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Grey Area

May 8, 2014

It was the wedding that undid me.

Until that point, I’d been pretty firm in my resolve not to dye my gradually-greying hair. I was determined to age gracefully, authentically, like Judi Dench or Helen Mirren. But amidst all the self-imposed pressure to look my very, very best on the Big Day, I caved. And when the colourist washed all that toxic, scalp-tingling gunk down the drain and I saw myself restored to dark-lady glory (with red highlights), my first thought was, ‘I look like me again!’ I hadn’t realised how much those ashy strands were depressing me, making me feel tired and washed-out when I looked in the mirror. It’s a slippery slope from thereon in.

When those first silver needles started poking through my scalp, I had a decision to make: to re-dye or not? If I’d kept my hair short at that point, I probably would have let it go. But because I’d started growing it longer, the regrowth manifested as an awful, super-noticeable ring around my parting. I tried holding out, but I couldn’t stand it. So, back to the bottle.

This decision came with an extra topping of guilt because once I’d made the commitment, I couldn’t stand the wait involved in scouting around for cruelty-free hair dye and instead bought bunny-torturing major-brand dye from the local discount chemist. Now, I’m a vegetarian and care deeply about animal rights, so this act was totally out of character. I made myself sick. I mean that quite literally; I felt nauseated for days afterward. Must have been the chemicals. The woman in the mirror had guilty eyes, but her hair looked great.

Next time I planned ahead and researched online for a cruelty-free hair dye. This stuff completely covered the grey, didn’t sting my scalp, didn’t make me sick. I liked it so much I ordered another box immediately, so I’d already have it in the house for next time.

But the ‘next time’ had begun to weigh on me. Scanning my scalp every morning to check if the roots were showing through. Noticing my exact shade of henna on ladies of A Certain Age (‘menopause red’ I started calling it) or worse, old ladies with patches of pure white pushing up through the jet-black rinse of their last salon trip. There has to be a more attractive, more dignified way, I thought to myself.

I thought this again the next time I spent a resentful hour in front of the bathroom mirror, combing henna gunk through my hair, and yet another hour washing it out, cleaning up the bathroom and chucking away all the packaging. Screw this, I thought. Next time I get a haircut I’m going to have it chopped short again and start over natural. And I did.

I was careful not to mention the reason to my hairdresser, though. I knew she’d only start going on about foils or something. I know there are ways of making hair dye look more ‘natural’, but I’m not interested because (a) I can’t afford it, and (b) the process is still time-consuming and boring. It’s important, the next time a hairdresser peers distainfully at your grey hairs and asks if you’re having a colour today, to remember that hairdressers are trained to pressure people into this, because that’s where they make their serious money.

There’s something demeaning about spending so much time and money covering up the evidence of ageing, as if we’ve committed some terrible crime. Especially when blokes like George Clooney don’t have to go through all this nonsense, but get called ‘silver foxes’. No one accuses old George of letting himself go, do they?

The other day, I looked in the mirror and noticed the first silver strands appearing again at my temples. I felt genuinely excited.

I felt like me again.

A version of this piece appeared in the ‘My Word’ column in The Big Issue #450, 24 Jan-6 Feb 2014

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