Thursday, 13 June 2013

Plucking and Dyeing: The Grey Haired Dilemma

I had every intention today of writing about my busy spring spent finishing my teaching qualification (PGCLTHE - that will be an unbelievably satisfying number of letters to follow my name), teaching first year undergraduates, designing and running a blogging/social media class and plugging away at the novel. The taller half and I have just come back from a lovely holiday so I have some travel ideas I want to bash out as well. All in all, I had plenty of proper things to write about five minutes ago. Then I ran my hand through my hair and ended up with two hairs entwined in my fingers. One my natural, very dark brown and one snow white.

Yes, I am going grey.

Well, white, to be fair. And in full disclosure, this is not news. Alex found my first grey hair in Mr. O's Latin class when we were fourteen. Fourteen. I was slightly less thrilled than he was. Alex was already fairly salt and pepper by then. As a slightly chubby, gay, greying, cello-playing, theater buff, Alex might have needed the company. Not that I saw it that way at the time. But we were friends and when you get your first grey hair before your first real kiss there's a lot you're willing to forgive.


Early grey hair runs in the family (I won't say which side) so I fully expected to be completely grey by the time I was in my early twenties. It was expected and I accepted it like the little, social outcast that I was: as a badge of honor...that I plucked.

I spent a decade and a half plucking and in the last few years began to see a couple of my friends start to catch up on me. I would sniff derisively when they talked about dyeing their hair, investigated their roots and lamented their lost natural color locks. "Pfff! I've been going grey for aaaaaaaages." Except that wasn't exactly true as I've recently discovered.

I might have had grey hairs since pretty much puberty but I hadn't been "going grey". A new one hadn't appeared in over a decade. So when they started to sprout I suddenly realised that I wasn't uber-cool and handling it better than my friends, because it isn't a dilemma to have a couple grey hairs that you pluck when they begin to look like television antennae: white and sticking straight up in the air. It's a whole different story when they start arriving en masse and bringing friends with them. Now I have clusters. Little housing estates of grey hairs.

It has to be said that I am lucky because my hairs are not so much grey as they are white. My Granny had a full head of completely white hair and I always thought it was beautiful. As a child I would wish for hair like hers, soft, curly and snow white that seemed to glow in the sunlight. I just didn't plan for it to show up so early or think about what it would be like to have some curly, white rebels in a sea of straight, brown hair.

Those of you who know me may find this post a little odd as I'm not exactly known for my stylin' appearance and focus on looks, but I think it's important to address this issue of grey hair for women. My taller half and I are often confused for much younger than we are. By "much younger" I mean a decade. He's embracing his grey hairs because they make him look more like his age, which he reckons will be good for his career. Now that's a perfect segue into a chat about the value society places on the experience of men vs the beauty of women, but I have to say that I do the same thing.

I was teaching first year, BA students this year and am often confused for one of them. On days when I was meeting a group for the first time, I would make sure that my little clusters were on show. Why not? I've earned them. No one comments on them, but I'm sure they notice - as my taller half once said to me, "Wow. It's like someone spilled paint on your head." Thanks, honey.

As I talk about this with my friends (all of whom are intelligent, educated and most of whom are feminists), we all find ourselves in a similar quandary: To dye or not to dye? Well, why not? If you have blonde hair and would prefer brown we don't judge so why would we judge a woman who prefers not to be grey? There are men out there who dye their hair as well. We can't all be Anderson Cooper. Maybe you dye for the in-between period and then embrace the grey when they've finished the takeover. But maybe that's the real problem. Maybe the fact that we think of grey as not our natural color is why we are so resentful of the change.

This tree's just waiting to go au natural
I grew up in New England where the most beautiful time of year is autumn. The trees burst into color just before the leaves fall to the ground. Those fiery reds, yellows and oranges are actually the true colors of the trees. The leaves only appear green in the spring and summer because of chlorophyll, which enables photosynthesis. Is it too mushy to suggest that we think of ourselves as trees, waiting to show our true colors: steely grey, silver, snow white, mercurial, granite? Probably. And, in a few years, I'll probably be dyeing my hair. But I reckon I have a little time yet, which I'm going to spend still wishing and hoping for my Granny's silver hair.

In the meantime, I can assure you all that plucking grey hairs does not make them multiply. I did it for aaaaaaaaages. And I still have a go at the particularly spiky ones on the top of my head.

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