There are moments in your life when things change forever, they de-mark a ‘before and after’ that you never envisaged. Mine occurred in the summer of 2012, alone in my kitchen. I had been invited to join an important meeting at short notice. Unable to get myself squeezed in at the hairdressers, I decided to go it alone and dye my grey roots. A 48-hour patch test done and dusted, I mixed the tubes and happily applied the colour as instructed.
I was immediately hit by a powerful ‘knowing’ that something really bad was about to happen. The doctors used the term ‘sense of impending doom’. It feels as dramatic as it sounds. An all-consuming sense of terror descended upon me. The compulsion to ‘get the hair colour off me’ kicked in as a horrific burning sensation began in my nose and rapidly spread across my face. I became disorientated as my tongue started to swell in my throat and to press on my teeth. I was beginning to choke, shaking and in a blind panic that I would die there alone. I took Piriton and reached for the phone.
My tongue remained swollen to varying degrees for weeks, I even had to sleep sitting up as I would choke if I laid down. I was on high strength medication and was issued an EpiPen. My body wouldn’t settle down and the following days, months and years became a swirl of hospital appointments and relentless tests to discover what went wrong. Although the incident left me with a permanent life-threatening condition where my tongue spontaneously swells, that was not the reason life changed so dramatically for me that day. I was thrust personally and professionally into a far greater issue: the ageing debate.
After the horror of that day and its ripple effect, I decided that my days of dyeing my hair were over. This is not to say that I legislate this as a rule for others: the global cosmetics market was valued at $532 billion in 2017, and is expected to reach a market value of $863 billion by 2023. Cosmetic surgery is set to rise to over $27 billion around the world this year – an increase of $7 billion in the past two years. Beauty is undeniably big business, and I am in favour of anyone doing as they wish with their hair. I had done some hair shows in my teens where I would have wild colours put in over the weekend for competitions but come Monday I was dyed back to brown for class. There is no colour my hair hasn’t been.
I have never been much interested in hair and makeup beyond this but I recall a hairdresser in my mid-twenties telling me that she would put a rinse in for me as I had some grey hairs. I let her do as she pleased, more interested in my magazine. There it began – a disconnect that would continue for 17 years. Rinses turned to semi-permanent dye which turned to permanent dye. My roots became whiter and “in need” of covering more often, all without much thought on my part. Then, at the age of 41, I decided to go for the ‘cold turkey approach’ and simply let my hair grow out. I knew that it would take two years to reach my shoulders but frankly I had other things to deal with.
But I discovered quite quickly that many people thought that it wasn’t okay to for me to make this choice. It wasn’t okay to visibly age in this way. I was somehow “letting myself and the side down”. Initially, well-meaning friends would bombard me with suggestions of how to cover my grey hair using henna or foils, despite knowing that medical investigations into my life-threatening reaction were still ongoing. I found myself saying on several occasions: “You do remember that I might DIE doing that don’t you?”
‘Every society needs its elders, and we deny our need for them at our peril’
Then, as my roots turned to inches, it became obvious to a wider circle that I wasn’t going to cover them anymore. On a particularly blustery school run, a male acquaintance asked me when I was going to cut my hair off as “no one wants to see grey hair flying in the wind”. I explained my situation and he persisted in his assertion that if my hair was to be grey I should do the decent thing and cut it off. In the first year of leaving it natural (when the grey had reached my ears), I went to a family gathering in America. A woman in her 80s asked me to accompany her to the kitchen. As a psychotherapist, I am used to people asking me to step to one side with them so I was blindsided when she told me that she could “save” me with her recommendation of how to hide my grey. By this stage I had begun to refer to my hair as silver and I informed her that I was perfectly happy to let people see my natural ‘silver’ hair, thank you very much. I left her standing in the kitchen, horrified at my words.
What became clear over these months is that this was not a hair debate at all. This was wide-scale resistance to the ageing process, to the point of complete denial in some cases. Across my work as a psychotherapist and an executive coach, I witness the impact of this in both personal and professional domains. The idea of youth is not only conflated with beauty but also with effectiveness and success. With this conflation comes the negation of the older worker, the older lover, the older anything. Key questions this raises for me are: where are the images of competent, successful, wise, happy 40+ men and women? Every society needs its elders, and we deny our need for them at our peril.
I know through my work that the early stages of life are concerned with the development of the “ego” – the version of a person shaped in conjunction with the world – to survive, to fit in, et cetera. Beyond this stage, and often in mid-life is the emergence of the “self” stage which leads to a deeper development of purpose and connection to the world without needing its social permissions. A sinister side of ageism in our society means that this psychological growth is inhibited and diminished by the greater need to ‘stay looking young’: it stunts us and locks us all into the same cookie cutter requirements.
And so I have decided to view myself as a pro-age activist. My activism of choice is simply to show up and be seen as an almost 49-year-old woman with silver hair. To get out there and be a visible, happy elder! I volunteered to be one of the first Naturalistas in Vanessa Mills’ pro-age photography project. I entered (and quite bizarrely won) a competition to be the face of ‘Touch of Silver’ shampoo alongside two young blonde-haired women. I spent time challenging the adverts specifying age or hair colour for use in advertising or projects. One such exchange led to photographs of me being featured in an exhibition.
Over the seven short years that I have been taking these small steps, the landscape of the debate has changed significantly, mainly, I think, because of the impact of ageing demographics. More and more, brands are having to wise up to what is often referred to as ‘the grey pound’. This has led to a little more inclusive representation of 40+ people in the media, though it is still considered tokenism by many.
In the early days of this change I noted that there was usually a ‘redeeming feature’ to silver models. For example, silver hair seemed to be acceptable if you were astonishingly fashionable or if your hair was down to your waist. But social media has also been mobilised to great effect for us more mainstream ‘silver sisters‘ to champion each other. I am eternally grateful to the support that I found online and still spend time daily on Instagram encouraging men and women who are ‘growing out’ and supporting them against the same attitudes that I faced early on.
Another change is the fashion for young women to dye their hair silver. Rather shockingly though, I listened to a conversation on a podcast just this week which was discussing the pressure to go grey as a way of joining “the movement”. Ironically, the speaker on the podcast felt accused of being inauthentic because they coloured their hair. I was astonished to hear this reversal of expectations, and I would offer them a comeback I found useful – “the day my hair starts growing out of your head you are welcome to an opinion”.
Portraits for Tortoise by Charlie Clift. Backstage photograph by Getty Images