I recently inspected my hairline and I found a strand that may or may not have been a grey hair.
I squinted and tilted my head towards the mirror, catching a glimpse of my tongue curling unattractively over my top lip as I concentrated as much as possible. In the end, I plucked it from the root, carrying it to my room with palm outstretched in a fashion usually reserved for the feeding of horses. I carefully placed it on a book with a black cover.
I hoped the contrast in colour would enable me to reach a firm conclusion, but I was still not sure. I am quite fair, and so it is not unusual for me to find a few blonde or golden strands. But this seemed different somehow. Unfortunately, I was denied the opportunity to labour over this for too long as the window was open and it blew away. What was potentially tangible evidence of my physical decline was deftly disposed of by nature so that we could all forget it had ever happened.
It was strange to think that, if it had been my first hair-cut, someone would have been on hand to preserve the lamb-soft trimmings, evidence of my youthful exuberance, but nobody wants to keep old hair; nobody wants to preserve what are essentially death teasers in a trinket box shelved on a doily in the posh room.
In truth, I think I had subconsciously been expecting and dreading this moment since I turned 30 – paranoid that my hair-line was conspiring to shock, each day bracing myself for a grey to punch out of my scalp like a jack-in-the-box – but I was still not prepared for the impact it had on me. I am not a particularly vain woman. I often snake my hair into a dog’s turd on the top of my head to disguise the fact it is unbrushed. I am not fastidious about my application of make-up, and the last time I did make an effort I was asked if a catapult was an integral part of my beauty arsenal. I often wear a sport’s bra for comfort instead of a slinky little balcony, I bite my nails, and I have no inclination to have my teeth or anus bleached (although I would fight for your right to do either, and don’t you forget it). However, this hair, this fundamentally innocuous piece of dead, pigment-less protein I neatly picked from my scalp like a weed, made me feel like I had been shock head-dunked into a bath of cold water, only to emerge to find someone cackling in my face through a loudspeaker against the echo of a clock ticking unforgivably in the background. The truth is that this hair, this hair that may or may not have been grey, was more than dead, melanin-deficient matter. It was a poignant reminder that I am not impervious to the passage of time. It meant I was on the downward slope. It meant I was in decline. It meant I was no longer young.
I can appreciate that this all sounds very melodramatic. I have friends who have been very grey since their early twenties and they would be completely unable to understand my anxiety. But, while something else would herald the onset of the ageing process for them, for me, someone from a family whose members don’t tend to go grey until middle age, it was significant and confusing.
When I considered ageing in an abstract sense, I always thought it was something I would embrace as soon as my smile started to highlight cracks. I planned to wear moccasins and linen, even in the winter. I wouldn’t pluck my eyebrows, or my chin; I would no longer worry about showing my upper arms; and my fluffy, peppered barnet would be worn natural and voluminous and frizzy. My breasts have always veered towards the pendulous, even in my late teens, and so sagging was never going to be something I would struggle to accept. Besides, I always assumed that, in my old age, I would eschew underwear altogether. I would sleep naked. The fear of people catching a glimpse of my untrimmed muff should I have to swiftly exit my home in the event of an unexpected fire would evaporate. I would be the old woman alone at the holiday complex who jumps into the hotel pool topless for her medicinal morning swim, confident that I am of an age where the world should rightly embrace my dangling breasts, perpetually flabby stomach, and pubic mound resembling a lump of steel wool.
However, on reflection, I have come to the conclusion that it is easy to romanticise your maturation when you think it is very, very far away. You can speculate about how you will or will not feel, how dignified you will be the first morning you notice your face has fallen so it looks like you have sloppy sandbags either side of your head, when you can’t imagine it happening. The truth is that you never really know how you will react until the day you look in the mirror and the person staring back at you is not the person you expect to see. I have not yet reached that point, but I know it is coming. Sometimes, when it’s quiet, I can hear it stalking me, the soundtrack to my deterioration bearing an uncanny similarity to the theme tune from Jaws.
The moment I found that potential grey hair, I transformed from a relatively young woman who had the luxury of experimenting with hair dye on a whim, to someone who would soon be expected to incorporate the regular dyeing of her hair into her weekly maintenance regime (which would require me to develop a regime in the first place) just to try and preserve a physical appearance to which I, and others, had become accustomed. I could see decades of evenings in front of me with my head bent over the bath as I apply purple or brown gunk to my scalp with the kind of plastic gloves you’d use to dispose of a dead body.
How many hours of the rest of my life would I spend waiting for a colour to take? How many hours of the rest of my life would I spend chasing youth? Yes, I know that some young women choose to dye their hair grey or white, just because they can. I have even seen one or two sporting blue and purple rinses. But what is crucial to remember here is that they are making that choice out of fashion, not social duress – it is not something that has been ignobly thrust upon them without fair warning. Effectively, when a young woman dyes her hair grey she is indulging in the human equivalent of shabby chic-ing a cupboard. The general rule of thumb appears to be that it is acceptable for something to look worn and old and tatty when it is new and stylish and a product of the creative artifice. But something that is actually old and worn and decaying and in a state of disrepair against its will is deemed considerably less desirable, even repulsive, at least so long as it’s female.
It was not that this hair was particularly aesthetically displeasing, or even noticeable. I thought grey hair emerged thick and bristly and wild, reaching out from the head like an evil, twisted tree branch to cast a shadow over its host. But the strand was soft and fine and not discernibly different to the rest of my hair, besides being lighter. However, the more I thought about it, the more I seemed to be mistaken, and what I had actually pulled out of my head was the kind of coarse, spiky, silvery tuft you’re likely to find poking out of the chin of a woman who eats children. What made it worse was the knowledge that this was just the beginning. This was just one hair. What was next? Would the rest of the strands fall like soldiers, startled into surrendering their colour by the relentless hiss of sand through an hour glass? Cowards.
As a result, I found myself Googling intensely. What causes grey hair? When should women go grey? Was I normal? Now that I had plucked that first weathered strand, had I set in motion a process that would result in me waking up tomorrow with a head full of harsh, grey tentacles? Was I literally hours away from resembling the Doc from Back to the Future? I always thought that, should I be offered a spin in the DeLorean, my priority would be taking a turn on a hover board and giving Biff the finger, no questions asked, but now I had no doubt about where I’d go. Christmas 1998, a tubby, teenage girl slides a pretty hairband on her head to try and disguise the short crop that Victoria Beckham had made look so sleek and stylish, but which made her, with her thick, determinedly wavy, stubborn hair, and rounded head, look like the Honey Monster after he’d flounced advice not to have that perm. It was an awful hairstyle, yes, but there’s no doubt those strands were fit to burst with melanin and vitamin D, and I won’t let anyone tell me otherwise. They should have been appreciated and nurtured, not resented. What I wouldn’t give for that melanin now.
The consolation I got from internet searching was intermittent. I found that grey hair can be caused by conditions unrelated to age. I comforted myself with the possibility that I may be suffering with a vitamin deficiency or a thyroid problem, and then wondered if that made me an awful person. I found a website that provided a list of the best foods to eat in order to maintain the kind of luscious locks that would entice a prince up a tower without the use of proper safety equipment. It seems all we need to do is eat lima beans and yams every day for the rest of our lives. Problem solved.
But then my mind started to turn to other parts of my body. It stood to reason that, if I had grey hair, an outwardly visible sign of ageing, then my innards were also more than likely feeling the effects of the last three decades. I concluded it was feasible that I was going through early menopause, too. I visualised my eggs queued up and shivering, fighting for their turn to use my fallopian tubes like water slides before quickly slipping into oblivion just before the pool closes. I became convinced that I was having a hot flush, and I did not know why I hadn’t noticed these before.
This was it: the beginning of the end. Making an effort with my appearance would soon be futile and pointless because nobody would care. Pretty soon I would be relegated to the realm of allegedly “past-it” women. Advertisers would no longer care about me unless I was in the market for products to help with weak bladder control. I would have to cut my hair above my shoulders. I would have to make sure all my skirts are below the knee. I would never again be able to leave the house with bare tight-less legs. I would have to consider a sensible shoe, and I would have to always cover my cleavage. Eventually, I would start to flicker, my image fading until I seem to more-or-less disappear, becoming invisible while in plain sight.
And then, of course, I came back down to earth.
I was shocked about the effect a hair, a hair that may not have actually been grey after all, had on me; how something so superficial and inconsequential had caused me to question myself and my future prospects. It was frightening, largely because I knew the problem was not me. My yellowing teeth, my faint wrinkles, my early onset interest in gardening, and my lack of knowledge of the latest pop hits, were not shameful. The truth is that it is widely believed by the wrong sort of people, people whom unfortunately have the loudest, most influential voices, that the worst thing a woman can do is age, a sin which is second only to getting fat (and going to fat is partly considered disgusting by the worst brand of critic because it is seen by many as a stage in the ageing process). But ageing is not transgressive. It is not a rebellious act, a deliberate flouncing and dismissal of media-perpetuated images of what an attractive, alluring woman should look like. It is simply inevitable.
The problem is that we are constantly told women are supposed to be eternally youthful, wide-eyed, fresh-faced forest nymphs, gliding around wearing thin summer dresses over their taut skin and perfectly firm bodies, offering a high-pitched, unknowing giggle whenever they are asked directions. We are supposed to be picture-perfect, store-fresh dolls lacking any sort of history, preserved in our original packaging forever, depreciating in value with every perceived flaw we develop. Men with grey hair are considered distinguished and experienced. Erudite, even. Women with grey hair are considered superfluous, if we are being kind, and irrelevant, if we are being honest. Women with wrinkles are considered unattractive and useless.
But it goes deeper than that, and I realised that what scared me when I found a hair that should not have been there was not the physical indicators of ageing as such, but rather the assumptions people make about older women and women who embrace the ageing process, especially since this particular acidic strain of female stigmatisation is starting at an increasingly younger age. What concerned me specifically was the widely held belief by many that older women are, by default, unattractive, sexless, no longer able to fulfil their ambitions, and completely lacking in potential. I was scared because I felt I needed more time.
The consequence of these attitudes is that women grow up fearing age, convinced that their lives will stagnate fast, regardless of their personal circumstances and life goals, the moment at which they no longer believe they are young. I thought this was happening to me. I could cover the grey, yes, but I would know what lay beneath: a desiccated, pointless husk.
The truth is, however, that after contemplating the situation for half an hour or so of highly introspective thinking, I realised it was fine to admit that, in many ways, I like getting older. Time is my spinach and I get stronger with each passing year. I like the confidence and experience that has come with age, and I look forward to gaining more of both in the future.
The women whom I love and admire and who inspire me are not mannequins, perfectly pert and frozen in time. They are human, they have laughter lines, they have grey hair, they have padded midriffs, and they are beautiful. They have lived and live. They are successful, they are distinguished, and they are inspiring. And, when I think about it rationally, I know that there is nothing wrong with being like them. In fact, it would be an absolute privilege. That hair, that hair that may or may not have been grey, was not a sinister harbinger of death, but it was a symbol, a trophy, even, of the wealth of experiences I have had so far, and all the experiences that are yet to come.
Let’s just hope that when I do finally discover a hair that is indisputably grey, I feel the same way.