Let’s talk about going grey. It’s a knotty issue for lots of us in midlife – me included – both aesthetically and politically. But you can’t fail to have noticed that since the beginning of the pandemic, grey hair is everywhere. And that’s not just because we haven’t been able to get an appointment at the hairdresser. No, grey has become a feminist issue.
On the red carpet at the Cannes film festival last month, actors Andie MacDowell, Helen Mirren and Jodie Foster were out and proud with their silver-fox locks. MacDowell was vocal about how it marked a new chapter in her life, telling Vogue: “It was time for me to make that transition because I felt like it was appropriate for my personality and who I am. And my instincts were right because I’ve never felt more powerful. I feel more honest. I feel like I’m not pretending. I feel like I’m embracing right where I am.”
And though going grey is a trend among young women – millennials are dyeing their hair to get the look of model Kristen McMenamy and Vogue’s Sarah Harris, or the cool factor of temporary silver-tops Lady Gaga, Katy Perry and Rihanna – naturally grey hair on women in midlife is another matter. It’s seen as ageing, unattractive and unsexy. No wonder “to dye or not to dye” is something we agonise over.
But it’s liberating to note that the Instagram hashtag #greyhairdontcare has been used more than 431,000 times, and there are now natural grey-hair influencers such as Jin Cruce and her account @agingwith_style_and_grays, and Sandrine P, who runs @grey_so_what. Fashion editors Lisa Armstrong of The Telegraph and Anna Murphy of The Times have written at length about their decision to embrace the grey in an industry that values youth and beauty above all else. It’s not an easy choice for any of us.
I’ve thought long and hard, too, about how to tackle my own greying locks when my brand, Studio10, is aimed specifically at women in midlife and beyond. Does being PRO AGE mean we must ditch the dye and embrace grey as a positive choice?
Women have been dyeing their hair since the time of the pharaohs, though the practice only went mainstream in the 1950s, and globally the hair-dye industry is now worth more than £4.7 billion As the brilliant Nora Ephron once put it: “There is a reason why 40, 50 and 60 don’t look the way they used to, and it’s not because of feminism… It’s because of hair dye.”
Why the uptick? Partly, I suspect, it’s down to the entry of more women into the workplace, and the idea that we need to look as young as possible in a highly competitive market. And partly it’s about our romantic lives, in which looking sexy – and often “young” – is paramount. But what about, instead, looking the best possible version of our age?
My lovely mum dyed her hair into her 80s, and I suspect I will do the same, but why do I want to – or feel that I should? Am I just perpetuating the idea that looking “young” (by having hair that’s not grey) is the best way to go?
In a recent study published in the Journal of Women & Aging, the 80 women canvassed seemed to agree, saying they felt those who go grey are judged for “letting themselves go” and are viewed as less competent. But the idea that going grey is a sign of giving up is ridiculous: have you seen how much it costs to maintain a glossy head of greys? You certainly don’t stop going to the hairdresser!
MacDowell was reassuringly non-proscriptive about her decision to quit dyeing her hair: “It’s not like I’m saying everybody has to make this choice. But what I would like for all of us to do is to stop and consider how we think about mature men and how we think about mature women and really start gauging what we say and what we project.”
She’s not just talking about how it’s OK to be a male silver fox (looking at you, George Clooney) but how, if you’re a woman, being grey smacks of giving up. She’s considering the bigger picture and that sexist, ageist trope: that men can essentially age as they please, but women must continue to look young at all costs. That’s the kind of idea we still need to fight against – whether or not we choose to dye our hair.
But women who go grey in midlife are warriors, bravely challenging the societal norms to which most of us still adhere. And at Studio10, we salute them.