I’ll start off by saying that the very fact I’m writing this is a very good thing—more on that later.
But first, some admissions: I like nice things and I like my house to be full of them.
Not particularly commendable when on the path to non-attachment, but there you go. It’s out there now, and there’s no taking it back. Like that beautiful gold velvet frock coat I bought nearly two years ago from a vintage store and have never worn.
“Gift it?” I hear you cry. I don’t want to.
But I’m digressing. My wardrobe is a whole other article in itself (and the last, recent clear-out is simply too raw to recall right now).
Today’s tour is concerned with not the bedroom, but the bathroom. Which brings me to my third and final of the day’s admissions: I like my beauty products.
I’m still not selling myself—I get that. But I like clean, bouncy hair, a clear complexion and soft skin. I like my nails short and coloured, a light spattering of make up even if applied moments before my boyfriend comes home (again, a whole other article), and a light year-round (fake) tan.
I like a little bit of everyday luxury, and the quiet space that my morning routine affords me as I shamelessly, selfishly indulge in me for half an hour. Above all, I like my products to deliver the miracles that they claim to, to not cost the earth (in any sense of the phrase), and to not be tested on animals.
Over a decade ago, I made a personal pledge to only use products which were cruelty free. I have made many personal pledges during the course of my life, many of which I haven’t stuck to, but this one I have and I find it highly unlikely that I’ll ever go back on it.
Even in those awkward moments when well-meaning friends present you with that absurdly expensive Christmas gift from insert brand with questionable ethics here.
I don’t cause embarrassment. I feel loved by their gesture, and I donate it (without telling them). See? Vain and a coward.
Aside from anything, it has taken many years of careful research plus trial-and-error to restock my bathroom cabinet with companies whose claims to be “cruelty free” were “loop-hole free” and whose products actually work for me.
And I think I’ve finally cracked it…except one.
Home hair dye.
My salon uses a reputable, PETA-approved brand which has seen me right for a while now, but £45 a month is way beyond my current budget. Which, like the eternal singleton, has forced me back onto the market in search of a boxed product.
And the reason that this particular product is so problematic? Grey hair.
To paraphrase the sage-like roadie from Wayne’s World 2, my greys are infused with the DNA of Keith Richards; they are immune to all forms of mortal weapons.
You name it, I’ve tried it—semi, demi, permanent, wash-in, wash-out, natural, chemical, mass-produced, homemade—hours of scouring “leaping bunny” forums and running Google searches on “what’s the best cruelty free dye for greying hair?” I can reel off the applauded brands by heart.
I’ve slept overnight with my head encased in henna, and have acquired more mixing equipment than your average alchemist. I have followed the instructions to the letter, adhered to recommended development times with stoical obedience, and have invested in “drying caps” (did you know that there was such a thing? And no, it isn’t an alternative form of contraception) in order to create the “premium environment for colour cultivation.”
Every time I rinse, wrap my hair in a towel and excitedly rip it off in front of a mirror, the sense of disappointment at time (and cold-hard cash) wasted hits the pit of my stomach as I scrutinize my hairline. Only to discover that those evil white strands are still bloody well there.
The prospect of going through all that rigmarole all over again left me cold.
Which got me to thinking: if the grey is the issue, and the grey will not be moved, then the grey is no longer the issue. The issue is the issue. And if the issue becomes something else—say, a blessing in disguise, a reason to be grateful—why, then there is no issue. And therefore art thou happy (respective thanks to Buddha and Shakespeare).
But how to reframe the issue? Why has “going grey” never appealed to me before?
Although my style hasn’t changed much over the years (give or take a fringe and a ‘dramatic’ shift from side to centre partings), I have used my hair colour to define who I am—or what I wanted to be.
I was the token brunette in a sea of platinum blondes.
I went (albeit briefly, unsuccessfully and accidentally) blonde when the blondes caught on to the dangers of peroxide and reverted to brown.
I hacked off the split ends and went blue-black during my rock phase.
I was a radiant (read: impossible) shade of red the night I met my current partner in a bar (he romantically tells me that he “wasn’t looking for anything, but then he saw this girl with bright red hair and bright blue eyes…”), and was rebelling against an internal pain that I just couldn’t shift.
When I couldn’t control everything else around me, I could at least control the way I looked and the external messages that I was sending out to other people. Grey simply didn’t convey what I wanted it to.
There’s a man at my workplace—admittedly, around eight years older than me—who has the classic ‘salt and pepper’ shade, and it looks great. Seriously great.
The type of effect that a well-known brand of ‘men only’ hair colourant purport to deliver in just one application. Furthermore, this individual is invariably referred to without the admiring phrase “silver fox” cropping up.
Silver fox. I like the sound of that. But I’m a woman.
What does it mean for a woman to go grey, particularly (as in my case) at a relatively young age?
What messages does that send out about how you view yourself? That you don’t care? That you don’t see yourself as somebody worth investing in?
My monkey-mind began chattering at an alarming rate: will it drain me? Will it age me? Will people keep asking me if I’m “alright”? Will it prevent me from getting that promotion (along with not wearing any make up, some sectors would have you believe that this is tantamount to professional suicide)?
In a world full of mixed messages, the correct path was unclear: for every article that champions a woman (usually a celebrity with a legion of fierce stylists sharpening their scissors behind her) who has embraced her natural hue and is no longer a “slave to the dye,” there is a real woman out on the street who simply looks like she’s given up. Maybe she has.
Or maybe the only thing that she’s given up on is trying to adhere to a mass-marketed form of beauty that she’s been bombarded with from the moment she stepped out of the womb. Maybe she’s ignoring that ingrained social judgement “men get better with age; women look haggard.”
Maybe she’s a damned sight happier than I am, wasting precious moments of my life scouring the internet for a “cure.” Maybe I should be grateful that I even have hair—or the choice of what to do with it. Maybe this is the point at which I should start to feel ashamed.
“That’s it!” I declared, “I’m going grey!”
My boyfriend looked horrified. But then I showed him some pictures of “fashion” greys that have suddenly started cropping up everywhere, and he softened a little: after all, he is no stranger to my hair taking on dramatic transformations (interestingly, though, this is the first one he has visibly recoiled at.)
My ‘roots’ date passed. I looked in the mirror in horror.
Of course, the grey was there as I expected it to be. But it wasn’t the grey that I found the most offensive. It was the natural hair colour around it.
My hairdresser had told me that the pigment in our hair fades as we get older. In a desperate effort to mask the pesky greys, I had ignored the rest of my hairline for longer than I can remember, simply slapping on the next dye at the merest hint of silver poking through.
Now, looking at it—really looking at it, for the first time in years, I could see that my dark brown locks (admittedly, probably not quite as dark as memory would allow) were a non-descriptive shade of mouse. And, when combined with the greys, closer to a mouse that had been rolling in mud.
It was a shock. Not on the scale of discovering something truly terrible, like an affair or somebody close to you being really ill, but the shock of the unexpected (which, let’s face it, we human beings don’t like).
I’d been telling lies without even realising it. When people had asked me, “What’s your natural hair color?” I’d flippantly reply, “Oh – mostly grey. I started going grey really young (fifteen, actually). That’s why I dye it (An excuse. I needed an excuse).”
Then they’d follow up with, “But what was it before you went grey?” I’d say, “Dark. Really dark brown. Not quite black.”
Turns out I was neither. The greys that I’d been so fixated on barely covered a quarter of my head—nowhere near enough to attain that “silver fox” look. And they looked sleek, plump and exotic next to the rest of it, which just looked…tired, and jaded.
This was a truth that I wasn’t yet prepared to accept. Yes, I knew I was getting older. This fact hadn’t escaped me. Believe it or not, I don’t mind the lines forming in the corners of my eyes, or the patchwork of scars that I’ve acquired. These things seem to enhance me—to indicate living a life that was worth living.
But my fading hair seems to do the opposite. It represented something much bigger. It suggests that I’ve allowed a part of myself to fade without realizing it.
That there’s something of myself that I’ve taken for granted—not just in terms of shafts and follicles, but with regards to who I really am and my understanding of the true nature of the society that I’m living in. That time has been passing and I have been undergoing changes without noticing or not choosing to notice. That I’ve been putting on the plaster without tending to the wound underneath.
Ever heard that phrase “Can’t see the wood for the trees”?
Maybe (definitely) it’s time to start paying attention. What started as an arbitrary internal musing on what colour to have my hair has erupted into a whole plethora of reframing processes, ranging from questioning my own attitudes and values to that of the world in general. And it feels huge.
So for now, I’ve slunk back to the salon with my mousey tail between my legs, and am sitting here obediently with my head covered in expensive ethically-sound gunk, waiting to be transformed back to the sleek, dark rat that I think I used to be.
But the trap for the mouse is set. As soon as the (silver) fox outweighs the mouse, I’m ditching the dye for good. I’m excited for it. I’m urging those little grey threads to pop out of my scalp with wild abandon. I’m not there yet but, like with every reframing process, it is just that: a process. A journey. And it will take time.
So why, as I stated at the beginning, is the fact that I’m writing this a very good thing? Clearly I have very little else to worry about. Which means that I’m in a very good place right now.
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Editorial Assistant: Melissa Petty/Editor: Bryonie Wise