery, wiry, hairs increase, I actually feel – curiosity. It’s similar to the feeling I had when I was going through adolescence. Who was I becoming? What was I going to look like? Except that I am much better prepared for this second adolescence – happier with myself generally, and more resilient. Which is just as well, because this ageing thing is just going to keep on unfolding, for as long as I’ve got.

There’s another aspect to how I feel, which I can really only describe as relief.

To be taken for someone younger, especially someone much younger, is to be stripped of experience and authority, and denied agency; it is to be perceived in a way that denies who you are today.

Just to get my point across: would it be flattering to Barack Obama if someone (who otherwise had no idea who he was – just humour me here) mistook him for a high school student? No, it would not. His silvering hair and often tired eyes are part of a persona that is immensely dignified, not only by of his role on the world stage but by his strengths and achievements as an individual.

To lose a couple of decades (or more) of my life in the measure of someone’s quick assessment can feel as though the risks I’ve taken, the fears I’ve overcome, the lessons I’ve learned and the things I’ve achieved have been erased. Of course the feeling flickers up for only a moment, but it does not feel good. The experience is not flattering, regardless of what the other person may have been thinking.

Damn it, I want what I am to be visible on the outside. Bring on the grey hair, I say.

You might challenge me that it’s how we feel about ourselves on the inside that really matters. But the reality is, my journey and my is-ness as a person really gain their meaning through my interactions with others – not only with the really important others in my life, but also with strangers. An inner mantra of ‘I am this’ is never enough.

I know that the fragile moment of first (mis-)impression might or might not have a chance to be overwritten by the reality of who I actually am.

To seek to be seen as someone younger (and, arguably, more sexualised), may seem a worthwhile gamble, if it attracts potential partners, or if it attracts the approval of anyone I need to please, including a potential boss; but if the message I radiate in this endeavour is that I am focused on being desirable and pleasing, a natural consequence of this may be that I will find myself being taken less seriously. After all, I am giving away power in the process: I am handing over judgment and choice to another person.

As an older woman, surely judgment and choice are the very things I ought to be hanging onto and consolidating?

Of course, the bind that women face is that they feel (often correctly) they will be taken less seriously, or simply rendered ‘invisible’, if they don’t present themselves in a highly gendered manner (bright and shiny hair, high heels, painted nails, etc.) that either highlights their youth or gives the impression of youthfulness.

So we need to find the right moment for ourselves to go grey and, having done so, we shouldn’t feel like Rapunzel’s hideous witch-mother (thank you, Meryl Streep), responsible for locking away youth and beauty.

We should be able to say to ourselves, actually, I am less concerned now about trying to please, and I don’t mind if that’s the impression I make with my grey hair. I’m damned if I’ll jump through hoops to conform to a particular look, and my crazy, unpredictable, silvery hairs might as well tell others that right up.

Love the grey, I say. Love it.

* See Melanie Joosten’s The Right to be Old and Invisible Women for sensitive and rigorous coverage of this topic.

© From the desk of a tiny person 2015

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