31 and Grey – A Personal Journey

I recently read three articles on The Guardian about going grey, all released within 8 days of each other. Now The Guardian does tend to get on a bandwagon and flog a point, and the message of all three was – going grey is great, don’t let the patriarchy tell you otherwise etc. This got me thinking; for most women, including myself, the thought of not dyeing greying hair is a hideous one. But it is a journey I am currently undertaking, and I don’t think it is as simple as the Girl Power message of grey empowerment, so I’ve given it some thought..

Let’s start with the hair details first:

  • Cut – pixie, very short on the sides and back.
  • Type – 1A – fine, very thin and soft with a noticeable shine – the Andre Walker measure has some problems as addressed in the link, but it is the most widely understood, hence using it in this blog post. 
  • Natural Colour – oh god, here goes. Mainly mousy brown, in a very bright light has a red undertone rather than black. However have a large patch of pure white on the right hand side, couple of centimetres from the top of my head and maybe 5 cm from my forehead. Had this from birth, it’s weird. Then on the temples – I’d say 50% grey, 10-15% grey on the top.
  • Current Colour – my poor hair was bleached early December to a light to mid-blonde, then dyed brown in late December for the last time. The brown has now faded leaving it like a dark blonde, but pretty horrible colour, and with 5cm roots, except on the sides and back which are now natural after a recent cut.

So why have I decided to grow out my hair colour? Well, basically I have developed a sensitivity to hair dye – for some time through my late 20’s I had a huge number of unexplained rashes that came and went. I was consistently dyeing my hair every 4 weeks and never made the link, until, by happy coincidence, I shaved my hair off for charity. I couldn’t dye it for 3 months due to the length, and behold, all the rashes cleared up. I really didn’t want to keep my natural hair colour, so for 2 years I dyed my hair with henna, but it is so inconvenient (messy, smells, takes hours) and I was never pleased with the colour. After a while I forgot about the rashes and decided that maybe if I went Taylor Swift blonde it would be ok. It wasn’t. And because I was using home dyes, the colour was never great. So then I dyed it brown – and oh my god. I wanted to claw my own arms off, plus I got a lot of weird muscle pain. Since a bad reaction to PDP in all commercial hair dyes can actually kill you, there was only one conclusion to all this – just give it up woman. So, 5 months later I have a lot of roots and a lot of grey, and I reckon I’m about halfway through the grow out phase.

But it’s hard. It’s so hard. Although it comes in waves of hardness. For the first few months I could live with the roots, but then on the last cut the sides and back had the colour cut out, and the grey was really on show. That was a tough few weeks of wavering towards the hair dye aisle. In the end I resisted it, but this just means I feel shite about my hair most of the time. BUT then I started to think – this is frankly ridiculous. Why is so much of my personal value tied to my fucking hair? And that got me thinking, what is it that makes us care about our hair so much? And can I find the sweet spot that allows me to be confortable with my grey hair, keep my job and avoid social rejection?

So I wanted to start off with a model of hair in (UK) society, and this is what I came up with category wise:

  • Optimum hair
  • Good hair
  • Statement hair
  • Hair hair

Optimum hair is what is sold in the media. In the UK, it means straight, but with shape and thickness. It normally means at least shoulder length, layered and on the spectrum of ash blonde to dark brown. Think Kate Middleton. In short, it is hair that only exists for a lucky few. It can be created, with expense and time and effort – the amount of expense, time and effort, and how close you get to meeting the optimum depends on your hair type.

Good hair ignores hair type; it allows the wearer to accept their natural hair type. However it remains bound by fairly formal boundaries; consider it the hair of a fashionable professional lady – coloured within a few shades of natural (no greys, unless you are Christine Lagarde), the cut from the book of ‘normal’ and regularly maintained. This is an area I think those with type 4 hair (kinky) experience far more marginalisation than any other; most women with this hair type (predominantly black) are forced into either aiming for optimum hair or adopting more statement hair. If the same standards applied to all women, natural kinky hair would be the norm for black women in professional industries, and I would love to see more of that.

Statement hair is about projecting something about you with your hair, but goes hand in hand with fighting your natural hair. Statement hair can be bold and awesome, but if anyone tells me that maintaining a burning red blunt bob with undercut is easy, then I will laugh in your face. As I mentioned above, type 4 hair is often forced down the statement hair route, away from natural hair – again this is totally awesome (think Ava DuVernay’s locs) but it means that an entire hair category isn’t available to a large section of society in the same way as white and other minority women.

Hair hair is just that; it is hair that grows without regular cuts, no colour and no other real changes, and minimal day to day intervention. I have avoided using the term natural hair as this already rightly has strong usage in the politics of BAME hair. It is pretty rare to see, and the wearers are normally highly marginalised – in the UK an academic named Mary Beard was subject to horrific online abuse regarding her appearance, and especially her hair. Think of a approbation levelled at the ‘wild afro’, or ‘frizzy’ hair; this is the sharp end of misogyny, but I would also say men are subject to censure when they allow their hair to fall into the same category. I believe that this is due to the perception of the individual as being lazy due to their perceived lack of personal care.

So does this enable me to find my sweet spot? Well on first review, the answer is no.

  • Optimum hair – totally out, my hair will never look optimum and I’m not prepared to hammer myself to even get close.
  • Good hair – pretty much out due to hair dye
  • Statement hair – I work in IT/Finance, there is only so far I can go before it starts to impact my careers
  • Hair – not quite prepared to reject society’s requirements for female hair just yet

But, if I cut optimum and hair out, I am left between good hair and statement hair. So I think it comes down to a choice – aim for good hair, and find an alternative to commercial dyes, or adopt statement hair that embraces the grey but is still acceptable in my industry.

Luckily I don’t have to choose now; I have 6 months yet to grow out my hair colour and just have to accept having shite hair for a bit. I’ll keep checking in with my progress, and then I’ll let you know the decision… will I keep the grey and go a bit wacky, or conservative and coloured… who knows!

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