Grey Matter

By Sandy Burgham

grey matter

My friend told me recently that she was going grey. The poor thing. It must be terrible for her, ageing and all that. She’s 51 and has decided to stop colouring her hair and hence is going through a rapid ageing process, as if leaving Shangri-La by the back entrance. We’re treating her as a case study – especially since she has an identical twin sister who is still sporting gorgeous “natural” brown locks. We will be able to see the direct impact — a before and after — and also monitor how life changes for her vs. her sister. At the very least, it will be easier to tell them apart.


Considering I write this column called “The Second Act”, her “radical reinvention” was on my mind as I attended the Auckland Writers Festival. It was a sea of short grey cuts, and silver bobs. “My god,” I said jokingly to a colleague, “It’s actually hard to tell all these 60-somethings apart. Is this us in 10 years?” She replied, “Well it’s kind of us now, but we dye our hair.” She was right. Who am I trying to kid? And why am I actually resisting showing my true colours (or lack of it)? I started to do a sort of cost-benefit analysis of ditching the hair dye. There’s the hard costs of my hairdresser, which I figure at around $3000 per annum, versus the virtual cost of a PR campaign to explain why I have done it, therapy, loss of income in case people think I am too old for the game . . . But hang on a minute, I’ve never lied about my age, and in fact I’ve gone out of my way to blog and write a column about mid-life (which used to be 40, but I upgraded to 50). This is clearly all in my head. Or is it?


While we might all agree that we live in a youth-obsessed culture where pretending to be a little younger has become habitual, what is not so obvious is the distinctly unfair gendered bias in all of this. Men, by and large, are unashamedly greying and balding. While some invest in hair dye or treatments to grow more of it, there are more bucks going into that little blue pill to help with a minor mechanical default in the area of “sexual health”. Give me a break. There’s nothing actually wrong with you, sunshine. You’re just old. With this logic, doctors should be prescribing women hair dye under the guise of “mental health”. Perhaps ACC can cover it — “I accidentally started looking my age” — because it seems that hair dye is masking more than grey hair. There is a true social cost for those women who want to go au naturel.


Last year, singer Alicia Keys, at the ripe old age of 36, decided not to wear makeup as a protest against the constant judgment of women. Rather than being applauded, she was criticised. Aside from the “you look like ugly” social media trolling from men and women, there were women who took the attitude “well, it’s okay for you because you’re famous”, completely missing the point.


It has been documented that older female actors are increasingly marginalised. Aside from the shrinking number of roles, as they enter their 40s females are progressively given less to say on screen. Champion septuagenarian Dame Helen Mirren notes this is happening at a time that we have had to sit through years of James Bond ageing, and his girlfriends getting younger. There was of course that big deal made when Bond bedded a 50-something woman in that last movie (as if to say “there! happy now?”) but they killed her off before giving her a personality.


All this social conditioning sets a precedent for what women are supposed to be – younger. Just ask the First Wives Club about that. Many would call my greying pal “still beautiful” but she no longer adheres to that marker. She hopes to be considered interesting, inspiring or graceful, which she is and more. The real reason she ditched the hair dye was because of a health scare that led to her researching toxins. She found that skin lets in 60 per cent of what it comes into contact with, and dye bypasses the detoxifying enzymes of the liver. But she couldn’t find any fully organic hair dyes that cover greys, and she didn’t want to be a hennaed redhead.


You’d think that this news would have us all ditching the dye but no, we remain complicit in a system that stops women from ageing gracefully just as they reach an age where they are making peace with who they are on the inside. It has started to trouble me greatly. So when am I going to take the plunge? It’s simply a matter of time.


— Sandy Burgham


This post first appeared in The Hobson July, 2017


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