When the wedding pictures of Niyati Joshi—daughter of a popular TV actor—hit the social media in December last year, it caught everyone’s attention. The bride had grey hair—and she was wearing it with aplomb. There was no attempt to ‘hide’ it, which startled—and delighted—many because let’s face it, while we usually swoon over grey hair on men, calling them ‘silver foxes’, and complimenting them for ‘that dignified salt-and-pepper look’, grey hair on women is simply stereotyped as lost youth and diminishing attractiveness.
Joshi may not have intended her wedding look to be a statement, but it ended up creating a buzz.
The good news is, she isn’t an exception. A glance around the real and virtual world will reveal a growing tribe of women of all ages, beginning in their teens and twenties, wearing their greys with pride—prompting even some cosmetic companies to take the hint and change their campaigns.
Greying of hair is one of the most ‘visible’ signs of ageing. It happens when the hair follicle starts losing its pigment cells—melanin—that gives it its colour. This turns it white, silver, or grey. While it is age-related, of late, a growing number of younger people, as young as in their twenties—even in their teens—have started greying. There could be several reasons behind this—genetics, an underlying Vitamin B12 deficiency, even stress.
Regardless of these other valid reasons, our social construct doesn’t allow for greying and youth to coexist; and women, more than men, are prejudiced for sporting greys early in their life.
For Mumbai-based Tanya Singh, therefore, refusal to colour her greying hair in her teens was a sort of ‘rebellion’. “I was 18 or 19 when I first started greying,” Singh, now 28 says, “it became a big issue at home. My mom tried all home remedies—with curry leaves, onion extract—and there were numerous visits to the doctor.” The cause, it was ascertained, was genetic but Singh’s family refused to ‘give in’. “There were calls and conference calls with aunts and grandaunts across the country on how to reverse the greying process. The worry of course was who would marry a girl with grey hair?”
Hair colour ads which often pass judgement on women’s choices—an ad in the '90s had once equalled a grey-haired woman to an ‘aunty’ and on colouring her hair, to a ‘didi’; a more recent ad ridiculed a woman who applied henna to her hair with the moniker ‘orange aunty’—did not help Singh’s cause. “I was encouraged to try colouring my hair, even by my friends who felt sorry for the looks I got from everyone,” she said.
Unsure, Singh one day turned to the internet and to her delight, found people “famous and not-so-famous who had embraced their greys so well”. “I realised it was just a matter of perspective. Being grey does not change me as a person. I am young, beautiful, and with a head full of silver strands!” she laughed. Admittedly, her family has now come around to being ‘comfortable’ with her choice.
Despite beginning to grey in her mid-20s, Delhi-based Pragya Vats never even thought of hair colour. The 42-year-old, who is in the development sector was often asked why not. “For me it was less of defiance and more of embracing my own natural greying,” she said.
Over time, and especially when she traveled to smaller towns, Vats realised that the “perception of greying” was more complex than greying itself. “More like beauty myth prejudices, its sexism over ageism,” she said.
This narrative, however, is changing, especially in the backdrop of body positivity and accepting people as they are. A popular Instagram handle, @grombre that is a ‘radical celebration of the natural phenomenon of grey hair’ has 239K followers with umpteen happy pictures of women of all ages, flaunting their greys. Another handle, @hereccomesthesilver with 10.9K followers declares that the purpose of creating the account was to document her “journey into silver”.
“Why do I share pictures of my grey hair? I share to encourage people who are just starting the process,” reads one post. “I share to change the narrative that people have to look a certain way or a certain age to be accepted by others…Dye your hair if you want to; give up the dye if you want. I’ll do me and you do you!”
Recently, a casual selfie that I had posted on my social media flaunting my greys garnered more interest than I could have ever imagined. It also revealed, within my circle of friends and acquaintances, a large number of people who are glowing in the greys.
I often now come across new-age ads that are taking on a different tone than the ones that came earlier. Like P & G owned haircare brand, Pantene Pro V’s #PowerofGrey campaign, or Dove’s campaign #AapkeBaalAapkiMarzi with the message, grey hair, curly hair, short hair—your hair, your choice. In 2018, according to various media reports internationally, grey was also the most popular hair colour trend—both natural and dyed!
Trends however don’t last long, and the real issue here is that while greying may not be a matter of choice, accepting ourselves and others as they are, is. Vats added to this: “For me, the questions moved from ‘why don’t you colour your hair’ to ‘why don’t you get the grey sprayed more fashionably in a salon’, all within a short span. But to me, it is all about embracing it as it is.”
Goa-based Monalisa Borkakoty doesn’t even like to use the word ‘embrace’. “I love myself, every inch of me, grey and all!” she said happily when asked about her journey into ‘silverdom’. In her early thirties, Borkakoty, a writer, said that it is liberating to be in one’s skin, without hiding anything. “I honestly cannot wait to turn [fully] grey,” she said.
Azera Parveen Rahman is a journalist based in Jodhpur.