Dearbhaile Kitt found her first grey hair in her late teens, but it wasn’t until she turned 35 that she decided to embrace it.
I was 19 when I found my first white hair. It sprouted just to the left of my then centre parting. I told my mum, who replied that I shouldn’t pull it out, as two would grow in its place. Ignoring my mum’s advice (and that old wives’ tale) I promptly pulled it out and thought nothing more of it. Until another one appeared. And another.
By 21, I had too many white hairs dotted around my head to pull out, and enough that I started to feel self-conscious about them. I wore my hair in a side parting and avoided certain hairstyles so that the white strands were concealed. While one or two grey hairs felt like an anomaly, a handful felt like something else.
Grey hair felt, and still feels, synonymous with ageing. Back then, I don’t remember seeing many women with grey hair. My mum dyed her hair to cover hers – sorry mum – and so did her friends. The main association I had of grey hair was with photos and memories of my gran, whose white hair was set-curled into a soft halo once a week.
When Debbie Harry, now 74, went blonde again in 2009, a headline excitedly read that she had ‘ditched the grey-haired OAP look for a much younger, sexier image’. Louise Loughlin, 39, started going grey at 18 and says she didn’t see anything positive about grey hair. “The only people with grey were pensioners. And adverts always mentioned ‘covering grey’ like this was just the norm,” she tells me.
Alongside this narrative of ageing is a parallel one of a woman ‘letting herself go’ if she doesn’t cover her grey hair. Frances Wright, 33, who found her first grey hair at 19 says: “I honestly think my mind has been totally warped by advertising. There’s a new advert I keep seeing about the ‘Roots Family’ who have visible grey roots and it’s made clear that the roots are unacceptable. It’s not that I’m scared of looking old, but I think it makes me look a bit undone.”
Rebecca Lewis, 30, who spotted her first grey at 13, has a similar story: “My mum cast doubt that I would get a job with grey hair because I think she thought it looked unprofessional. Sort of like, if I wasn’t diligent enough to dye my hair, I wasn’t diligent enough to do a good job.”
With little to contradict these two narratives, I did what every woman-on-a-budget does in a crisis; I headed to Boots and bought the first of many dark-brown box dyes. I felt an unidentifiable pressure to cover my white hair, something that Louise also felt. “Grey hair meant you were old and I certainly wasn’t that,” she says. Rebecca also felt this. “I didn’t feel the need to dye it until people, mainly my mum, started to suggest it to me. I thought it was quite cool at first, and then when others suggested that it wasn’t, I started to get a complex about it.”
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Dyeing hair is something that feels natural for many women. As a teenager in the late ‘90s, I dyed my hair red, purple and black, numerous times. At my all-girls secondary school, Sun-In was a rite of passage if you wanted to be popular, while the differences between highlights and lowlights – and the perks of weekends spent working at a hairdressers – frequently came up in conversation. It was normal to change your hair in order to fit in, or to stand out. Grey hairs had a negative narrative that made covering them feel inevitable. As Frances says, “I’ve been dyeing my hair every colour of the rainbow since I was about 13, so dyeing it to cover the greys didn’t seem like a chore at 19.”
However, after over a decade of colouring my hair it had taken on a coppery tone that burned through in sunshine and it was really dry. What had started as dyeing small sections every few months had, by 2019, turned into covering the roots every three weeks. Dyeing my hair was starting to feel like a tedious and expensive chore. I had a slight feeling of dread that people would notice the regrowth when I didn’t have the time spend on dyeing my hair. I imagined people’s eyes shifting to my hair as they spoke to me, focusing on their eyes, waiting for surprise or something worse, as they noticed the many white hairs that poked out close to my temples and along my parting.
Over that decade of dye, I did start to notice more grey hair around me. In 2009, dyed grey hair became popular for a while or as Jezebel put it “Grey Hair Is Totally In If You’re A British Hipster”. While these young women had gone grey by choice, it was the first time I saw grey hair presented as something to desire and not something to cover up.
Friends also caught up with me and starting finding their first grey hairs, but opted to leave them as they were. I remember going to a job interview a couple of years ago and one of the women interviewing me, who looked to be around my age, had a streak of white hair. These glimpses of natural grey hair started to make me consider my own differently.
Despite this reality around me, onscreen and in magazines I didn’t and still don’t see many women with natural grey hair. As Rebecca says, “I definitely feel like grey-haired women are not represented in the media - especially women of colour. I’m South Asian and I think it’s really unusual for women from my background to let their hair go natural at this age.”
Frances says that she sees grey-haired women in the media “more than I used to, but really only ones that look like [model] Kristen McMenamy.” But younger women with grey hair don’t tend to be seen at all.
So what does a young woman with grey hair look like? That was something I wanted to find out when I was bored one evening and wondering when I’d next have to dye my hair. I typed ‘grey hair young woman’ into Google and discovered a parallel world where women wore their grey hair proudly. I wanted more.
During an Instagram black hole, I found #greyhairdontcare, which led me to the Grombre account, which bills itself as “A radical celebration of the natural phenomenon of grey hair.” Here were a diverse group of women, of all skin colours and all ages, with various shades of grey hair, and they all looked amazing. I spent hours scrolling through the hundreds of images and reading captions. Seeing young women that had streaks, stripes or sprinkles of white in their hair, or had completely white hair, was something of a revelation. I started to imagine what my hair might look like if I didn’t dye it anymore.
In March 2019, I went to the hairdressers with an image of Mia Farrow saved to my phone and asked for most of my hair to be cut off. It’s now my one-year anniversary of having my natural hair colour, which as it turns out is around half white and half dark brown, giving it a silvery tone. Overall, I feel really positive in my choice; it feels freeing to not have to think about when I am going to find the time to dye my hair and to know what my natural hair colour is for the first time in over 10 years.
Friends, family and even strangers are really complimentary about my hair, too. And somewhat ironically, I’ve been asked numerous times if it’s natural. While two of the women I spoke to had embraced their natural grey hair, Frances is yet to, saying that she “feel[s] positive about everyone else’s grey hair and negative about my own.” While Rebecca suggests, “If more people my age embraced their grey and there were more like me, it might be easier to shrug off the media pressure.”
Images: Getty / Dearbhaile Kitt