“If the woman wishes to have long and black hair, take a green lizard and having removed its head and tail, cook it in common oil. Anoint the head with the oil,” advises The Trotula, a medieval compendium on women’s medicine.
Throughout history women have used pollen, henna and sometimes even reptiles to change the colour of their hair. None of these methods, though, were invented with the specific purpose of covering greys. It was only after French chemist Eugenè Schueller invented commercial hair dye in 1909 that grey hair begin to garner negative associations, particularly for women.
The advertising and media industry soon began leveraging fear to convince women that they would lose friends, admiration and lovers if they chose grey over a perceived idea of youth. An egregious example of this was an advertisement for Goldman’s Hair Colour Restorer in 1926. “Are grey-haired women honest?” the ad asked, insinuating that women who claimed that “grey hair cannot be helped” were obviously lying.
In the hierarchy of prejudices, sexism prevailed over ageism. While grey-haired men were often called silver foxes or described as distinguished, women with grey hair were boxed into stereotypical narratives by popular culture. In an Indian commercial in the 1990s for hair dye, a teenage boy referred to a young woman with greys as aunty, until she dyed her hair—after which, she was dubbed, a less offensive, didi.
Perceptions began to shift only recently, with conversations around body positivity gaining ground. Online spaces representing grey-haired women today encourage others to accept and flaunt their natural hair. One such platform is the popular Instagram handle @grombre. “A radical celebration of the natural phenomenon of grey hair,” with 90.9K followers, the handle shares photos of contributors in various stages of greying.
Thanks to these efforts, grey hair is no longer associated with shame, and women, including in India, are increasingly embracing their natural greys as early as in their teens. Silver was a hair colour trend in 2018, and even cosmetic brands are changing their stance.
Celebrities from Zosia Mamet to Rihanna have dabbled in grey colour, displaying a host of possibilities, including silver streaks, frosted grey tips, metallic hair extensions, global lilac-ombres and other variations on the look, turning what was once called the #GrannyHair trend into a glamorous sought-after look. Ironically, even L’Oreal, the company that built its foundation on persuading women to cover their greys, now offers everything from silver shampoo and toner to tutorials on how to get the right shade of grey.
Scroll.in spoke to a few women of different ages and backgrounds who wear their greys with pride about how it feels to defy stereotypes. Edited excerpts:
Ratna Pathak Shah
When did you see your first grey and what made you stop colouring?
In my early 30s, the greys began to (appear) but weren’t sufficient (enough) for any action to be taken. I only started colouring in my mid- to late-30s, (following) the usual route—mehendi for a bit, and then colour. It was my husband who made me stop. He’d been talking to me about it for a long time, and I could see he had a point. You have to accept how you’re going to look as you grow older.
How did you handle the transition of growing back your grey roots?
Actually that’s what put me off for a long time. I kept saying I’ll wait for a part in which I’ll shave my head but that [acting] part never came. The tough part is when the white starts showing and the black dye hasn’t gone off. So I went to Mad O Wot for a haircut, and they did a really great number on me. I got a really interesting haircut—it was wonderful, [and] the grey grew out naturally.
Does your hair tend to get you typecast into certain roles? How do you deal with that?
In fact, I’ve got more work after my decision to stop dyeing my hair. More than hair [colour], [it’s the] lack of imagination that has to do with being typecast—even Deepika Padukone is typecast. The Hindi film industry isn’t terribly imaginative. I got lucky because they were writing parts for women like me, who were not old enough to be the weepy mother and not young enough to be the attractive heroine. I’m lucky I happened to be there.
Grey hair has stereotypical gender representations—did you ever have a female role model who made you feel unencumbered about being yourself?
I have met dozens of role models, male and female, who stand for what they are regardless of what they look like. My mother was a gorgeous woman, but that wasn’t everything about her, what she was doing was more important to her. So many other women I met as I was growing up—teachers, even actors—were striking-looking people, but not concerned about the way they looked. I wanted to be part of the category of people [who were] focused on what they were doing. Acceptance of age comes more easily to people who are sure of themselves. People [who are] less confident hold on to more crutches for longer.
What positive reactions have you encountered after choosing to go back to your greys?
Lots of people said positive things. Women always annotate “your grey looks fabulous” with “I wish I could do it”. And I think to myself—so why don’t you?
Child Rights Lawyer
When did you spot your first grey and how did you feel?
I was really young…I think in my teens. I remember I didn’t care too much.
Do friends and family sometimes pressure you to colour your greys?
I did have a lot of conversations about colour. I got lowlights [done] recently, but I was clear I didn’t want to touch my roots. It had nothing to do with my greys. I’ve, quite honestly, thought about colouring, but I know I’ll have to keep doing it, so I’ve chosen not to right now. And I’m blessed with thick hair, so it doesn’t matter [to not] colour the strands of grey I have.
What has convinced you to keep your natural greys?
My mother used to colour her hair a lot and really care for it. One day she got sick and she had chemotherapy, but even when her hair grew back, she was equally concerned about it. She would colour it, style it – in fact throughout chemotherapy she had a wig. She was very particular about the way she looked. But when her cancer came back, she told me, “I have made crazy mistakes in my past, and I wouldn’t want you to do that.”
My perceptions of beauty were shaped by that experience. I saw my mother being extremely concerned about her appearance, and I saw it all go. So, for me, physical beauty became just another thing one could lose. So my outward persona isn’t as important as other things in my life.
Have you had second thoughts?
Actually no. At work, I meet a lot of women who are strong. They handle themselves differently, and they all have short hair, and it’s pretty and grey. But I used to see these women abroad with so many hair colours and I realise it [dyeing hair black] is a South Asian fixation. And there are people who admire my dark black hair with its streaks of grey.
Hema Gopinath Sah
When did you notice your first grey?
I noticed it after I delivered my first baby after 24 hours of difficult labour. I hadn’t noticed any before that, so it was at (age) 27. (At that point) I felt the first strands of grey were a memento.
Why have you chosen not to go down the colouring path?
My greys don’t bother me as much as they do others. I don’t look at myself so much, I don’t see myself differently in the mirror. They stand out to others, not me.
But does it bother people around you?
It bothers everyone. People now think at 45, it’s okay to have greys. But earlier, on average, one person every day would comment. (The) so-called well-wishers would say, “You’d look so good if you coloured your hair”, “Are you trying to make a statement?”, “Is this a feminist statement?” It would set people off somehow.
As someone who has sported grey hair for nearly 15 years, do you feel the current perception is different?
There has been a shift. Now if I go to salons, they want to experiment with my hair. Girls ask me, “What colour have you used?” Hairstylists want to work with my greys. It seems to me that we are claiming our bodies back. It was meant to happen and it is. Young girls now tell me, “I can’t wait to get older and have greys.”
What about friends and family?
I suppose my son doesn’t like that I stand out. I think he will grow out of it. But for a brief second, to make life easier for him, I considered colouring my hair. But ultimately, I have a healthy head of hair at 45 today because I’ve never used chemicals.
When did you spot your first greys? Why have you chosen not to colour them?
I started greying 10 years back. I never coloured my hair because I like myself the way I am.
Have you ever been tempted to change your look?
Someone told me if you do it once, you’ll have to keep doing it. I like this black and grey—it looks great. All my friends do it, but I never wanted to. I’ve never wanted to change my look. I’m very simple—if I have to dress up, I wear kajal, lipstick, jewellery and keep my hair in a bun. This has always been my hairstyle. I don’t change my style.
What about friends and family—did they encourage you to dye your greys?
My husband told me, “Why don’t you colour your hair?” I told him—this is how I am, this is how I will be.
What’s the best part of not having to colour your hair?
Time. I really don’t have the time to keep doing it.
When did you spot your first grey? How did you feel about it?
In my mid-30s. But I felt nothing until I was made to feel about conscious about it, that’s when I really acknowledged it.
Have you ever considered colouring?
Yes, many times.
Why have you decided to stay natural at the moment?
Because I like the colour white, and I am not conscious of my age. Also, I don’t think I can commit to going to the parlour every month. But if I would colour, it would just be to change my look temporarily. Maybe out of boredom.
Any role models who inspire you to stay grey?
I see a lot of youngsters these days who support whites and are not afraid to keep it that way. That is encouraging. I think this article itself is a (form of) positive motivation.
What are your personal opinions on women who’ve kept their natural greys?
Hats off to them. We need more women to accept greys and believe in themselves. Also, I think we need to embrace ageing gracefully and not fight against it.
How did you choose the colour grey for your hair?
It was grey, now it’s almost white. I always wanted to colour my hair, but I didn’t want a standout colour. I wanted something monochromatic. As a designer, you have (a) strong sense of what you do with your body.
A lot of international celebrities and influencers are colouring their hair grey, with hues of purple and silver. Was there anyone in particular who inspired you?
I follow the artist Sarah Naqvi on Instagram and I loved her hair. I got the confidence by just looking at how she pulls it off. There’s an awareness about not being sold on media portrayals and creating our own beauty standards. In fact, I watched a fashion documentary called Advanced Style and found all these older women quite amazing, particularly Iris Apfel. I was inspired and impressed by what a badass she is.
As a designer with an understanding of colour, you picked grey. What does grey mean to you?
Maturity. I want to be taken more seriously. I feel proud when someone tells me I look older. I see myself as levelheaded, so the grey represents that for me. But at the same time, it also looks unique and interesting.