09 September 2007

To grey or not to grey

Being a writer means being a people watcher, or even more importantly a people thinker -- writers need to think about how real people behave, why they do the things they do. Real life motivations, carried through to characters, make character actions believable. The writer has to be a connoisseur of human behaviour, and sometimes this involves becoming more philosophical.

This week's TIME magazine has an article about whether people (or more specifically women) should dye their hair. Now, I've never coloured my hair. I've had it permed, but I've always liked the colour (if not the fineness, straightness and sparsity) so have never been tempted to dabble. Plus, I'm greying later in life than some of my friends, but I know the time of making a decision about this is fast approaching. I am now greying at the temples, but the rest of my hair is predominantly brown, with only occasional grey hairs.

The article talked about the two camps -- those who do and those who don't -- and how much emotion is tied up with this decision, that is emotion in terms of being judgemental of the other camp. According to the writer, feelings run as strongly as they do over whether mothers should work or not. Why do we feel like only the camp we belong to can be in the right? Why can't we respect the decision of others and know that it reflects a choice without necessarily saying anything further about them than they want to look this way or that? It doesn't necessarily mean they're heaping scorn on those who have chosen to do the opposite. (Maybe this is just the naive ramblings of someone who is too young to be a baby boomer, and too old to belong to Generation X.)

I have a friend in her seventies, with salt-and-pepper hair, and she was telling me proudly one day that she'd never dyed. But that decision is far easier for those of us who do grey later as she had. I wondered if her hair were white, whether we would be having the same conversation, whether she would feel the same measure of self-righteousness, and -- dare I say it? -- superiority. Perhaps we would. I wondered if I had greyed in my twenties, whether I would have even given the decision a second thought. I don't know. I do know my mother eventually let herself go grey, and I thought, good for her, but then my husband was surprised to find out some of her contemporaries who do dye were her age. "But they look so much younger," he said.

Why do we need to look younger? Why can't we look our age? The answer to that is seen in a society that does not value its old folk the way other societies do. Why is this? They have paid their dues and are veritable fonts of wisdom (at least compared to what they were earlier in life), and yet younger generations look past them, see them as nuisances if they seem them at all. That same friend has talked about how the older woman's legacy is becoming invisible. It's tragic, really. What a wasteful society we are!

Part of the article's drive was the perceptions that people had of grey-haired versus "normal"-coloured hair people, and whether it's easier or harder to take people with grey hair seriously. Of course they polled a group of people and gave them pictures of several people with coloured and photoshopped-grey hair. These photos included Hiliary Clinton, Arnold Schwarznegger, Barack Obama, a TV news anchor and others. Questions included whether they looked more intelligent, more attractive, more trustworthy and more distinguished. The men fared marginally better than the women, but often respondents didn't have a preference. Rather interestingly, and she was as surprised with this as I was, the reporter put a photo of herself with coloured hair on an online dating service and a few months later another one of herself with grey hair, and got three times as many hits with the grey hair. She speculated that maybe men saw her as more honest, and honesty was what most of us want in a relationship.

One fascinating point was that some people dye so they can match their image with their self-image of who they really are -- in other words, as the article points out, that to look more real, we become more fake. It's a delicious irony, really, and perhaps tells us something important about all kinds of people, not just those of us greying.

We do, as a society, value beauty, and God help those of us not imbued with it. On the Books and Writing blog, Sherryl talks about the qualities of the perfect writer, and one is that they must be photogenic. She's right of course, and while we may rue it, it's a simple fact of life in a celebrity-worshipping world where even actresses have their bellies photoshopped flat. Something else the perfect writer needs is a big personality, and for many of us that means having the self-confidence to feel good in our skin and our hair; in other words, it's feeling good about how we look. (Another irony is that it doesn't really matter how others perceive us as much as it does how we think others perceive us. It's all about us. Perhaps it always is.)

Will I colour or won't I? I can't say with any honesty at this stage. Perhaps like my older friend the decision will be determined by just how grey I go, but whichever way I go I'm determined to respect the wishes of others to colour their hair or not, entirely as they see fit.


Sherryl said...

It's funny - I've always dyed my hair because I love putting red in it (less now I'm older). But now I also cover grey, as going grey early is a family thing.
You and I (more me than you) will start suffering soon from the "long hair" - there is still an expectation that older women don't have long hair, they have neat styles.
It's the $60 for a haircut that gets me!

Tracey said...

Ha, the funny thing is that every time I go to the hairdressers (which isn't very often because my dad used to be a hairdresser) someone wants to colour my hair red. I kind of liked the way it matched my eyes (a Myrad trait -- Myrads are an alien race in my novel, for the uninitiated).

Er, $60? Ooh, I can tell I don't go to the hairdressers often! Re the older women -- but I'm not "older", am I? I don't feel older. Or wiser for that matter. No, sometimes I feel wiser. I suppose sometimes I feel older too -- at least my knees do!

In any case, neat's never really been my thing!

Scribbly said...

Yes, the big grey debate. I let my greys come through a couple of years ago - when I was taking Sherryl's, or your class - but I felt it made me look old. Or more to the point, I always felt apologetic about it. So I started colouring it again, though to colour my hair its original colour is quite stark now against my (gasp) aging face.
The other thing for me, though, is that by colouring, I feel like I'm hiding my true self. Who knows, maybe if I took another look, I might like what I see. I definitely have a LOT more greys than I did a few years ago, I can tell that just from the regrowth. There are clumps at the side of my head - where I part - that must just about be completely white.
All this wondering has made me get my hair cut really short (crew cut short), and I'm now going to grow it out, just to see how I look. If it doesn't work, I'll probably play around with some crazy colours - red, blue, purple, who knows? Then, if that doesn't work, I can just start colouring it dark brown/black again. What have I got to lose?
I'd love to see the article, though. I often think about all those implications of colouring, or not.

Tracey said...

Hi, Scribbly,

Aging face? Surely not! I did see evidence of a drastic hair cut on your blog -- and was watching with interest to see the aftermath, but never have. (Although I did spot photos somewhere else and thought it looked trendy and cool!)

Interesting that you feel like you're hiding your true self by colouring, whereas the article said that many women thought the opposite. I'm like you -- I'd feel a bit dishonest, but, on the other hand, I think they make a fascinating point about how we see ourselves, and how this inner vision can differ from the face we present to the world.

If I can locate the article, I'll photocopy it next time I'm in at work (a few weeks away now, with the mid-semester break), and post it to you.