Coming of age

You’ve gone grey, a long-time friend said looking at me in embarrassment.

Perhaps he thought I had gone grey overnight. Not so. My silver-grey head of hair was 20 years in the making.
“You should talk to Jenny; she does something to her hair every week,” he told me.

But, like Jenny, my hard-earned grey had been carefully covered in a monthly two-hour stint, which could have bought me a fine pension over all these years. From my first sighting of a hundred or so grey strands until a silver high-water mark shone through every three weeks, the expensive gunge was painted regularly over the roots.

A group of women friends was gloomy when I first mentioned my plan to stop dying my hair.

“Not while you’re working,” they chorused. “You will become invisible. You need to look young if you want the twentysomething executives to take note.”

I have been invisible to some people­. My eldest son told me he looked for me at Jomo Kenyatta airport in Nairobi and did not see me. “But up close I thought it looked wonderful. It actually makes you look younger. It is gentler against the skin,” he said.

Going grey, it seems, is an act of provocation. Everybody comments. Responses have been varied and vocal. Some do like it. A puzzle is that a few men, who have always chosen babes with long, blonde hair and cover-girl looks, have enthused. Many of my women friends have changed their minds, too. They now approve. “It suits you,” they say, but have no plans to do likewise.

My seven-year old granddaughter, Emma, was dismayed when she first saw me. “You don’t look like Grandma,” she said, and she plonked my sporty red cap on my head, stood back and commented: “That’s better.” By the end of the day she either did not notice or did not care.

Like the long-time friend who thought his wife could give me some helpful advice, a surprising number of otherwise enlightened and broadminded men have been shocked, their movements stiff and awkward as they greet me and comment on the new grey look. They seem puzzled to hear I chose to do this; to look old; to look 62.

My parents thought dyed hair was vulgar. Now it is un-dyed grey hair that appals some of my generation.

Luckily this does not include my husband, who for several years has pointed out elegant, grey-haired women and asked: “Would your hair be that grey? I think it looks fine.” His smile goes everywhere, but it is as likely to linger on a good-looking 70-year-old as on a 17-year-old (well, almost).

So about a year ago I took the plunge. My hairdresser Terry warned me the process would not be simple. Going from almost black to grey would have me looking like a skunk. First I would have to go blonde. Five hours and three doses of bleach later I lifted my head from the washbasin and saw a woman opposite me wearing a Russian hat made of orang-utan fur. We stared at each other in horror.

“Calm down,” said Terry firmly. “Now we put on a violet rinse and you turn into an ash-blonde.”

I have always wondered what it was like to be blonde. Norman Mailer once said he married blondes because they were optimists. “And bottle blondes,” he said, “are the most optimistic of the lot.” However, after five short marriages to blondes, he settled for a brunette. Will she risk going grey?

In the middle of the dreary growing-out process, the sight of Meryl Streep’s silvery hair in The Devil Wears Prada gave me a satisfying aha! moment.

Grey does not have to mean harridan or virago. For someone who grew up reading the Sixties feminists, this was a revelation. I can leave the wild locks to the less faint-hearted. Grey can be elegant. What liberation.

I tend to dish out unsolicited advice quite liberally and am wont to tell young women that the day they turn 30 their long, waist-length locks should be chopped, “so that you can swing your hair off the shoulders”, I say. “Every five years chop off another inch until you are 60. Long hair drags you down when you need to look buoyant.”

There is even more need to chop grey hair short because the texture changes. It might, like mine, become coarse, strong and wild and, left to grow, will make you look like that virago you fear. Being 60, grey and stylish requires a regular haircut to show the shiny, silver cap to advantage.

I might not mind looking my age, but certainly I don’t want to look older. I recently discovered this means I will have to reassess what I wear. When I arrived at photographer Josie Borain’s house, the sun came out for the first time in nine days. I peeled off the sweaters and there it was, the purple T-shirt that I wear only when everything else is wet. “When I grow old I will wear purple.” But not yet. So it’s to the back of the wardrobe for another 10 years for that one.

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