My Relationship With… Grey Hair

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Or, ‘Why I’ve Decided to Love My Grey Hairs, and Why You Should Love Yours Too’

I have come to the world’s biggest (yet smallest) breakthrough – I’m no longer going to pluck my grey hairs.

I found my first grey hair at 20. I was in my third year of my MSci and, having just handed in a huge project, joked that it was all the stress of working on a group project compressed down into a single strand. That’s not how it works, actually; while lifestyle factors, including smoking and low levels of vitamin B12, are thought to contribute to the onset of hair going grey, stress isn’t one of them. This hair was long – grey, all the way to the root. I marvelled at it, called all my flatmates over to coo, yanked it out, and forgot all about it.

There’s an old wives’ tale that pulling out a grey hair makes two grow back. I’m a woman of science and feel that I should be above such fables but, oh boy, they are not wrong.

Hair greys when the follicle stops producing melanin. Melanin is also responsible for moisture within hair, hence why grey hairs also tend to be coarse and more wiry, and have more spring. The texture is like the mane from one of those nice old rocking horses.

I recently turned 25, and I now pluck my grey hairs about as regularly as I do my eyebrows. They’re everywhere. I have a cluster by my left temple, but those are mainly hidden by how I part my hair. Instead, the worst offenders are those that sit right along the length of my parting. There’s a moment every couple of weeks when I’m pressed with – and not to sound dramatic, here – the crushing weight of youth’s fragility, wherein I pull out an offending hair and realise that this one wasn’t grey all the way down, and instead the silver has slid slowly up its length. I was going about my days while my little melanin-producing duct was slowly dying, and I didn’t even notice. Had I known, I’d have brought a violin.

The last thing I want to do is make this a ‘woe is me’ piece. Most people say, oh, you can hardly see them. I’d agree that this were true were it not save for a few caveats, the first being that I pull them out regularly enough that there’s rarely much of anything to be seen. The second being that, when I don’t, it’s actually pretty obvious, because my hair is very dark brown. And, third, that the entire situation isn’t helped by my being five foot nothing tall, so the average person normally has to go out of their way to avoid getting a good look at my scalp.

Part of my budding crop! Credit: Camilla Cassidy

And – even if no one notices them – I notice them. That’s the operative part, and the part that confused me. The realisation that I didn’t want to get rid of my greys preceded the realisation that I never actually did. I just… did it. I have my fair share of body image issues, because I exist on Earth. But this wasn’t one of them – I had just built this into my routine without noticing. At least when I’m plucking my eyebrows I’m constantly thinking, wow, this is stupid, why are certain arrangements of face hair arbitrarily pleasing, isn’t society weird. But this thing I just plain did, no questions asked.

Earlier, I was watching a Bon Appétit video featuring Claire Saffitz, who makes gourmet versions of junk food (watch them sometime if you haven’t before, she loses the will to live trying to make Kit Kats, it’s great). Saffitz empowers me in two ways: aside from being an inspiring cook with astronomical levels of patience, she happens to have a prominent grey streak. As someone who had previously considered bleaching her hair à la Narcissa Malfoy I was genuinely quite envious of her neat, dye-free job.

Watching this pastry chef struggle through making Pop Tarts, I noticed something. More accurately, I registered something I’d already noticed. Saffitz doesn’t just have an artful streak. Her roots are grey. Her hair is salt and pepper throughout.

She looks so dang cool.

And, importantly, even if she didn’t, it wouldn’t make a blind bit of difference.

Credit: Bon Appétit, via @outofcontextBA 

Saffitz has spoken previously about her decision to stop touching up her roots, which have also been going white since her 20s. In late 2016, she pushed back on ideas about beauty standards, and what she felt she had internalised about what women must look like. Saffitz says that she “felt trapped, that [she was]a slave to the process”. As part of a feminist book club, she had read Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth, which examines how the societal obsession with perfection is used to restrict women.

I do want to recognise that this happens to everyone, irrespective of gender, but indeed specifically to women. There is an assumption that people will present themselves in a certain way. Often it is obvious, with beauty standards set by advertisements and cover models. Other times, it is more subtle, and perpetrated by a system that doesn’t let people be people, flawed and textured, warts (and grey hairs) and all. Jameela Jamil often talks about the lengths she goes to not to be airbrushed, and for her lived-in reality of veins and back fat not to be edited out of existence.

Only one person has ever commented on my grey hairs directly. Back then, I demurred. Now, I’ve got my repartee ready.

“Yeah,” I’ll say, “I’m ageing prematurely due to the toil of unsolicited comments about my body”.

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