40 shades of grey

Hello. I’ve just turned 40 and thought it would be appropriate to write about grey hair.

Here’s something I wrote for SBS.

***

I was round Mother’s for a family dinner with various aunts, cousins and nephews. Ah, home sweet home, the one place you can be yourself and let your hair – 

“Oh!”

Mother had snuck up behind me while I was haunting the prawn cracker bowl. The force of her exclamation made everybody stop.

“You have grey hairs now,” she announced, pointing at my cranium.
All eyeballs swivelled in the direction of my hair before swiftly plunging back down in embarrassment.

Thank you, Mother, yes, I am going grey. 

Surprisingly, it had started in my early thirties. I say surprisingly because I was under the impression that people went grey in their sixties. Well, that’s what happened on TV – no one had given me the grey-haired equivalent of the birds and the bees talk. 

This is why I assumed I was a freak when I did find my first silver hairs. Of course, I labelled myself immediately. A premature greyer. Pigmentally challenged. But after Googling ‘when do people go grey’ so that I could check exactly how freakish I was, I realised that I’d been duped. According to the reputable medical journal ‘40plusstyle.com’, most people start going grey in their early-to-mid thirties. As the words flashed up on the screen, the penny dropped. It was like I’d been living in the follicular version of The Truman Show. 

So, I wasn’t a freak, but I was sad for my velvety, blacker-than-a-black-hole Asian mane. In its prime, my hair was so thick and shiny I could have been on one of those Pantene commercials (provided I didn’t turn around). And one of my primary school friends even adopted my fringe as a pet and would stroke it as if it were a hamster.

By my late thirties, I had developed a small thatch of snowy rebels at the back of my head. Was I self-conscious about it? Only in socially confined spaces such as deli queues, though I comforted myself that if I whipped out my pocket comb and did some aggressive Fonz-style back combing, no one would be any the wiser. 

Now that I’m 40 the greys are no longer confined to a manageable grouping. They’re slowly setting up outposts in other regions of my scalp. And against the black canvas of my natural hair colour, the greys are positively high vis. And unlike my blonde or brunette counterparts, I can’t gracefully fade out to an ash. 

And now I’m faced with the deepest of philosophical questions: what to do – or not to do – about my grey hairs. While I don’t see the need to purchase shares in my local salon to offset the cost of a daily tint just yet, I do feel that I need to research my options. 

What are my peers doing? Some are plucking, though a friend has confided that her centre part has become unnaturally wide. Another sprayed her roots with hair paint but ended up with Mahogany Brown No. 8 splattered all over her face Jackson Pollock-style, right before an appointment with her handsome GP.

As none of these responses seemed particularly inspiring (or effective), I looked to the veterans of the grey-hair game – my ancestors. 

Let’s start with my father. One day when he was in his fifties, I accompanied him to the barber. As the dove-white cuttings fluttered to the floor, he asked with a detached curiosity: “Is there any black left?” We concluded that the answer was not really, and he never mentioned his hair again. Dad’s approach has been to embrace reality and to rock a Brittney buzz cut. So far, he’s resisted the urge to make a statement about society’s narrow beauty ideals because he’d rather fossick about his shed and do other Dad things.

By contrast, Mother has been inking up at the hairdressers for decades, maintaining a helmet of shiny black that’s flecked with auburn highlights. When the coronavirus closed the salons, she adapted. In extraordinary times, people rise to the occasion and Dad – retired accountant and hobby watercolour artist – was summoned from his shed. Waving his paintbrush around Mother’s crown, he dabbed here, dabbed there and worked his magic from root to tip. Mother sent me a selfie of the results: consistent all-over coverage and not a splodge on their cream carpet. Look out Edward Beale, Dad Eng, senior colourist, is in town.

My maternal Grandma is also a source of #hairinspo. When I was eight and poking about her cupboards, I chanced on some wigs. They were short-and-curly perm wigs – the raven equivalent of Little Orphan Annie’s do. Again, I had been fooled – that perfect head of tight black curls had been an illusion. Since she turned 90, she’s worn her hair grey. She has, however, invested in an extensive collection of boldly-coloured furry hats.  

What I have learned from Mum, Dad and Grandma’s respective approaches is that whatever you choose to do, do it unashamedly. Should I shave it off à la Dad? Or make an appointment at his home salon? (The price is right.) Wear a wig? A hat? 

If I do end up dyeing it, I know that my four-year-old daughter will tell me when it’s time. While quizzing her on colours the other day, I asked her what colour my teeth were. 

“Yellow” she said confidently. 

The face for a Pantene commercial



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