OPINION: Something weird is happening at the shops, at church and on the train. Women I don't know are telling me I'm brave.
"You look beautiful, but I don't have the courage," a lady said in the parking lot. "My hairdresser is my sister and she won't let me."
"I love your style, but I can't risk it," whispered a woman at a business conference.
My act of courage isn't much. It's not like I went under enemy fire to rescue a fellow soldier, or saved a baby from drowning. I just stopped colouring my hair.
I had dark-brown hair that started getting noticeably grey by the time I was 30. So like a lot of women, I started dyeing it, first on my own in the bathtub until I got sick of the stains on the porcelain. Then I switched to getting it done at the salon.
It was expensive, messy and time-consuming. My interest in gossip magazines isn't enough to fill two hours sitting in a chair under a dryer, smelling chemicals. And my hair grows fast, so I needed to go back every five weeks to keep from getting a "skunk streak" of white at my centre part.
When I didn't have time to make an appointment, which was often, I would colour in the roots with a special "touch-up" crayon and feel like an idiot.
What really got me was seeing pictures of stars like George Clooney and knowing that it is considered fine and sexy for a mature man to have grey hair. Men with obvious dyed hair can look a little silly – think about certain ageing rock stars and politicians.
Why is it considered fine and sexy for men like George Clooney to have grey hair but not women?
But many women seem to think they have to keep up the illusion forever that they are still 35 (at most) and fertile, unencumbered by too much wisdom and too many accomplishments.
Grey hair is one of the last feminist fashion frontiers. We no longer have to cinch ourselves into corsets. Many of us have given up crippling high heels and tossed the pantyhose. We're asserting ourselves at work, "leaning in", as the saying goes, asking for raises, demanding respect and a harassment-free environment.
But our hair starts to silver and suddenly we're slaves to spending $500 or more a year to pretend something our male colleagues don't need to pretend. It's quite a racket.
Don't get me wrong – men and women all want to look good as long as they can. And people should do what they want with their own bodies – my mother is 91 and still blonde and why not? Only her hairdresser knows for sure.
I just wish more women would feel that it was OK to let it go, because going grey has done something for me besides saving time and money.
I like my natural hair. I like how varied it is – silver along the sides and still dark in the back. I like how it has gotten curly and full again, in a way it wasn't after years of chemical damage. It's a lovely colour, which is why some young people are dyeing their hair grey on purpose.
I also like that it has given me some needed perspective in a society that makes a cult of youth, disdains maturity and ignores the reality of passing time. It reminds me that I'm not a kid anymore. And this isn't a bad thing.
Not being a kid anymore means I read the books I want, and not the books I feel I should read. It means that I'm still going to be polite, but not so polite that I lose myself and don't get what I'm after.
It means not wasting my time at events I don't need to attend when I'd rather be with family and friends.
When I see my hair in the mirror, it's a memento mori, a reminder that my time is not infinite, and I should spend it doing what matters.
Anti-ageism activist Ashton Applewhite wrote that one problem with trying to pass for younger is that it's like a gay person trying to pass for straight – it's based in shame over something that is not shameful. I wouldn't take the comparison that far, but I agree there's nothing shameful about growing older. It's what happens if we're lucky. And pretending it's not happening is a way of surrendering power.
I don't think I'm brave. I'm just frugal, and contrary. If the crowd goes one way, I want to go the other. I see my grey hair as a little act of rebellion against the toxic idea that people lose value as they age, instead of gaining it. To quote David Crosby, I see grey hair as my "freak flag".
And I'm letting it fly.
Written by Mary Wisniewski. Republished with permission of Stuff.co.nz.