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Grey Matter

Grey Matter

January 18, 2009

To dye or not to dye? In the 1950s few women dyed their hair (probably less than 10 per cent). Today, hairdressers estimate the proportion of women in Australia who dye their hair is 75 per cent or more. In only around three generations it’s gone from something that hardly any woman did, to something that most do. And at between $100 and $200 a visit to the hairdresser, keeping the grey at bay isn’t cheap. So why do so many women do it?

Double standards

A man with a grey mane is considered distinguished, even knowledgeable, but when it comes to women there are serious double standards. When a woman returns to her roots, many wonder why she is letting herself go, or whether she is having a hard time. You only have to look on the box. George Clooney proudly wears a snow-peaked top and couldn’t be more dashing or handsome. Perhaps a little less glamorous are Australian personalities David Stratton and Les Murray, who both combine grey with successful broadcast careers.Where are all their female counterparts? Their smiling faces certainly don’t grace the six o’clock news (other than on SBS, where veteran presenter Lee Lin Chin proudly sports salt and pepper locks), nor are they on the Hollywood red carpet or in Parliament House.

Back to your roots

After colouring her hair for 25 years in order to look younger, American media executive Anne Kreamer decided to let her hair return to its natural colour – grey. She was so intrigued by the response to her transformation that she undertook a series of “experiments” and wrote a best-selling book – Going Gray: What I Learned About Beauty, Sex, Work, Motherhood, Authenticity, And Everything Else That Matters (Hachette Livre) – a cry of support for retaining one’s natural hair colour. “I think young women today grow up believing that hair dye is a non-negotiable aspect of life,” she says. “I hope the book at least opens up a conversation that supports the notion that hair dye is a choice, not a requirement. “I made myself a one-woman social science experiment to ascertain in as ‘scientific’ a way as I could how hair colour alone influenced a woman’s ability to get a date.” After perusing dating websites, Kreamer found three times as many men (and younger men too) were interested in dating her when she had grey hair. She also conducted interviews, created a national poll and had lengthy conversations with actresses, politicians and executives about how being grey affects a woman’s chance of success in the workplace and in society.

A different shade of grey

In February last year, a Radio National Life Matters segment featuring Kreamer was so topical that it sparked a nationwide Going Grey Challenge. One of the listeners who took part was Deborah Tabart, CEO of the Australian Koala Foundation. When contacted by body+soul she was initially reluctant to speak: she had just “given in” and had her hair tinted – for the second time. But Brisbane-based Tabart is like many Australian women with greying hair: she found embracing it was difficult. The turning point for Tabart was prior to a 60 Minutes interview about her work with koalas. She was concerned that an interview she had done on the program 13 years earlier would be shown and that viewers would be sidetracked by the comparison – thinking more about her changing hair colour than the issue at hand. But it wasn’t a black and white decision for the koala crusader. “When I received my Order of Australia Medal in April I was so in conflict about whether, on one of the most important days of my life [I should stay grey]. I did.” The catalyst for Tabart to stop dyeing her hair was a feeling of “being captive to hairdressers”. Nor does she like the stigma society places on ageing women. Tabart says she hasn’t totally returned to dyeing her hair, but instead adds just a bit of colour. Now sporting a combination of grey and blonde, she feels more secure and doesn’t go into meetings worrying about her grey roots.

Expensive habit

According to Frank Burgemeestre of FB Salons in Carlton and South Melbourne, 95 per cent of his clients dye, streak or bleach their hair. On top of a cut, they will spend extra hours and money – around $190 – to have a colour treatment every eight or nine weeks. “Very few women can leave their hair all grey and have it looking good,” Burgemeestre says. A big part of Sydneysider Kate Leavey’s decision to stop dyeing her hair was the money and time she spent at the hairdresser. “I’m 44 and got my first grey hair at 16. I used to dye it auburn, which suited my fair complexion, but I stopped dyeing it 10 years ago when the percentage of grey became too great,” she says. “I think grey hair looks good on me. My mother would say, ‘I think grey hair on a young face looks wonderful’. Well, my face isn’t that young anymore, but I think it still looks alright.”

Different strokes

Dr Nancye Peel, a research fellow at the Australasian Centre on Ageing in Brisbane, says women with grey hair are often adversely portrayed by society. “Grey men are considered distinguished; women are considered old and past it,” she says. Dr Peel adds that when people think of ageing, the first association is grey hair. However, a consultation with another seven female researchers at the centre, aged between 26 and 62, yielded the conclusion that the decision to dye or not to dye should rest with the individual. “It’s healthy for women to continue dyeing their hair well into their 70s and 80s if that is what they want to do,” Dr Peel says. “It’s equally sound emotionally to make that decision not to as well. People with a positive attitude to ageing are healthier and live longer.” As for the messages that women who dye their hair to retain a youthful image are passing on to their daughters or granddaughters, Dr Peel and her colleagues agree that there are more important influences to worry about passing down, such as their attitudes and relationships with others as well as the importance of diet and health. “In general, we don’t feel older people are valued enough – age should be venerated as it is in many other cultures,” she says.

When does grey hair usually start and what causes it?

Your first grey hair will most likely appear at the age of 34 and, according to the BBC, by 50, around half of all Caucasians are likely to have a head of grey hair. It is hard to pin down exactly what causes hair to turn grey, but experts say smoking, poor diet, stress and genetics can all contribute to premature greying.

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