When the little speckled stripe of silver started to show along the part in my hair a couple of weeks after my pregnant salon visit, I was too tired to seriously contemplate pulling out the box of chemist-bought dye and putting on the plastic gloves and sitting in a chemical stink for 20 minutes to cover it up. And every time I did start to think about it, the baby cried or threw up.
I had invested in a spray bottle of dye designed to colour over roots, but it always left me with a fine brown mist all over my nose and felt somehow desperate and ridiculous, the equivalent of a bad toupee. In this haze of exhaustion I decided to officially Let Myself Go, in this respect at least. I still made time to tweezer my unruly eyebrows, my one concession to grooming. But what if I tried to accept the grey instead of fighting it?
It has turned out to be surprisingly difficult. My husband has always assured me that grey hair is sexy, viz Emmy Lou Harris. Over the past few years I have interviewed a series of women in their 70s and 80s who were frankly knock-outs, including the silver-haired Joan Baez and Gloria Steinem. And it is not as though I have an entire head of grey: most of them are collected in a couple of thick stripes at the front of my head. People assure me that it looks as though I might have actually dyed it to achieve this effect, although I’m never sure whether to believe them.
I ran into my ex-hairdresser recently, which is always an awkward encounter. She wasn’t terrible at cutting hair, but at some point her eccentricities became hard to handle, with her salon full of her rescue dogs and rescue birds who circled each other in an uneasy detente.
At my first visit she cut the wings of one of her parrots before cutting my hair, and told me a story about the time her little white dog had eaten that parrot’s particular friend.
After we moved to a different part of the city, I stopped seeing her. When I bumped into her she complimented me on the grey and, very graciously, told me it looked great; she has clients coming in who ask for that colour, she said. “Really?” I asked, and she said, “Yeah, I know!” as though it was totally insane to want grey hair, which made me think, so much for it looking great.
Dyed grey hair has become something of a fashion thing I see on young people, but only on people too young to have a single naturally grey hair.
On the days the grey makes me feel simply old and tired I console myself by remembering one of the figures of real glamour I remember from childhood, my second-year primary school teacher Miss Roche. She always wore a long fur coat, even to the school athletic carnival, almost certainly smoked, and had a head of stylishly waved grey hair. I think she was one of those people that go prematurely grey and she wore it so well, like an image of a black and white noir film femme fatale.
For me it is simply the most visible sign of ageing. I have grown more comfortable over time with the idea of looking the age that I am – it is hard to remember why I was so concerned in my late 30s with looking younger than I was, and the fetishisation of youth for its own sake seems increasingly bizarre. But this particular sign of the passing years is not easy to embrace.
I suppose I have had time to grow into the various wrinkles I carry, but the transition from brunette to grey haired lady felt so sudden, more like a deliberate surrender of my younger self.
Two and a half years later I am still getting used to it. When the toddler grows up a bit and I have more time and resources for luxuries like regular salon visits, maybe I will return to chemical colour. It is a lot of fun, after all, and I get to enjoy some of it vicariously with my 12-year-old, who recently decided to go from light brown to blue.
I do not see any inherent virtue in natural hair. But in a way, living with the grey, the slight nagging difficulty of it, is an exercise in sitting with something true about my 45-year-old self, and I find that I want to give myself time to grow into it before I go back to the ammonia scented world of the lustrous brunette.
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