Broadcaster and writer Barbara Scully is a good friend of mine. Game for anything, she shows up full of energy and opinions and doesn’t do that thing of taking offence if you disagree with her. Apart from the fact that she’s a foot taller than me, we’re fairly compatible pals.
I woke up one day during lockdown to see she’d posted an outrageous photo of herself on Twitter. Appalled, I rang a mutual friend; “What on earth has she done?” Was she okay? Was it a cry for help? Should we intervene?
Was she naked? Sporting a swastika? Snorting cocaine at a party?
Was she doing something indescribably terrible? In fairness, no. But her hair was grey. She had used lockdown to let her colour grow out. Her locks were entirely silver and in wonderful condition. It looked gorgeous, but that wasn’t the point.
Many women won’t admit it, but for all the talk of sisterhood and unquenchable feminine bonds, middle-aged, middle-class women operate within extremely narrow parameters of acceptable behaviour.
Deviancy from norms is heavily judged and policed. There are rules and while no one might be read from an altar for breaking them, there are consequences from passive-aggressive (pursed lip) to aggressive (social ostracisation) if one strays too far from the fold.
Many of these rules govern personal grooming. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that if one of my pals was caught shoplifting they’d be forgiven more easily than if they committed the unspeakable crime of letting themselves go.
The management of bodily hair is one of the most strictly enforced regimes. If I stopped removing hair from my legs, people would think I was mentally ill. A few years ago I was having lunch with a friend and she excused herself.
Several minutes later she returned with a tweezers and instructed me to go to the ladies because I had a stray hair on my chin.
I was grateful. How could you go around with a single hair on your face enduring public revulsion?
So while some people were panic-buying toilet rolls during lockdown, women were clearing supermarket shelves of hair dye. Sure, I read those occasional features about a model with grey hair. But it’s like reading about female astronauts. Good luck to them, but no one seriously expects me to follow in their footsteps.
Nancy Pelosi is probably the most powerful woman in America and she dyes her hair. I guess there’s Christine Lagarde, but as my hairdresser said once, “Sarah, you’ll never be Christine Lagarde.” Sadly, he wasn’t just talking about my hair.
Money, aesthetic norms and the clash of sexuality and ageing are behind the whole thing of course.
Hair colour is a $20bn industry.
L’Oreal could make even more money if they persuaded men to dye their hair too, and indeed some men do. But that’s seen as vanity, not a social imperative.
Norms are hard to shift. Just look at the resistance to move from manicured lawns to rewilding. An unmown lawn is still seen as neglect. If we can’t even let the grass grow, good luck letting your hair grow out without creating horror.
Besides the money and norms, women’s hair colour sits at the nexus of ingrained prejudices.
This is a hyper-sexual society in which sexual attractiveness ranges somewhere between a goal and mandatory obligation. Add in ageism, which encompasses a presumption that older people are past sex.
A woman with grey hair is believed to be signalling she is both old and no longer cares if she’s sexually attractive to men. To her, it’s liberation. To others, it’s a heretical statement that she’s given up.
And yes, it’s heavily gendered, even though men reach their sexual peak at a much younger age than women. Those handsome silver foxes are still considered desirable, though that’s aided by the association between older men and wealth and power.
When confronted with the option of going grey, it’s really about the explicit message it sends to everyone – especially men: “I don’t care anymore.”
But I do.
So yes, I’m a slave to every counter-productive societal narrative which ultimately harms me. But what can you do? One lives in the world, and playing the social game – to win – seems like the only option.
And then Revolutionary Barbara comes along and says: no. You can see how subversive this is.
I often wonder what I could achieve if I wasn’t spending so much time and money in the hairdressers or filling the drawer full of appliances, promising a salon look at home. Could I have invested in an MBA instead of my hair?
In fact, Barbara showed me exactly what I could have done. She wrote a book. People are always telling me to write a book. But I don’t have time. I have to dye my eyebrows tonight.
Wise Up is a deceptively light and enjoyable memoir of the domestic dramas common to us all, with wonderful perspective I wish I’d had when going through similar experiences.
Reflecting on her radical decision to go grey, she quotes Gloria Steinem: “Some day an army of grey-haired women may quietly take over the earth.”
They may indeed, and I’d love to be one of them. Though to Barbara’s rallying cry to women that we “wise up”, I’m taking an Augustinian approach: Lord make me grey – but not yet.
Wise Up, by Barbara Scully, is available now in Easons.