Why I Stopped Hiding My Grey Hair

All wanting - especially wanting to be a certain way - is centred on ego and fear. When we experience ourselves as we are, then out of that death of the ego, out of that withering, the flower blooms.

− Joko Beck

I started going grey when I was barely out of my teens. I remember sitting in the noisy, overcrowded medina in Tangiers when I was 21, drinking Moroccan mint tea, suntanned and perfectly content. My companion leaned over and said, ‘I really like your grey hair, it suits you.’ Back then, it felt like a real compliment, with no shadowy areas, no undercurrents of regret or shame. It felt as though I had some amazing talent that marked me out from everyone else, like juggling fireballs or touching the tip of my nose with my tongue.

When I hit my early thirties, I fell pregnant and wouldn’t have dreamed of colouring my hair, exposing my developing baby to chemicals and carcinogens. Yes, I was that type of mother-to-be. I ate organic, practiced daily yoga, took long beach walks and vigorous dips in the icy late June sea. But after I gave birth, I looked in the mirror one day, balancing my new daughter on my hip. We were playing that game; the peek-a-boo baby game of burgeoning consciousness. Am I here? Am I not? Who am I, anyway?

As I focused in the mirror on my own face, I realised that I was going grey. Really grey, from the crown of my head to my temples. The back part of my long hair was still the deep brown I associated with my former self. The rest was somebody else entirely. I tried henna then, remembering my backpacking days fondly, when a trip to the local bathhouse meant a vigorous, muscular-thighed Berber woman pinning me down and applying the thick paste to my head, followed by a rousing massage and intricate henna designs painted on feet and hands. But the henna experiment was interesting, at best. I didn’t want to be a redhead. And it didn’t cover the stubborn hairs that framed my face like a halo.

So I went to the local hairdresser and started paying to colour my hair. At first, it was every couple of months, and the re-growth didn’t bother me unduly; little curls of silver and ash after a few weeks. But as I entered into my late thirties and early forties, the routine I’d once looked forward to as a much-deserved pampering, a respite from everyday life, became a straightjacket. It took hours out of my work time, and cost hundreds of dollars. The chemicals gave me a headache, and ratcheted up my sinuses like cocaine. From every few months it became every four weeks. Sometimes three. Then I knew I was hooked. Hooked on the image I still held onto as youthful, strong, never-changing. Even through my melanoma diagnosis, I kept going to the hairdresser, but we switched to a more natural, less noxious dye. When my sister died of cancer, I coloured my hair the day before her funeral – my hairdresser opened the shop just for me. And we sat in front of the mirror: she painting my hairline with the fine brush, both of us shedding ammonia-laced tears.

My maternal grandfather went white overnight after the shock of his first wife dying in childbirth. My father went grey at the age of thirty. So I know that no amount of turmeric, green tea, meditation, mineral supplements, herbs and chlorella shots will alter this aspect of my combined genetic destiny. I also have an autoimmune disease and one of the symptoms is – you guessed it – premature greying. After a session at the hairdresser, I’d always felt lighter, somehow more alive. Healthier, even. But within a week or so, the familiar hair began growing back, and it was just as if I hadn’t been at all.

What does it mean to be grey for a woman? In our culture, it generally means old, useless, given up. For men, the old clichés still hold water; distinguished, suave, sexy, a silver fox. What does it mean for me now to embrace the in-between stage, the part-grey and part every other colour from blonde to russet to brown? It’s one thing to be in your sixties and sport a full, glossy head of silvery hair, perfectly groomed. It’s another to be 42 and exhibit the ultimate marker of age.

So why have I suddenly decided to stop hiding my grey hair? I’m sick of the tyranny of subterfuge. I need to accept the totality of who I am in this moment. Not who I once was, and not who I will be. It would be much easier to go grey in ten or fifteen years, I admit that. Right now, it’s an act of subversion, most of all toward myself and the flawed concepts I once held dear.

My daughter and I were walking the dog a few evenings ago; one of those still, scented spring nights Sydney does so well. In the half-light, we greeted our next door neighbour as she was getting out of her car. She’s a woman in her sixties, we’ve recently moved in, so we don’t know her well.

‘Oh!’ she said, peering closely at me. ‘I didn’t recognise you! Have you gone blonde?’
‘No,’ I replied. ‘I’ve decided to stop dyeing my grey hair.’
‘Well, you’re brave,’ she said, and we both giggled, awkwardly.
As my daughter and I entered our garden, I looked down at her and smiled.
Brave, maybe. But in a better world, I wouldn’t have to be.

About Katerina

I've been a cafe-bookshop owner, university tutor and have a Doctorate in Creative Arts. I'm the author of two novels, THE GLASS HEART (2000) and BONE ASH SKY (2013) as well as a novella, INTIMATE DISTANCE (2012) one of the winners of the CAL/Griffith Review Novella Prize. My recent novel was shortlisted for the Australian Unpublished Manuscript Award. I've won various short story awards and written for publications varying from The Australian and The Age to Australian Author. I currently blog for Huffington Post Australia. I live in Sydney with my husband, daughter and enormous dog. For more about me, you can go to my author website www.katerinacosgrove.com

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