Standing in my uncle’s bathroom in Switzerland, a skylight beaming the harsh alpine sun onto the mirror, I found my first grey hair. I was sixteen, and put the appearance of this surprise follicle down to the stress that came with being halfway through my final years of school. I yanked it out, accidentally taking with it several brown strands.
The greys sprouted slowly from there on, one or two appearing about once a year, like an unwanted visitor. By twenty-three, more started making their journey down from my scalp, with one of my housemates volunteering to pluck the unreachable ones from the back of my head.
I started dyeing my hair around this point, only now and then, but when I entered my thirties the ratio of grey to brown seemed to be inching closer to a third (an approximate, I’m not great at maths). I blobbed brown colourant around my hairline and did the best job I could in ensuring total coverage – not too bad a result thanks to flexibility gained through years of yoga practise.
I bought my last box of hair dye early last year, as I raced around looking for sensible black shoes that would take me to the funeral of my partner’s childhood friend. Like my partner and I, he was thirty-five. His recent bowel cancer diagnosis was a shock, as was watching the hearse pull out of the packed funeral home’s carpark less than a year after we’d seen him look healthy and well at a friend’s wedding.
I hadn’t bothered to touch up my roots, and the sensible shoes weren’t purchased either. I put this down to laziness but with hindsight I can see that grief was also contributing to my inability to do as much as I expected of myself. It was tiring to think that 2019 had just started and already it was turning into a rough year – across the globe, my cousin had died from throat cancer in January, and a few weeks later my uncle died from liver cancer. Throughout 2019, a couple of my friends would get their own cancer diagnoses. The uncle whose bathroom illuminated my single grey strand had lost his battle with prostate cancer years ago.
You only have to attend the funeral of a peer for it to hit home that you still get to experience life, while they’re no longer afforded this chance.
By dyeing my hair and being embarrassed by my greys, I was literally buying into the fear of ageing; a fear I wasn’t even conscious of. I’m acutely aware of how fortunate I am to be here and actually get to age.
My hair has been in that awkward growing out phase ever since the funeral, which can be described as a ‘natural ombre’ if you’re being kind, or ‘incredibly obvious regrowth’ if you’re calling it as it is. Even with hair that grows quickly, this transition process feels incredibly slow and it is noticeable. It’s been pointed out to me by people (yes, I am aware) and when I reply that it’s on purpose, I’ve been clutched and told “how brave” I am.
I’m tempted to say there’s nothing brave about it, it’s just hair after all, but to go against widely accepted societal beauty norms does require some bravery. And I’m aware of my privilege. As someone in their mid-thirties who often gets mistaken for being anywhere between five to ten years younger than I am, the disconnect between my hair and my appearance leaves people confused, rather than relegating me to ‘over the hill’ status. I’m also a writer and editor who mostly works from home, who could probably get away with wearing a blanket passed off as a pashmina.
Embracing their greys can be a tougher ask of older women and those who have jobs that rely on youthfulness. Yet scroll through popular online communities such as Grombre (with its close to 200,000 followers) and you’ll notice women of all ages and backgrounds are increasingly letting what they often refer to as their ‘unicorn hairs’ shine.
A common reason women are forgoing hair dye and embracing their natural hair is due to cancer concerns. While there are conflicting research findings as to whether hair dye increases the risk of cancer or not, I’ve chosen to eliminate exposure to chemicals where it’s easy for me to do so. This has given added weight to my decision to no longer hide my greys, beyond this new existential awareness and the reclaiming of my time and wallet.
If I’m going to be called brave, I’d rather it not be related to my appearance at all. I am brave because I am willing to pill my somewhat feral cat with my bare hands. That like many, I have survived trauma and I have dealt with grief. I haven’t battled cancer and I haven’t had to nurse a loved one who is suffering a terminal illness.
Growing out my coloured hair and showing the world my natural colours, which are brown, grey and even white, is an act that feels both powerful and pleasantly inconsequential.
First published on sbs.com.au, May 2020.