When I was a child, a grown-up family friend casually told me that women turn invisible the day they go grey. Men in particular, she said, look right through you once you lose the colour in your hair – they see you as a little old lady, no longer worthy of attention.
Twenty years later, we probably wouldn’t word this sentiment the way she did. We’d think it puts too much value on the male gaze, and that saying it to a little girl would be anti-feminist – perpetuating a fear of ageing that our culture could do without. But I understand exactly why she said it. She wasn’t advising me to keep men happy by staying brunette; she was annoyed at what she saw as an injustice – at being treated like she was less relevant as she showed signs of ageing – and she wanted me to be aware that this happens. And, two decades later, many of my friends are carrying around similar frustrations.
We undoubtedly still live in a world where women are most celebrated while they’re perky and fertile. We visually divide women into the young (a full head of colour and shine), the middle-aged (less gloss, the occasional white strand) and the old (grey hair with a more brittle texture) – and we praise young people constantly, simply for being young and having the kind of plump-cheeked, carefree beauty that comes with youth. We’ve all been on the receiving end of this indulgence, too. So when your hair starts greying, giving in too easily to the passage of time doesn’t feel like it makes much sense. This, I think, is partly why most women still get rid of their greys.
I want to be the woman who ages gracefully, but my instinct is to run in the other direction
Full disclosure: I’ve only just started down this road. I spotted my first white hair a few weeks ago, and it reminded me of the way I felt the first time I had a period: just a quiet awareness that I’d reached a milestone, and there was no turning back. Do I believe that growing older and wiser has value? Of course I do. But am I ready to joyfully embrace the signs of ageing? God, not at all. I want to be the woman who ages gracefully, but my instinct is to run in the other direction.
Since I started talking about grey hair, I’ve discovered that many of my friends have long, labour-intensive relationships with theirs. They fall into two camps: the pluckers, who have few enough white hairs to keep things under control, using tweezers only, and the dyers, who need more drastic measures. My friend Rebecca has long been on a two-monthly cycle of semi-permanent gloss – but she doesn’t necessarily intend to do it forever. “The older I get, the less it bothers me – I like the overall grey look on some women,” she tells me. “But, at the moment, mine is still mainly dark brown, so a smattering would look messy. It’s definitely different for men. I know my husband feels resistant about his greys – but nowhere near enough to hit the bottle.”
It certainly feels like it’s easier for men to live with the change – and I think that may be partly because we make it easy. We speak about our own greys with disgust (“wiry little fuckers”, in the words of one female friend); men’s, on the other hand, we describe with tact and flattery. Grey-haired men aren’t ageing or irrelevant – they’re silver foxes. “There’s no equivalent term for women,” says Sally, an Australian friend who started going grey almost 20 years ago. “I have never heard a guy speak of a woman’s beauty with reference to “salt and pepper”, or grey hair. I work in TV, and there is a lot of pressure on women presenters to appear youthful – I can think of only one grey female TV anchor in Australia.”
I speak to Charlie Brooker about this, because he’s a TV regular himself and one of the numerous men I know who seems to be greying confidently – but he insists that it can be difficult for men, too. “Telling a man he’s a silver fox is like saying, ‘Aw, you’ve lost your limbs – but it just makes you easier to cuddle’,” he says. “It’s well-meaning, but I don’t know that it’s necessarily a comfort to the person who’s sitting there, staring at their mortality in the form of follicles.”
And yet, women are certainly doing more than men to delay and conceal it. He struggles to think of grey-haired women among his peers. “There are not many in the public eye who aren’t Angela Lansbury’s age,” he says, eventually.
There are, in fact, a handful of glorious examples – so few that they’re held up as inspiration again and again, under magazine headlines such as ‘How to be grey and gorgeous’. Ruth Chapman, founder of Matchesfashion.com, stopped dyeing her hair dark in her forties, because the chemicals in the colour caused her face to swell. Now she is white, sometimes with blonde highlights, and she looks tanned, healthy and chic.
I have never heard a guy speak of a woman’s beauty with reference to “salt and pepper”
The stylist Linda Rodin has a trademark hairstyle: silver and worn in a chignon. She occasionally has her curly hair chemically relaxed to keep it soft. Then there’s Christine Lagarde, managing director of the International Monetary Fund. Lagarde, who, with her fine features and neat crop, is beautiful and elegant. Her hair is not grey in uneven patches, but seemingly snow-white all over – and it doesn’t have the wiry texture we associate with losing pigment.
The texture, in fact, is what many women find most difficult about going grey. The glossy crowning glory of our youth is gradually replaced with something drier and less obedient. I ask Glenn Lyons, a trichologist and the clinical director at Philip Kingsley, to explain it. “All of us have two layers to the hair,” he says. “We’ve got the cuticles, and we’ve got the cortex cells, where the pigment is. But a lot of individuals with unpigmented hair have a third layer, called the medulla. It makes the hair 10 per cent larger in diameter, making it feel stiffer, wirier and less manageable.” I had never heard of the medulla before, but I’m confident that Christine Lagarde doesn’t have it. Her hair is like her intellect: rare and not easily imitated.
Even so, if grey has ever had a stylish moment, then perhaps these women have ushered one in. I recently noticed that my friend Abigail, 23, has dyed her blonde hair a cool, glossy silver. Like the sometimes grey-haired, always fashionable likes of Jourdan Dunn, Zosia Mamet and Rihanna, she sees it as another adventure, like going bubblegum pink or blue. “If I actually went grey naturally, I’d find that difficult,” she tells me. “It would be a reminder that I’m getting older.” At 23, getting a silky grey rinse is like buying plain-glass spectacles: great fun, entirely optional and nothing like being stuck with the real thing.
Nevertheless, maybe grey hair today isn’t quite the invisibility cloak that it was 20 years ago; perhaps it’s time to “feel the fear and do it anyway”. When I tell Brooker that I’ve found my first white hair, he laughs and confirms that there’s no going back. Or, to put it in his words: “Well, you’re fucked now.”
Pictures: Cameron Krone/Contour by Getty Images, REX, Instagram