The women letting their grey hair show, and the many who don’t but continue dyeing it for fear of being seen as old
- Many women are unwilling to show their natural grey hair, preferring to dye it than be stigmatised as being old
- Silver Sisters is a group of women who celebrate their grey hair and refuse to embrace ‘a frumpy life’
Many women have struggled with the “should I, shouldn’t I go grey?” question – especially during coronavirus lockdown. Being unable to visit a hairdresser has led (in my case) to disastrous at-home attempts to colour our own hair. Hidden away from the world, you might have thought it would be the perfect time to gracefully grow silver.
And you’d think it should be easier to go natural, especially since grey hair is natural: it turns that colour because, as we get older, the cells in hair follicles that produce pigment gradually die off. It is usually age-related, but genetics play a role, as can stress and illness.
A study by the University of Exeter in the UK suggests women “risk” allowing grey hair to show to feel authentic. The key word is risk. The 2008 study asserted: “Grey hair on a woman produces one of the least desirable personas in Western society – an old woman.”
The study’s lead researcher, Vanessa Cecil (who notes in her email signature that she ‘is stopping colouring; lockdown induced’), said the study was prompted by the awareness that as women get older, they are likely to encounter ageism and sexism based on how they look.
As a result, says Cecil, women feel conflicted between projecting competence (looking young enough to do their jobs) and authenticity (being their real selves).
No wonder most women keep up their expensive and time-consuming hair colouring: 75 per cent of women in the US and 69 per cent in the UK regularly dye their hair, according to the hair-dye manufacturer Clairol.
Marina Garcia-Trevijano and Karen Rich are founders of Silver Sisters International, an online community of women embracing their grey hair. “The sad truth is that colouring is a conditioned response; we see grey hair and we dye it,” they say. “It’s probably an unconscious response to the heavily pushed idea in the media that once you’ve reached a certain age you are no longer relevant.
“Women don’t have many models who have shown them that life can continue even if they have grey hair. Does that sound dramatic? Yes. But many women feel like life as they know it is over, and if they choose to go grey, they need to embrace ‘a frumpy life’. We’re here to dispel these myths.”
Andrea Clark, a certified consultant trichologist in Hong Kong, is among them. “I started going grey at 21. I’m now completely white from my crown forward and a steel grey everywhere else. I still colour part of my hair, about a quarter, but am growing it out, bit by bit,” she says. She sees more and more women going for grey – it’s becoming a choice rather than something to avoid.
It’s not uncommon to transition like Clark using colour creatively, but it’s also not easy. You need the steady hand of a great colourist or you will end up with that dreaded skunk look.
Rich and Garcia-Trevijano say the move to grey is a personal one. Some women go cold turkey, which is what they did, transitioning directly to grey from dyed black hair. Others go through a process in which you can either get really tiny highlights, or tint sections of hair as Clark did, or bleach your hair and add grey toner to make the transition go faster.
“Some swear by this process and claim it made the transition painless. Others say it ruined their hair,” Rich says.
“The only way to speed up the going grey is to bleach and tone the hair, as there is no colour in a tube that’s called grey, or else cut it short,” Clark says. “My hair would not have stood up to bleaching and stripping.” Her own stylist took her through a slow creative process that took a year but protected her hair health.
Once you achieve a head of silver hair, how do you keep it looking beautifully polished – not yellowing with age? Easy, say the Silver Sisters. Use a purple shampoo – and there are dozens on the shelves. It’s just a case of trial and error to find which one works best for you.
The downside of purple shampoo is that it can dry the hair and scalp, so use it only once a week, and try to keep it off your scalp. Follow the shampoo with a deep conditioner that returns the moisture to your hair. Grey hair can be coarser than dyed hair, so regular deep conditioning is a good habit to get into.
Some other culprits that cause yellowing are hard water, sun exposure, and using heat tools on your hair such as hair dryers and curling irons.
That’ll turn heads, too.