Several wonderful women of my acquaintance lost their bottle during the pandemic. Their hair-dye bottle, I mean. And they are not fading to grey, rather flashing sliver highlights in what one of them calls her ‘corona crown’.
There is certainly something regal about a woman who has put out the welcome mat and allowed a little distinguished grey to push through.
And, boy, has the grey been pushing through. In the same way that nature reclaimed a little corner of our cities with foxes trotting along empty streets and fish returning to once-polluted waters, nature has done her utmost to redefine our features.
She has issued grey hairs like invitations to dance at the Cailleach’s ball, to recall one story about the old crone of myth. That divine hag was said to invite women to her ball by sending them a grey hair. If they snubbed her by dyeing their hair or, worse, plucking it out, she generously sent another grey-hair invite, followed by another and another (and yet another) until the woman finally accepted.
What a wonderful way to describe the rite of passage that has been breaking out among us like a silver lining. It’s been truly liberating to take a rest from the usual beauty routines or, perhaps more to the point, the pressure of those routines.
Up to this week, it’s been perfectly acceptable to let unruly nature take her course. I’ve loved all that wild hair, greying and free. What a liberation to see shellac-free nails, chipped and uneven from gardening and baking, not to mention the anxious finger-gnawing that has seen us through confinement.
Not that we always appreciated the freedom. The hankering for the hairdresser was perhaps one of the most acutely felt in these recent cloistered days. It doesn’t necessarily mean we were self-obsessed or vain, failing to see the loss of life and shutdown of our economy.
On the contrary, we felt them deeply and that may well explain the yearning to, at least, try to impose order on our personal appearance. The shock of having to look at your own untended, boiled-egg face while talking on Zoom didn’t help either.
There were mixed results with home haircuts and box-dyes so little wonder that we’ve been stampeding to correct the damage at the hairdressers this week.
I’ll be beating a path there too when I can get an appointment but, for once, I won’t be rushing to cover the proliferating grey or the ‘threads of silver’, as the more poetic put it.
Over the past three months, I’ve come to see them that way too and have actually grown rather fond of the little shimmers of grey that occasionally glint in the light. More than that, I have seen other women’s salon or box-dye colour give way to natural silver and thought it beautiful.
For years now, we’ve had the grace to say that a little grey around the temples lends a man a touch of gravitas, a distinguished air. In a woman, though, it was seen as unkempt or, worse still, a sign that she had ‘let herself go’.
Is there any more tyrannical phrase in the English language than “She’s let herself go”? It’s usually applied to women who have gained weight or failed to conform to the beauty regime of the day. In other words, all of us (men included) post-Covid.
So perhaps this is the perfect time to change the tune. There’s a neat phrase doing the rounds that goes something like this: before you return to ‘normal’, decide which parts of ‘normal’ you’d like to keep. There is great wisdom in it.
While deciding to hold on to a few wisps of silver may not strike some as a radical step in our brave new world, it does have thrilling potential. Imagine what the world might look like if we started to honour and appreciate the depth and the richness of lived experience.
Or the freedom that might come if we started to consider the Cailleach not as the old crone but as a fairy godmother celebrating the first grey hairs of womanhood. Maybe we could stop telling ourselves that 50 is the new 30. Why shave 20 magical years from the account and deny the splendour of two decades?
Likewise, at 60, why should it be a compliment to tell a woman that she doesn’t look a day over 40? I admit that I am guilty of both offences. It was meant well but now that we have been granted an unexpected free pass into the glittering world of the natural and the grey-haired, it seems like a great time to reassess.
Millions of more enlightened women are streets ahead of me. Canvas an opinion and you’ll be told of the deep-felt personal liberation that many women (and men) felt when they decided to stop dyeing their hair.
Some report initial negative comments but most say they never looked back and don’t miss the time or money spent in the hairdressers.
I will miss the hairdressers, even without the tea and magazines. There’s something deliciously decadent about those lost hours spent with your hair wrapped in a turban.
However, it’s a small price to pay for an unexpected freedom. Who would have thought that a few lockdown grey hairs would turn into an unexpected blessing, one with the potential to really open up conversations on beauty standards, ageing and, ultimately, the power of accepting yourself, one magnificent grey strand at a time?
Ask the wise women who have gone before us. They’ll tell you that every grey hair, just like every wrinkle, tells a story. Why mute it? It means that we have lived, that we have witnessed and, perhaps most importantly, we have survived to tell the tale. Or at least the first stage in this lockdown tale.
It’s time for a bit of celebration now, don’t you think? The Cailleach doesn’t have to send me another invite, I’m off to the ball. You coming?