Relatively recently, I came across a blog post written by an older woman that gave me much food for thought. I am not going to link the blog post because I had quite a few issues with what was written, and I feel that instead of calling out the individual author, I would rather respond in a general way to the collective ideas that the author reflected within her post.
Basically, the post was about growing older as a female in contemporary society. It appeared that some of the concepts and ideas that our culture has inculcated in women was something that the author had bought into in her youth. As an adult woman over the age of 60, she had some cognitive dissonance in reconciling her role as a female in our “youth obsessed” culture. She said that as an older woman, she now feels marginalized and invisible. She expressed that she was happy to have “aged out” of the catcalls, sexual harassment, and objectification she had experienced as a younger woman, but she also felt a sense of loss and displacement as an older woman.
She didn’t like the idea that women who were older and appeared to conform to society’s norm of beauty (by hook or by crook, genetics and/or plastic surgery) were heralded as “sexy” and “gorgeous” and instead called for a redefinition of beauty as it applied to older women – preferring to focus on the attributes that made older women sexy and gorgeous, which included their intelligence, their personality, and their experience. (I’d say this redefinition of beauty should apply to ALL people, regardless of age or gender) Lastly, she cautioned younger women about the role they play, telling them that the concerns of older women should be their concerns too (assuming that the majority of younger women did not care about older women) while warning them that they, too, would be old someday.
A few days after I had read the post, I was still thinking about it, pondering the implications of what the author was trying to express, when I was at a grocery store with a friend, a man who is older than me chronologically but certainly not mentally or emotionally or spiritually. (I also have to back up a little bit here and say that I do look “young” for my age – which I will address a little bit more later in this blog post. My friend has grey hair. I too have grey hair, but I have dyed my hair black or brown pretty continuously for over 15 years to cover it, and it has been with mixed feelings over the last five years or so. Every once in a while, I start to grow it out, marveling at my silver strands, wondering how I will ever be able to grow it all out while retaining some semblance of color continuity and keeping my hair long. To tell the truth, I have dyed my hair far longer than that. I started dying my hair black in my early 20s, as was my inclination.)
Anyway, we were at the grocery store, and a long-ago high school friend of my friend’s, an older woman with dyed brown hair, stopped him to say hello. We all chatted for a moment, talking about the weather and some of the weather patterns over the last few years, when suddenly the woman turned towards me abruptly in a pointed, seething sort of way said, “well, you are way too young to remember that.” I was very surprised and responded immediately, “I’m not as young as I look …” but she continued talking to my friend as if she had not heard me. After a few minutes, the conversation ended and we went our separate ways. But the lingering effect was there, and my friend and I talked about what had happened.
“You do look young,” he said, slightly unnerved at being thought of as a man who was ‘robbing the cradle’. I was unnerved at being thought of as somehow undermining older women by being with an older man. But honestly, while I am younger than him, I am not THAT much younger than him. Looking younger than I am is a problem I’ve had nearly all my life, at pretty much every stage in my adult life.
From the time I was a senior in high school and my sister was a freshman, when some of my mother’s coworkers who knew she had two girls and their ages but not our faces, would, upon meeting us, turn to my sister and ask her where she was planning on going to college. I still get ID’d when buying products for people over the age of 21. I’ve had people express downright shock when they discovered my true age. I will never forget a man who said to me just last year, “You are over 40?! But you are so pretty! You look so happy!” People have told me more times than I can count, “Oh you will be so thankful for looking young when you are older.” As a young woman, I would ask, “How much older?” As a young woman, I never wondered, “And why then?” Honestly, it has always felt like a curse for me to look younger than my chronological age, and it always bothered me in how people reacted to me, especially when they told me how “lucky” I was to look young.
So why have I continued to dye my hair?
The answer is, I’m not. I made a decision a while ago to stop dying my hair. It feels radical. I never dyed my hair to look young. I dyed it to maintain a color consistency. However, with the advent of “granny hair” I can still maintain a color consistency while my natural hair grows in. I can dye my hair grey. In short, I’m going grey! I can’t be more excited about it. Will I finally look my age?! Though, truthfully, I don’t care what age I “look”. I want to keep my long hair while my natural hair grows in. Dyeing my hair grey offers a unique solution to the awkward transition.
This brings me to the whole idea of “granny hair.” Ah, first of all – what a term! Right then and there, there’s a bias and presumption that only “grandmothers” have grey hair! The biological fact of the matter is that both men and women usually start to go grey in their 30s or 40s, sometimes even earlier in their 20s. The cultural fact of the matter is that men usually do not dye their hair. Men are light years more accepting of the grey and silver strands that permeate their hair with age, which has led to the perception of men with grey hair looking “distinguished” and “sexy.” There are names for these kinds of men, and I’ve never heard of a derogatory term or an implied “grandfatherly” term – “silver foxes” comes to mind.
So what’s up with “granny hair?” The term has originated as a label given to younger women (and sometimes even older women) who CHOOSE to dye their hair grey. Young women in their late teens and 20s are sporting grey and silver locks – and rocking the look. Suddenly, shockingly (!), grey hair is beautiful, sexy, edgy, cool. Older women who retain their grey and silver (Helen Mirrin, Toni Morrison, Jamie Lee Curtis, EmmyLou Harris, Alice Walker, etc) are now being celebrated as “silver vixens”, whereas in the past older women who have chosen to go natural when the grey comes in have been considered to have “let themselves go.”
If there was ever a time in which the term “from the mouths of babes” was appropriate, I’d say that applies very directly to young women with “granny hair.” They actually haven’t had to say a word. It is all in the action of dyeing their hair grey, and finding empowerment there. (Though I have seem many recent articles about the “granny hair trend,” I’ve also seen online articles talking about this “trend” which go back to 2014 and 2013. I’ve also seen some earlier forums and hair related sites in which women ask help for transitioning between dyed hair and natural grey hair, bemoaning the fact that grey hair dye didn’t exist.)
Interestingly, it wasn’t older women who began celebrating and seeing their grey and silver locks as something special, edgy or cool. In fact, older women typically dye their hair to hide their grey into their 60s and 70s, sometimes even longer. Who usually sees grey or silver hair on women, unless they are very old? It was young women who radicalized this vision. They didn’t come up with the term “granny hair” … it was the culture throwing that on the action of younger (and older) women dyeing their hair grey. They couldn’t care less about the term. For these women, grey and silver hair is not only unusual, it is striking and beautiful. And it forces not only older women, but the entire culture, to reconsider their relationship to grey hair as it relates to ageism, female beauty, and empowerment.
One of the biggest problems I had with the blog post I had read was that the woman who wrote it seemed so bitter, almost angry at young women. (I think it is also worth noting that in the author picture, the woman had dyed blonde hair.) Maybe she was even a bit angry that she had bought into the cultural idea of female beauty when she was young, thereby thinking that all young women felt that way. We live in a society that does not really respect old people. We do not see them reflected in media or in television or movies. They are often hidden away in nursing homes and senior citizen centers. We forget how much older people have to teach us, not only on an individual level, but on a societal level.
It is up to older people to set a different standard than the one that has been outlined for them by society. That is why I am so grateful for women like Joan Price, author of Naked at Our Age and The Ultimate Guide to sex after 50, who seek to redefine our attitudes about what it means to be an older person in this society, and to live by our example, our words and our actions.
We also forget sometimes how much younger people have to teach us. Our society is a changing, growing, evolving thing. Young people do not necessarily have the same ideas about aging and beauty as what has been outlined for them by society. In many ways, young people are more likely than older people to revolt and to radicalize concepts and ideas that we have long taken in and internalized as societal norms and cultural standards.
When I decided to take the plunge and dye my hair grey, I started looking for places where I could buy grey and/or silver hair dye in New York, where I live. I could not find a single store in my area which sold grey hair dye. “How could this be?!” I thought, after the third store I went to, a popular beauty supply store that I was sure would have it. “This is a goddamn conspiracy!” I thought angrily, after the sixth store I went to. For, what would it mean to multimillion hair dye companies, or the female beauty industry on the whole, if women actually celebrated their grey/silver hair and growing older naturally?! These companies and industries are built upon pimpology – exploiting women’s self-esteem issues by bringing them down so they can be built back up. That in itself is a radical thought.
Needless to say, I was not able to buy grey or silver hair dye locally. Perhaps if I had hundreds of dollars to spend at a salon, I could have a professional hair colourist dye my hair grey. But I do not have such luxury. Not to be deterred, I started scouring the internet and found some places where grey and silver hair dye could be purchased internationally. It will take several weeks for the dye to arrive. There are many different DIY tutorials on how to dye one’s hair silver/grey on youtube and across the internet, given freely by young women, young men, and young transgenders … “granny hair” is not just a woman’s thing in the eyes of young people. Young people are moving far away from the binary ideas older people have about gender, which throws the door wide open, exposing and redefining our antiquated notions about age and beauty from the gender root. As I said before, we sometimes forget how much younger people have to teach us …
To be continued!
In the meantime, check out some photos of these people rocking “granny hair!”