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SocietyMay 21, 2023

The Sunday Essay: Learning to embrace the silver vixen


I always thought I’d approach ageing with grace and style. Then it actually started happening.

The Sunday Essay is made possible thanks to the support of Creative New Zealand.

Original illustrations by Adele Jackson.

It all starts with a solitary white pube and a string of expletives thrown to the wind. 

I’m in my mid twenties and have never stopped to consider that my hair would be anything but mousy brown. I pray to the universe that this albino short and curly is an anomaly, a momentary brain fart by the pigmentation in my follicles. But a couple more appear down below and after the arrival of the first grey on my head (proving that in my case the carpet does match the curtains), I realise it’s actually a sinister warning of things to come.

Almost two decades later and I can still get away with calling myself a brunette from a distance, but the closer you get, the more ashen my hair appears, with that classic concentration of whitening at the temples. It’s not that I’m going grey particularly early – at 43 I’m only a little ahead of the curve – I’m just an average middle aged woman facing the changing appearance that comes with ageing and figuring out how to handle it. I had always assumed that women with grey hair just gave zero fucks, but for me it has actually been quite a journey of unprecedented vanity and ongoing self acceptance. In other words, I give many fucks.

Those early greys seem to come out of nowhere, standing to attention like single meerkats on lookout from the top of my crown. My instant reaction is to annihilate each lonely imposter with a quick twizzing of the tweezers, but this gradually evolves into more serious weeding sessions as I systematically search for the little buggers, ripping out multiple hairs at a time. I am experienced at this art of extraction, having serviced my mother’s head in the same way when I was a teenager, triumphantly lining the offending whites on the armrest of the couch for her to inspect. She put an end to this ritual when I pulled out 20 in one sitting, and I make the same call when they start arriving on my head in droves.

By not culling them in their infancy, the silver hairs grow into long spidery strands frizzing up from my scalp at strange angles. It is confronting to also find these alien threads elsewhere around the house – wedged between the teeth of a hairbrush, lurking in stark contrast on the backs of black t-shirts, or on one particularly memorable occasion, pulled disdainfully out of my daughter’s lasagne with thumb and forefinger.  When held up to the light they have a totally different quality to the dull browns I was born with – more delicate and wavy, and almost luminous in the way they reflect the light. If I didn’t hate them so much I might even call them beautiful.

I’m probably just fulfilling my genetic destiny with the melanin-weak chromosomes passed onto me by my dad, but it really feels like the stress of Covid accelerates the whitening of my hair. When I catch glimpses of a greying woman in shop windows, it takes some mental adjustment to update the image I carry around of myself in my head. I begin to obsess about hair colour and notice that while there’s a generous measure of salt and pepper on the heads of the men my age, the locks on my female cohort remain largely unseasoned. I realise how many women must dye their hair, casualties of western society’s bullshit beauty standards and our collective desire to cling to youth.

I had always planned to continue my low maintenance approach to my appearance and just accept the white slowly creeping in, but a night out with my older siblings changes that. In a group photo I’m horrified to see that despite being the baby, I’m the only one with noticeably greying hair and therefore look the oldest. This really messes with my head and on my next trip to the supermarket I find myself adding a non-permanent dye to the trolley.

The plastic gloves and chemical stench bring me back to my teenage years, but while the platinum blonde phase and blue fudge stripes felt like thrilling dabbles in self expression, this experiment has the opposite vibe – a cover up job and a direct assault on the authenticity I have always valued.  Afterwards, I’m not even that pleased with the results. The blanket coverage has stolen my natural highlights and the chocolate brown is a couple of shades too dark for my pale complexion. I may look slightly younger at a glance but it’s not necessarily an improvement. Unfortunately the dye doesn’t do what it promised on the box and instead of washing out in 28 shampoos, I find myself with ugly regrowth and caught in the pickle of having to touch it up every six weeks.  

The Instagram algorithms do their thing and my feed becomes overrun with influencers in the grey positivity movement, documenting dramatic transformations from dark to light as they grow out their roots. While I admire these stunning strangers for rewriting the narrative on beauty and ageing, I don’t connect with their perfectly made up faces, well-coiffed tresses and duck-faced selfies. Funnily enough I can’t find any accounts celebrating the gradual greying of slightly dishevelled tomboys like me. But the very presence of the hash tags #ditchthedye and #silverandfree must resonate on some level.

When we head into what would become the mother of all lockdowns, the hair dye chore is the very first thing to go. By the time normal life resumes and I am regularly back around other humans, the most painful part of growing my hair out is over. But still I keep flip flopping between wanting to stay au naturale and trying another approach.  On the one hand I strongly believe that women should be allowed to age, but on the other I’m not immune to society’s pressure and want to look vaguely attractive for as long as possible. Assuming that going grey will turn me into a minger is such a disservice to all the gorgeous wāhine out there who look amazing not in spite of the whites but because of them, and while I can honestly say that the natural look doesn’t rob them of their beauty, I can’t seem to afford myself that same kindness.

I spend some time in front of the mirror with my harsh inner critic, zeroing in on the freckles that seem to fatten with age, and the twice-broken nose and crooked teeth that never bothered me in my youth but look decidedly witchy underneath the grizzle of grey. I consider professional highlights to camouflage rather than cover, but can’t imagine being chained to regular, long and expensive appointments at the salon. I stall, and in the meantime experiment with wearing my hair down, styling it craftily in a desperate attempt to hide the worst.

When I start receiving unsolicited comments about my hair I realise I’m no longer getting away with it. The self doubt really creeps in and I seek external validation from my female friends about what they think of my emerging look. They all make supportive noises and the handful that have chosen to go the natural route encourage me to continue. But the overwhelming consensus is that while most would love to embrace the greys, they don’t have the guts to do it. 

When I ask my husband if he’ll still find me bangable with grey hair he retorts that I’m barely bangable now, the twinkle in his eye and the memory of this morning’s tangle beneath the sheets letting him get away with such cheek. Pete and I are going grey at about the same rate, but while I have been agonising over it, he has simply shrugged it off as no big deal.

I’m lamenting the inconsistency of women being labelled “old hags” while men are celebrated as “silver foxes” when my daughter points out the most remarkable thing – that I am actually becoming a “silver vixen”.  A SILVER VIXEN!!! I absolutely adore her fresh perspective, totally unencumbered by societal pressure. To me the word “vixen” has connotations of power, sass and sexuality, so this throwaway comment sticks, reframing the way I see my hair. 

Then it’s back to the mirror, but this time I try to cut out all the noise and look at myself through a lens of kindness. It’s not easy to undo the brainwashing of a lifetime, but with an objective gaze I’m able to see that the lighter tone framing my face actually softens the deepening wrinkles and even accentuates the blue of my eyes.  I try to convince myself that maybe I don’t actually look that much older; maybe I just look like me with different coloured hair.

But therein lies the trap. I’m still worried about ageing, as if that is something to be ashamed of when the alternative is far, far worse. There is no denying that I am into my fifth decade and have the stories and scars to prove it. I wouldn’t want to go back to being 18 or 32 anyway, so it seems strange to desire an aesthetic that doesn’t represent me and my journey through this life. I really need to stop apologising for who I have become. 

My self-confidence is still pretty shaky so I start putting more effort into my appearance, taking time to glam up before going out. I experiment with make-up, switch my jeans for dresses and accessorise with cute jewellery. Before a friend’s birthday, I do the unthinkable, pinning my hair back in a way that shows off the glitter in all its glory. I think I look quite beautiful, and it feels amazing to rock those white wisps with pride. I reject the notion that women going grey are giving up, hell I’m only just beginning to try! 

Emboldened, by these small attitude shifts, I think I might be ready to embrace the grey once and for all. My future life flashes before my eyes.  Can I handle bumping into an old high school crush with grey hair? They’ll be the same age as me so… I THINK SO. Can I face hip young colleagues on a new freelance gig with grey hair? Hopefully they’ll respect my “experience” so… YES. Can I still wear rainbow jumpers and bunny tees with grey hair? The fashion blog “Advanced Style” taught me that you’re never too old to express yourself through your clothes so… FUCK YEAH! 

Letting go feels like an act of rebellion, way more of a middle finger to society than the facial piercings of my teens and the tattoo of my twenties. This new bad-ass approach to ageing also comes with a sense that this is bigger than me, that I am being the change I want to see in the world.

I’m still in the early stage of the long slow reveal that is my evolving hair colour, and far from earning the aspirational title of “silver vixen”, but I’m definitely heading in the right direction. I could easily lose my nerve at any stage of the journey, but right now the only dye I plan to reach for is the appropriately named “Denim Destiny”, because I reckon that future me could really rock a blue rinse.

Keep going!