Broadcaster and author Barbara Scully is a good friend of mine. She’s a match for everything, she’s full of energy and opinions, and doesn’t take offense if you disagree. Aside from the fact that she’s a foot taller than me, we’re pretty compatible buddies.
woke up one day during lockdown to see she had posted an outrageous photo of herself on Twitter. Horrified, I called a mutual friend; “What on earth did she do?” Was she alright? Was it a cry for help? Should we intervene?
was she naked wear a swastika? Sniffing cocaine at a party?
In fairness no. But her hair was gray. She had used lockdown to grow out her color. Her locks were all silver and in wonderful condition. It looked beautiful, but that wasn’t the point.
Many women won’t admit it, but for all the talk of sisterhood and unbreakable female bonds, middle-aged and middle-class women fall within extremely narrow parameters of acceptable behavior.
Deviations from standards are strictly assessed and monitored. There are rules, and while no one can be read off an altar for breaking them, there are consequences for straying too far from the herd, ranging from passive-aggressive (puckered lips) to aggressive (social ostracism).
Many of these rules regulate personal hygiene. In fact, I would go so far as to say that if one of my buddies was caught shoplifting, they would be more easily forgiven than if they had committed the unspeakable crime of letting themselves go.
Body hair management is one of the most strictly enforced regimes. If I stopped removing hair from my legs people would think I was insane. A few years ago I was having lunch with a friend and she apologized.
A few minutes later she came back with a pair of tweezers and directed me to go to the ladies because I had a stray hair on my chin.
I was thankful. How could you walk around with a single hair on your face and endure public disgust?
So while some people were panicking buying toilet paper rolls during lockdown, women were clearing supermarket shelves of hair dye. Sure, I’ve read those occasional reviews of a gray haired model. But it’s like reading about female astronauts. Good luck to them, but nobody 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 is Christine Lagarde, but as my hairstylist once said, “Sarah, you’ll never be Christine Lagarde.” Unfortunately, he wasn’t just talking about my hair.
Behind it all, of course, there is money, aesthetic norms and the clash of sexuality and age.
Hair color is a $20 billion industry.
L’Oreal could make even more money if they persuaded men to dye their hair too, and in fact some men are doing it. But that is seen as vanity, not a social imperative.
Norms are difficult to shift. Just look at the resistance to go from manicured lawns to rewilding. An uncut lawn is still considered neglect. If we can’t even grow the grass, good luck, grow your hair without creating horror.
Alongside money and norms, women’s hair color is at the center of deep-seated prejudices.
This is a hypersexual society where sexual attractiveness lies somewhere between goal and imperative. Add ageism, which includes a presumption that older people are past sex.
It is believed that a woman with gray hair is a signal that she is old and no longer cares if she is sexually attractive to men. For them it is liberation. For others, it is a heretical statement that she has given up.
And yes, it’s heavily gendered, although men reach their sexual peak at a much younger age than women. These handsome silver foxes are still considered desirable, although this is supported by the association between older males and wealth and power.
When confronted with the option of going gray, it’s really about the clear message it sends to everyone – especially men: “I don’t care.”
But I do.
So yes, I am a slave to any counterproductive societal narrative that ultimately harms me. But what can you do? You live in the world, and playing the social game – winning – seems like the only option.
And then revolutionary Barbara comes and says: No. You can see how subversive this is.
I often wonder what I could achieve if I didn’t spend so much time and money at the hairdresser’s or fill the drawer with devices that promise 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 always tell me to write a book. But I have no time. I have to dye my eyebrows tonight.
become smarter is a deceptively light and entertaining reminder of the domestic dramas we all share, with a wonderful perspective that I wish I had had had similar experiences.
As she reflects on her radical decision to go grey, she quotes Gloria Steinem: “One day an army of grey-haired women could quietly take over the earth.”
Indeed they can, and I would love to be one of them. But to Barbara’s rallying cry to women that we’re getting “wiser,” I take an Augustinian approach: Lord, make me gray—but not yet.
become smarterby Barbara Scully, is now available in Easons.
https://www.independent.ie/opinion/comment/going-grey-in-a-sexualised-world-is-a-show-of-liberation-we-can-all-take-strength-from-41907711.html Going gray in a sexualized world is a demonstration of liberation from which we can all draw strength