About 6 years ago I stopped getting my hair dyed. I’d begun to worry excessively about the fact that every 5 weeks I actually paid someone to plaster a noxious chemical gunge all over my head (a significant amount of it always ended up inside my ears, with a free pass into my brain, I always thought.) The journey to greydom took about a year. I was surprised/alarmed to discover that I had a barnet of almost completely white hair. The new, old woman look didn’t really bother me at all, but it sure bothered the friend.
When the grey (white) hair was almost completely through the friend made it clear, in no uncertain terms, that she didn’t like the new grey haired me. ‘You look about 20 years older,’ was her dismissive remark, ‘please start getting it dyed again.’ What the friend actually meant was that I looked my age, and not 20 years older. I looked how 50 is supposed to look when you ditch the hair dye. Because underneath all those dyed, young looking fiftysomethings there’s an army of white haired old ladies holding on to the belief that they could still pass for their twentysomething selves. Of course, you’ve only to catch sight of yourself in a digital photo (which I very much try not to) to see that a youthful aura takes much, much more than dumping a box of chemicals on your head. The pathway to the fountain of youth is still as impossibly long and winding as it ever was.
The friend is fortunate in that her hair colour, when young, was a golden blonde which has now turned to a dishwater brown but, more importantly, is not grey. Whereas my natural hair colour was black and, as is so often the case with dark hair, it began turning grey at a very young age (in my case I had what I called a ‘Mallen Streak’ from about the age of 29.) This Mallen Streak led one mother at the mother and toddler groups I used to frequent to ask, rather bluntly, if I was putting white highlights in my hair. I had to inform her that, no, I was going grey. ‘Have you thought about dyeing it,’ was her next blunt response. ‘No, have you thought about keeping your hair related remarks to yourself’, is how I replied (silently, in my head.)
The white streak in my hair suited me just fine until my hairdresser at the time asked if I wanted to give hair dye a go, being that I was far too young to be seen out in public sporting grey hair. It’s now my avowed opinion that young people can get away with any hair colour they want but, being a stupid 34 year old at the time (I now know that 34 is but a child) who thought she was getting old, I bowed to the superior professional opinion of my hairdresser.
The first dye job attempt resulted in a sort of gingery orange colour which looked revolting (my skin tones do not ‘do’ ginger.) It was clear my hairdresser lacked any professional talent when it came to artistic colour theory. I asked to see a book of dyed bits of hair, a bit like those swatches of material when you’re buying curtains, and went with a shade of brown which was a couple of shades lighter than my natural black. And I’ve stuck with that colour for roughly 20 years. I now realise that I had so little grey at 34 that I could have put off the hideous dyeing process until probably a good 10 years later, but such is societal pressure (and your hairdresser’s desire to make a fast buck) that I took the plunge way too early, and have been stuck with a very ‘flat’ and obviously dyed look ever since.
The problem is that my face hasn’t stuck at being 34 and the chocolate brown hair is looking a little like mutton dressed as lamb; not to mention the fact that I ask for semi-permanent, in the misguided belief that it’s the less dastardly toxic option, which fades to grey in a matter of days.
Fortunately I don’t care enough about the way I look to bother touching up the re-appearing grey, or dyeing the hair more frequently than every five to six weeks. This is also fortunate for the husband, given a dye job costs £46 a pop. But I’ve now reached the stage, yet again, where I want to give the dye a rest, not least because every time my hairdresser brushes it onto my head, my eyes sting from the smell and water just ever so slightly; my scalp tingles and burns, just a little bit, when it’s applied in certain areas, and when I’m left to marinate for 20 minutes I start to itch just behind my ears, or at the temple, or at the back of my head and I can’t scratch because I’d get dye all over my hands and, here’s the thing, it doesn’t wash off because one time I did scratch and spent the rest of the day trying to scrub brown marks off my fingers.
Methinks this discomfort (and subsequent fear that one day I’ll go into anaphylactic shock) is telling me something. Perhaps it’s telling me that it’s not a good idea to slowly poison yourself in the vain attempt to look young. The main ingredient in hair dye is p-phenylenediamine (ppd). I’ve had a problem with ppd for quite a while. Ppd changes colour when oxidised and is used in black rubber, textiles, furs, photographic developer, lithography plates, printing inks, oils, greases and petrol. So I’m basically covering myself in a chemical which is used in heavy industrial processes and is regularly named as one of the top contact allergy substances ever.
Stopping the dye also means I’ll be in and out of the hairdressers in a flash (20 minutes tops for a wash, cut and dry) and I won’t be worrying about bad old PPD.
Of course, 20 years of ppd coursing through my system (courtesy of the dye getting sucked into the blood stream by the pores in my scalp) is maybe 20 years too late to undo any possible damage (which hair dye suppliers assure me is ‘negligible.’) But it’s better late than never.
I know the grey hair will make me look washed out and tired and very possibly on the brink of some awful illness. In fact one of the dictionary definitions of grey is ‘without interest or character, dull and nondescript‘ – is that the look I really want to go for? But the grey will allow me to get used to how I actually look, aged 55, so that I won’t enter old age (if I’m lucky) wondering who the hell is that, upon looking in the mirror.
There are worse things than going grey. There are worse things than bucking society’s subliminal message that looking anything other than your actual age is a kind of social suicide. And my current ‘worse thing’ is a pain in my right foot, which is making the act of walking very difficult. I might do a scintillating post entitled ‘My Right Foot‘ (as opposed to the more famous left one by Christy Brown.) At least going grey will be pain free.
The one person who actively embraced my grey hair, 6 years ago, was a near neighbour who claimed she preferred the old hag look to the youthful chocolate brown one. But then this neighbour has had very little hair, to speak of, since I’ve known her (hormone imbalance), and the little she has has been grey for years. So the fact I have hair is, in her books, a very definite bonus, whatever its colour. Does her sparse grey noggin influence my feelings about her, thought I at the time. No, it doesn’t. I’m just glad to have a nice, neighbourly, nearly bald neighbour.
The last time I aged grey-cefully the husband appeared to go along with it all quite happily, until the day I decided to dye the hair again, whereupon he came home from the daily grind and couldn’t hide his unbridled delight at the fact that his wife no longer looked 80 years old; proving that appearance quite possibly is everything. He claims to be happy with my decision to go grey again but just how happy remains to be seen.
This latest attempt to embrace the ageing process was brought on over the weekend when we took the ridiculously old (92 and so old he’s turning into Gollum) father-in-law to a lovely cafe on a cliff on the Christchurch coast. The place was packed with women of all ages, all with resplendent dye jobs, but I noticed that several people entering the building would scan the room for a table and then whisper to each other re: a woman sitting to my left with her back to me. As we were about to leave, this woman and her male companion got up to greet two middle aged women who came over to their table and, in so doing, the mystery woman turned to face us. The effect was like going on one of those funfair ghost rides when some ghoulish apparition jumps out at you from a very dark recess in the wall.
‘Eek!’ I quietly shrieked, whilst grabbing the husband’s arm and pointing him in her general direction. She had a small face, framed by blonde girlish locks, but that face was slowly turning into the Elephant Man. Her lips were gigantically too big for her face, like a pair of plastic lips you get with those kids’ toy false nose/mouth/specs set ups. They were so hideously inflated you could tell she was having a difficult time speaking to her friends. Her cheeks must have been made from some kind of gel insert because the top of each cheek finished just beneath each eye in an attempt at preserving the rounded shape of youth. Her skin had a sort of rubberised quality to it, very like Jim Carrey in The Mask, and yet at the same time was incapable of movement so that her face showed just the one expression – a sort of permanent look of maniacal surprise. She was stick thin, in skinny jeans, ankle boots, very long artificial nails and kept flicking her bleached blonde hair back in a girlish manner. It was impossible to tell her real age (probably sixties) or that she was even part of the human race – the whole thing was very disconcerting. ‘Imagine waking up to that every morning,’ remarked the husband.
After witnessing the lengths some people will go to, to hold back the years (and feeling sorry for the woman that she’d felt it necessary to massacre her own face) I realised that there’s absolutely nothing you can do to stay young (the woman actually looked worse than my ancient father-in-law.) Trying out the grey haired look, one more time, surely can’t be worse than turning yourself into a walking plastic surgery disaster can it?