Eighteen months ago, I did something that made my mother clutch her throat and gasp, the physical embodiment of the word “aghast”: I stopped dyeing my hair.
It had been a long time coming. I first noticed that my nearly black hair was going grey in my late teens, when a friend at college pointed out my “pretty little silver strands.” I’d dyed my hair off and on since then, and eventually on a strict six-week schedule, after I heard my boss and a colleague at my first big fashion magazine job laughing about my grey roots. It was my 30th birthday.
When I was 38 and my second daughter was a newborn, the battle against greys became impossible. After two weeks, and sometimes less, I would have noticeable roots. I would avoid social or work events if the greys were too bad, and try to structure other appointments around my hairdressing schedule. As a beauty writer, I felt obliged to maintain a certain appearance. I had gone progressively lighter and warmer than my natural colour in order to soften the hard dye line, but it was no longer flattering. After almost 20 years of seeing only the roots of my natural hair colour, an idea began to sprout, thanks to some well-timed reading.
In August 2017, Allure magazine, the beauty industry bible, announced that it would be phasing out the term, “anti-aging.” It was my turn to be aghast. I’d spent 10 years writing about beauty products and it had never occurred to me that anti-aging was an offensive term or concept. To me, it was a given that age was something to be battled – something I fed into and reinforced through my writing.
Shortly after, I encountered Susan Sontag’s essay, The Double Standard of Aging. Written in 1972, she discusses the fact that there are two ways for males to be attractive – the boy and the man – whereas for women, there is only one: the girl. “The single standard of beauty for women dictates that they must go on having clear skin. Every wrinkle, every line, every grey hair is a defeat,” Sontag wrote. “No wonder that no boy minds becoming a man, while even the passage from girlhood to early womanhood is experienced by many women as their downfall, for all women are trained to want to continue looking like girls.”
A lifetime after it was written, that essay remains true or truer – women are still conditioned to see their faces as problems to be fixed, that they will inevitably get a little uglier every year. It was an idea that I had internalized and only now, nearly 40, had begun to understand was problematic.
I decided right then to stop dyeing my hair. At my next salon appointment, I discussed with my hairdresser how best to transition. In the end, she chopped my hair into a pixie cut to remove most of the colour, but it still took more than six months to be completely dye-free – six months during which my hair looked awful. And then came the final cut, when all the dye was gone.
I hated my new hair. I’ve never been one of those women who look younger than her age – too beaky and angular to be baby-faced, so smiley I had crows feet as a teen. My new hair produced no cool juxtaposition between youthful face and old-lady locks, like when a millennial reaches for grey dye. It looked depressingly consistent – old hair, old face. Always having looked my age, apparently the worst thing a woman can do, I now looked a little older still.
To come to terms with my new hair, I needed to change what was going on inside my head. I wanted to discover a vocabulary for being attractive and caring about my appearance that had nothing to do with youth. I needed to reclaim words such as pretty or fresh-faced – labels I think of as being exclusively for twentysomethings – and attach them to myself.
So I decided to let my hair grow, and to try to enjoy it, and a year after I’ve been completely dye-free, I am. I like its silveriness, and what remains of my original colour. I don’t miss the tyranny of the dyeing routine; I never have to worry about my roots. The people around me haven’t treated me as though I’m less competent, attractive, funny or interesting than when I had brown hair, which is not to say I don’t look older, but no one else seems to care. I don’t either. I think my hair is pretty.
Perhaps the best thing of all is that my mum, who was turned into a Munch painting by the idea of me quitting dye, has now stopped colouring her own hair. I’ve advised her about the purple shampoos and conditioners that will stop her greys from looking yellow, and how to adjust her clothes and makeup to complement her new colour better. She told me the other day that she is beginning to love her hair, that she can’t wait to see how it turns out, that she wishes she’d stopped dyeing it years ago.
Finally, me at just 40, and her at just 70, we’re able to look in the mirror and see not problems, but ourselves.