Hi ho silver: Young and grey

The fact that *antimacassars adorn the armchairs in our home library, that I know what the word antimacassar means, and that I am teaching myself to crochet so I can make more of them like my late grandmother used to do, contradicts my innermost belief that I am still young.

Sometimes I feel like I am not long out of school.

After all, it was less than five years ago that I finished the City 2 Surf in 62 minutes 24 seconds and I still have the faculties to remember the exact time without having to consult the records.

But I wonder how the average man on the street sees me, given that my new, natural, hair colour is not what you’d expect of the average 43-year-old woman.

I am as grey as July and while I have been so for years, I had resentfully masqueraded as a brunette until very recently.

Riding a wave of trends, I’ve tried crazy spiral perms, impossible bouffants, responsible bobs, pixie cuts, but I’ve always maintained a pretence of brown.

I am by nature pretty low-maintenance – my idea of getting dolled up is borrowing some lippy from my eight-year-old daughter – so the fortnightly touch-up to mask the telling grey stripe down my part was becoming inconvenient at best.

I’d considered many times revealing my true colours but always baulked at the ugly transition phase and chickened out at the thought of being perceived as an old boiler.

But I’d been inspired by my sister who’d blazed the trail years before and in the end, with my supportive hairdresser providing wise counsel, the transformation was really no biggie.

My hairdresser suggested I continue to colour the white stripe down the middle and the grey regrowth around my face, but to leave the rest as is. Over time, I needed to buy touch-up colours that were a shade lighter than the previous one and eventually stop the touch-ups all together.

Regular trims to remove the dark brown ends were part of the cunning plan and slowly but surely I struck sterling silver.

There might have been a hideous moment or two along the way, but not so grotesque as to warrant a brown paper bag – I don’t think.

I’ve made some very poor decisions over the years about my hair (why did I never learn that fringes looked better on chenille bedspreads than they ever did on me?), but going grey is not one of them.

I now feel free and grown-up and not at all old, other than on the tennis court when my son’s drop shots beckon my tired legs and laugh at the folly of the chase.

I feel like my grey bob gives me some cred, perhaps even a tinge of authority. Not with the kids, mind, but just in the sense that I might appear to know what I’m doing, or the idea that I am now slightly easier in my own skin.

Strangers comment on the colour, though I’m not sure whether they’re just trying to be kind to the little old lady with the youthful glint in her eye. If that were the case, I would set them straight with the fact that scientists have found no link between signs of ageing in hair and real ageing in the body.

A major study of 20,000 men and women in Copenhagen sought a connection between heart-disease mortality and physical signs of ageing such as grey hair, loss of hair and wrinkles. They found zip.

Dr Leo M. Cooney (did a vision of George Clooney just pop up in your subconscious?), professor and chief of geriatrics at Yale University School of Medicine, has said: “People with premature greying of the hair don’t die any sooner than anybody else. I think the study shows that grey hair has something to do with your genetics and very little to do with premature ageing.”

Male colleagues, who I would have thought had no reason to look at me, let alone approve of the colour of my locks, have floored me with tea room tete-a-tetes about that very thing. One went so far as to say it was “hot”. Personally, I’ve never felt warmer than tepid, so I thought the comment bizarre and unprecedented but not at all unwelcome.

When I call long-time hairdresser Phil Smyth at his Maryville salon, Felipe’s, he answers my question before I even ask for his thoughts on a woman’s right to bare greys.

He will have to call me back, he says, after he’s finished putting a colour through his mum’s hair. She’s 93.

“I tell my clients they need re-rooting every six weeks,” he later laughs.

There might be exceptions to the rule, he concedes, but “greying means ageing. Just to let it go is like not dressing as well as you could, or not shaving your legs. It’s all grooming.”

As it happens, Phil has a striking, silver-haired boy.

Michael Smyth, 32, remembers “a few greys sprouting” when he was 17.

As charming as he is grey – 100 per cent – Michael says his hair colour has never really bothered him, although he did dye it when in high school and concluded it took far too much effort.

The comments about his hair are diminishing as he gets older.

“I did get asked how old I was frequently when I was younger and people seemed to put wagers on it and pluck up the courage to ask me, or ask my friends.

“But I have never felt freaky. If I did, I’d feel lucky too – people pay a lot of money to be freaky these days with piercings, dyed hair and tattoos.”

A keen sailor who loves a punt, Michael says: “It’s hard to pull off maturity just by having grey hair. People are smarter than that.”

And while “it is not uncommon for women to colour their hair, you can definitely tell if a man colours his hair.

“If blokes try to cover up their greys, it just looks like they are trying to cover up their greys.”

Michael, who cites blue cattle dogs, Yoda, Einstein, battleships, sharks, wizards, lead pencils and clouds as other “cool greys”, says he doesn’t feel that going grey is giving up.

“People letting themselves go is more noticeable in their personality or attitude.”

Ian Hanbury, manager at Bliss Hair Artists in New Lambton, is not quite so blunt on the subject as Michael’s dad when I pop in to his salon.

“There are some people who have the right hair and it would be criminal to colour it, but they are among a very, very small percentage,” says Ian, who will not allow his 84-year-old grandmother to go grey, either. She had been into the salon that very morning to indulge in her four-weekly colour, emerging with a light beige/blonde coiffure that makes her look “so much younger” than her siblings and peers.

Ian finds most clients in their 40s and 50s wanting the latest fashion colours. He says those in their 60s tend to go lighter, with others being “over it” and opting to reveal their grey.

Pulling off the grey look, Ian warns, depends on skin tone.

“Some people can handle it, but others just look unhealthy.”

There is no doubt TAFE teacher Jane Smith, 47, of Hamilton, “can handle it”.

She “let the colour grow out enough to go from long red hair to short, spiky grey in one hair cut” years ago and she was elated.

Jane says the cost of regular colouring was a factor in the decision and “we were about to travel and I wanted maintenance-free hair. I had met a lot of beautiful women [a bit older than me] who had natural hair colour and I thought it looked great.”

Do people comment?

“Not often, but there are occasionally comments from other women with grey hair – kind of a solidarity thing.

“Early on, when my kids were little, there was the occasional reference to me as their grandma by strangers when we were out, and every now and then a total stranger will ask who cuts my hair.”

Jane describes her maintenance routine as “wash and wear, with a bit of cheap supermarket gel to make it spiky”.

Like me, she associates her grey hair with freedom.

“I don’t do make-up either, so what you see is me – wrinkles, blemishes, grey hair – and I feel really comfortable with that. I do feel wiser than 20 years ago, but that has more to do with my experience of life than the colour of my hair.”

She says she doesn’t so much wonder how people perceive her physically but “it’s important for me to imagine how people see me in terms of my actions, and the way I treat them”.

People started to comment on Kathy Rowe’s greys when she was a 15-year-old schoolgirl.

They would ask if she had paint in her hair.

Forty-three-year-old Kathy, a manager in the Australian Public Service who meditates, gardens and works up a sweat at hot power yoga, gave up colouring around the age of 30.

“I just let the current dye job grow out – which led to a very unappealing blunt line of colour for a bit before I got it cut out.”

Did she all of a sudden feel all grown-up?

“Honestly, I don’t think about it except when people comment,” she says.

“Given I’ve been grey for a lot of my life, I think I probably notice other signs of maturity more – like the growing contentment in my life and the number of groans now associated with getting out of a chair!

“I guess we all wonder how we look through other people’s eyes, but I think it’s an impossible question and I’ve learnt that my level of happiness seems to increase the less caught up I am with how I appear to others.

“Still, it’s always handy to be able to say ‘I’ll be the six-foot tall woman with white hair’ if I have to meet someone I’ve only had email or phone contact with.”

When I tell ABC News 24 presenter Scott Bevan he is the obvious choice for comment on the subject of going grey naturally, he feigns incredulity.

“Why? I dye my hair,” he laughs.

The 47-year-old, who can barely remember sporting dark hair, began spotting greys in his 20s.

“In TV, of course, people often attempt to look younger or look like something other than themselves, but I am totally comfortable with it,” he says.

It wasn’t always thus.

He did colour his hair for years, to pepper the salt, but warns other guys thinking about covering their greys that it’s a slippery slope.

He took a year out of the public eye to write Battle Lines, published in 2004, and decided that was his chance to put an end to the colour cycle. He had his head shaved, was shocked by how grey he really was, but not at all regretful that he’d made the move.

“I think we should all celebrate our maturity, and wear that crown – literally.”

Scott jokes that he’d like to release a hair product range called “Grown-ups for Men”, spruiking grey hair dye as having the capacity to make men look “mature and intelligent”.

“But I’d still like to think that credibility comes from what’s boiling away inside your head – the grey matter – rather than what’s sprouting out the top of it.”

Matthew Watson’s friends awarded him the “Schwarzkopf Scholarship” when he was a young university student, such was the noteworthiness of his grey hair.

“Most of those folks are going bald now – something I take delight in pointing out while running a hand through my thick hair,” he says.

Now, at age 40, the managing director of Repute Communications and Associates prefers the term “silver” to describe the colour of his eye-catching locks.

“When I was 20, people guessed that I was 30-something. Now I’m 40, people think I’m 50-something. When I’m 60 I’ll probably have the Guinness Book of Records at my door asking if I’m the world’s oldest living person,” he laughs.

Had the former news reporter ever considered colour?

“I realised it would be easier to stop surging lava with a toothpick than to disguise my greys. I confess that I experimented with products on the odd occasion, but it felt futile.

“Further, I felt like I was in denial, living a terrible lie,” he jests.

“But I found the strength to come out and say ‘Hey, I’m grey! And proud!’

“I was with National Nine News for many years, where my boss gave me credit for being the youngest reporter to go on the road for the network. I suspect the greys came in handy in terms of on-air presence. I went on to be a cabinet minister adviser and it certainly didn’t hurt in that arena, although the job might have exacerbated the problem – sorry, issue – of being grey.

“I do a lot of media training, media management and crisis management these days and think that grey hair adds an edge when strolling around boardroom tables.”

He says the grey genes are rife in his family.

“We have young kids. None are grey . . . yet. When the timing’s right I’ll sit them down and have the ‘grey’ chat.”

When I broach the subject with my eight-year-old daughter, she opines: “I reckon if that’s what your hair wants to be, I’d rather it be naturally beautiful than fake. And you look eco-friendly.”

My 11-year-old son offers: “Do you want the truth?”

Probably not, but tell me anyway, I urge.

“I think it makes you look tired all the time . . . I mean, I know you are tired all the time, but I think it makes you look tired all the time.”

Young people these days.

* Antimacassar is a piece of cloth put over the back of a chair to protect it from grease and dirt or as an ornament. The word is derived from anti (against) and Macassar (the trade name of an oily hair tonic produced by Rowland and Son in 19th-century England).


See the full article in the Newcastle Herald