Me and my grey hair

Kristen McMenamy

Kristen McMenamy

I have dyed my hair since I was in my thirties and no longer have the faintest idea what colour it is. If I thought there were any chance it might be sexy, smooth and stylish, the sort of white hair you see occasionally on very elegant women, I’d leave it alone; but not being that sort of person in any other respect, I expect it’s more pepper-and-salt, a frumpy faded version of the original, which as far as I remember would have best been described as mousey.

This month’s issue of Dazed & Confused features the model Kristen McMenamy with a head of cascading grey hair, while September’s Vanity Fair’s cover offers up a grey-headed Lady Gaga; and these images have caused a bit of a stir, prompting speculation that ageing hair may be coming back unto fashion.

It seems unlikely. Dyed hair is a history of affluence, consumerism and clever marketing. In the 1950s, only 7% of American women coloured their hair; to do so was regarded as slightly suspect, as trying to pass yourself off as something you weren’t. Then, in the 1970s, L’Oreal launched a new dye, Preference, with a brilliant tagline: ‘because I’m worth it.’

Previous advertising had focused on what other people might say. ‘Does she or doesn’t she?’ the campaign for Clairol wondered, adding furtively, ‘…only her hairdresser knows for sure’. L’Oreal focused on what a woman says to herself when she’s alone. Overnight, passing gave way to pride and self-esteem. Out went the connotations of fraudulence and, soon, so many women were dyeing their hair, it was no longer something you had to disguise anyway.

That advertising emphasis on self-realisation and liberation is echoed today in the way women talk about cosmetic surgery procedures. They’re not doing it for anyone else; it’s for them, to make themselves feel better. Which makes you wonder whether other enhancements – from skin peels to Botox to facelifts – may one day reach a similar tipping point and become something we all feel obliged to do, in a kind of arms race of procedures.

I come from the pre-Jordan generation: it never occurred to me until quite late in life that breasts were something you could buy. I still feel uncomfortable with the idea of spending a fortune slicing into a perfectly healthy face with a scalpel. When I interviewed Alexandra Shulman, the editor of Vogue, for a radio programme I was making on cosmetic surgery, she said she’d rather spend the time and the money learning something useful that would sustain her in her old age, like a language, or the piano. You can’t help feeling that hers is the sane approach.

The imperative to keep transforming ourselves, containing as it does the idea that we can never be satisfied with where we are now, is an incredibly depressing approach to living. If ageing has consolations, a degree of self-acceptance surely ought to be one of them. But the modern conception of life, as Carl Elliott has brilliantly described in his book, Better Than Well, is all too often of a project, a sort of CV that we need constantly to update and improve. Unfortunately, no one is very clear about the point of the project, which leaves us open to the blandishments of those who claim we could and should be doing it better.

Perhaps it’s a particularly Anglo-Saxon predicament; I don’t think anyone would dispute that ideas of self-creation are heavily influenced by America. Debra Ollivier posted an interesting piece on the Huffington Post yesterday, arguing that the difference between American and French women is that the former believe they are capable of self-transformation, a process in which they engage with joyless commitment. French women, she suggests, cultivate sensuality as they age. They don’t deny the importance of self-presentation, but neither do they deny reality.

As someone who loves clothes, and makeup, and chestnut and blonde streaked hair, I’m a firm believer in the delights of dressing up and in what women used to call making the best of yourself. But I am with Alex Shulman, and those Frenchwomen, whom I very much hope really do exist: I don’t have the energy for self-transformation – quite aside from the money – and it would be nice to think there might be a few other, more pleasurable, ways of expressing myself as I age.