Grey Ambition

anthea.pngThis is going to seem really shallow, but I’m going grey and it has really unsettled me.

Getting older is a funny process. It’s only when you mention something in passing to your friends that you think is only happening to you that you realise everyone is figuring out what to do with wrinkles, the odd errant chin hair and skin that might go from oily to dry or even from flawless to teenage-style oily.

But the real issues are below the surface. For women especially, the ageing process is reveals so much about your conceptions of femininity and what expectations you have for yourself in terms of family and career.

It’s rare to see women with grey hair in the workplace, particularly in more corporate environments. It’s not perceived as distinguished and dashing as it is on men. Dyeing your hair to mask grey is not dissimilar to wearing makeup – For some, it’s an imperative to subscribe to the cult of youth, to others it’s just fun or they like how it looks. I don’t judge. But I was struck that whereas some of my friends may or may not wear makeup, or shave their legs, or pluck their eyebrows, the friends who have told me they are going grey all dye their hair or have weaves, wigs or braids that cover it, even my friends who wear their hair natural.

There’s something about hair. Perhaps because woman’s hair is almost emblematic and traditionally there has always been pressure for women to have long hair that conforms to the “feminine ideal”. Less so now; but still: everyone remembers the apex of Britney Spear’s troubled year in 2007 as the point when she shaved off her hair. The natural hair/weave/relaxed hair debate continues to roil in black communities. Shaving your head or growing a huge afro is seen a bold political statement.

Hair is tied up in our notions of femininity in a way that wrinkles are not. I have found myself unsettled, I’ve realised, not because I’m upset about ageing but because I expected to be in a different place in my life when this process became most visible.

This is stupid – I’ve had friends who went grey at 15 – but having interrogated my emotions, I feel like I did turning 30. It’s not the date that bothered me, just the disappointment of unmet expectations – expectations that I didn’t know I had. (to be clear: that I would be married, further along in my career, that I would have a career, children).

And that’s why the grey hair has thrown me for a loop this year. I didn’t really know that I had any thoughts about it until it happened and I feel strangely vulnerable still being “on the market” dating-wise as a visibly older woman. (I know, even as I type this I’m thinking, REALLY? But yes, this is an honest post).

I don’t want to dye it because I actually like my hair and all its colours (black and brown in different lights, now silver too) and I am loathe to change it. So I won’t. But it took me a little while to summon the courage to decide this, even though when it comes to other matters of hair removal or makeup or body image I am totally comfortable drawing my own line and walking it.

I’m disappointed in myself; I’ve clearly still got some way to go in terms of growing into my confidence as a 34 year-old. I’ve put a picture of the academic Anthea Butler here because I’ve always loved her look and thought that I’d try it perhaps when I got older.

Well, the first silvery threads are here and they brought friends, gathering into what appear to be two streaks at the front. They catch the light and keep surprising me. But I’m not going to dye them. I am learning to lean in and show up as that creature that society is alternately fascinated and repelled by – the (visibly) older woman.

 

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