Picture posed by model

Look at Life: A Whiter Shade of Pale

21st April 2017

Growing older grey-cefully…

By Deborah Mulhearn

I’d been thinking about it for a while. That skunk-like stripe that kept stubbornly reappearing on my head was starting to intrigue me. It was so white… and I was curious to know how I’d look if I stopped dyeing my hair completely. I was also spending a small fortune and an inordinate amount of time at the hairdresser’s, not to mention feeling a nagging uneasiness about the chemicals being slathered on my scalp every few weeks. These could have been causing anything from skin irritation to bladder cancer, according to the literature.

So I stopped dyeing it. I didn’t take up any of the hairdresser’s suggestions (or subtle pressure) for lowlights, highlights, greylights or clever styling to conceal the grey. I canvassed a lot of opinions first, and got a lot of responses, mostly negative. You’re too young to go grey (I was 52), it’ll make you look old, you’ll hate it and go back to colouring it, it’ll look like that angel hair you put on the Christmas tree and so on. I quite liked the thought of that last one.

I’m not saying it was an easy choice: it wasn’t. I grieved for my dark hair but I knew I was grieving for a younger me. It probably wasn’t a coincidence that it was the year my mum died, too. I cursed the genes that had made my hair go grey early. But youth doesn’t come back and you have to be brave and face that truth.

It took a year. I wore it up when I went out – it was shoulder length so long enough to pile up and be less glaringly grey – and often wore a hat. As it grew out, people’s reactions changed and I started to get compliments. Maybe they were being polite, but I didn’t care because by now I felt liberated. Some people asked me if I’d dip-dyed it. Some people said I should dip-dye it navy blue or purple or copper or green. So far I haven’t been brave enough for that, though even now people sometimes ask me if it’s dyed ‘this colour’.

Now I know why people use the phrase ‘a shock of white hair’ – seeing how white mine had become was indeed a shock, even though I’d suspected it would be bright white rather than salt and pepper. Sometimes I catch myself in a mirror and don’t recognise the white-haired stranger I see looking back.

We are living longer and the advertising industry is cottoning on to the lucrative ‘older woman’ market. Modelling agencies are taking on grey-haired models, and actresses are embracing their silver selves. Thus we are encouraged by ubiquitous ‘role models’ such as Helen Mirren, singer Emmylou Harris, models Yazemeenah Rossi and Valerie Pain, and those women in the Dove advert about loving your hair (though, frankly, they would all look gorgeous whatever colour their hair was).

Scientists have recently discovered the gene that causes grey hair (IRF4) but we don’t really need them to tell us it has a genetic component. I remember a girl at school whose father’s white hair was a wonder to us. She insisted that it had gone white at 21 from the shock of his mother’s death. Some years later I saw her… and her own hair was completely grey too, of course. She was only in her 20s, and had obviously inherited that gene. But it swished like blue-grey silk and she looked fabulous.

I’m not saying I want grey hair: I don’t. I feel envious of friends whose hair is still ungreyed into their 50s. It’s important to keep it well cut and conditioned. But there are positives. My hair was always too thick and wayward. It’s softer and more manageable now. I’ve overhauled my wardrobe and wear much brighter, stronger colours. Two of my three sisters have now followed suit, so it’s a while since anyone asked if I was their mum.

Hair is so wrapped up with our sense of self, and coming to terms with the loss – of thickness and texture as well as its natural colour – is painful. But when I feel despondent, I remember the humbling words of a woman in the gym changing room one day when I was bemoaning my lot. A friend of hers had recently died. She was in her early 30s, and had left behind a young son. “She never had the chance to be grey,” she gently chastised me.

It’s a very good point. I’ve embraced my IRF4 now. It’s the colour of angel hair, after all.

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