It seems like such an absurd thing to fixate on, yet my overall impressions of the last decade are quite literally tinged with dye: spotting my first silver strand in the sickly yellow en suite of my Indooroopilly flat at 25, setting Google alerts for 'grey hair cures' and staying up past midnight furtively scrolling Amazon for lotions and supplements, accidentally staining the furniture at my sister's place while waiting to wash out some Garnier Olia 5.0 Brown (topped only by the time I fell asleep on a family block of Lindt and ruined the doona on her spare bed), caving while on holiday for only two weeks because I could see some regrowth in my freshly cut fringe.
'What's the big deal?' my friends would sometimes ask when I lamented my poor genetic fortune. 'Who cares about some grey hair if you can just dye it?'
But if your natural hair colour is dark, and the greying is quite advanced, that shit's hard to hide. Most people's hair grows at an average rate of a little over a centimetre a month, the so-called skunk stripe starts to make itself obvious within only a couple of weeks.
And, indeed, the greys seemed to proliferate at a maddening rate.
By the time I turned 30, five years after complaining to my then-boyfriend about the injustice of that first grey hair, I was committed to a fortnightly dye-or-die regime. I regularly prowled the supermarket and chemist for products I could mix in batches and apply on the weekend when nobody else was home, and I planned my life around when I should next touch up my roots. If I go lighter, I reasoned at 32, my roots will blend in; instead, the bleached highlights broke off in clumps, like sticky tufts of fairy floss, every time I washed my hair. I fretted constantly about regrowth and hated wearing my hair up in case the bun or ponytail revealed an undyed patch of grey.
And so it was that the weight of this clumsy little secret became as psychologically thick and dense as it was physically cumbersome: the more I fixated on my stupid hair, the more I found myself feeling not only self-conscious about my appearance but also ashamed that I would care so intensely about something so superficial. It was laughable, I kept telling myself, that the mere colour of my hair, this mass of dead protein sitting atop my skull, could cause so much angst and embarrassment.
But women’s bodies, and appearances, are not just their own to judge and manage. They have always been public property, too, a story offered to the world that observers do not hesitate to critique and dash with red marker.
* * *
On the 21st of November last year, I decided to do something rather drastic about my hair the same day I boarded a long-haul flight bound for Europe. I explained to the hairdresser — a confrontingly youthful girl in her early 20s — that I wanted to grow out my natural colour by lightening the overall tone and lopping off the ends to mitigate the inevitable damage incurred by so much peroxide.
‘OK, well, I’m not going to dye your roots this time,’ she announced.
I almost vomited.
For the next three weeks, as my partner and I travelled through Germany, I buried my head beneath an assortment of beanies and examined the undyed regrowth in hotel-room mirrors, my heart pounding and eyes smarting. 'What have I done?' I kept asking myself for months and months afterwards, almost salivating when I saw a woman with dark, glossy hair on TV or in the supermarket, nostalgic for the more sprightly version of myself that may not have been beautiful but was often described as 'striking' for her near-black brows, lashes, and hair. I pined for that Amber almost savagely, unsure of how to present myself to the world as my most distinctive feature faded from view, apprehensive of what people might think and say.
The compulsion to reach for a tube of dye was overwhelming. But perhaps it was this realisation — the sense of being genuinely terrified about what my natural hair colour meant to other people, even strangers passing me on the street — that prompted me to dig in my heels and try to accept how my body was changing.
And I have. Or, I've tried to.
In the year since, although I’ve dabbled a handful of times with various toners, I’ve managed to resist the intoxicating draw of dark. I can’t say that I love the way my hair looks now, but I don’t hate it either. I’ve surrendered to it, and I’m coming to peace with the reality that people will look and wonder and sometimes even make judgments about my age, appearance, and worth. (Spoiler alert: they will anyway.)
What’s made the whole process easier is the tangible sense of relief I feel about no longer hiding something I previously funnelled so much time and emotional energy towards disguising. Not having to scheme or logisticise or accommodate a frequent dyeing schedule has introduced a sense of cognitive spaciousness I didn’t fully realise I was missing. It feels good to know I’m applying fewer chemicals to my body on a regular basis. And I’m hopeful that, in some small way, being open about the way I really look and the fact that I’m ageing in a particular way will give someone else the courage to relax their own slavish dependence on dye or other toxic accoutrements. I know how excited I feel when I see a stylish younger person who isn’t covering their grey hair. It could, of course, be the Baader-Meinhof effect in action, but I'm sure I see them out and about more often than ever before — perhaps motivated by #silversisters with large social media followings, such as Alexandra Grant and UK Vogue editor Sarah Harris.
(Side note: if you'd like a little taste of the objectification and criticism a naturally ageing woman can encounter in the public eye, check out some news articles from late last year when Alexandra Grant dared to appear at a series of high-profile events with her brunette boyfriend, Keanu Reeves.)
As silly as it sounds, attempting to reject even this one particular beauty standard has already taught me some important lessons.
I thought I’d feel exposed and vulnerable without a protective layer of dyes and lies.
I feel strangely emboldened, defiant — absolved of a responsibility, untethered from expectations, released from a source of constant buzzing anxiety.
I’ve also learnt (ODDLY ENOUGH) that nobody notices or cares about my hair as much as I do. They're too busy worrying about their own perceived imperfections: the upper arms they hide in long-sleeved shirts, the cellulite that scatters an upper thigh, a childhood scar that never healed.
And I'm learning to let go of things that are, perhaps, no longer intended for me, no matter how bitterly I might miss them from time to time.
The funny thing about grey hair is that it can look so different from day to day. Much like grey paint, grey hair renders unpredictably depending on the light: I look different at home from how I look in the mirrors at work; my hair looks significantly darker inside and startlingly white in direct sunlight. People who haven't seen me for a while often comment that my hair looks somehow lighter, but they're surprised when I point out I've stopped dyeing over the grey: 'Oh, I thought it was blonde?'
I have no feelings about or investment in what anybody else does or doesn't do with their bodies, but if you've ever considered a change like this, I can honestly say that making the decision is the hardest part and that embracing your appearance with an attitude of curiosity and adventure, rather than censure and denial, is wonderfully liberating.
10/10 would recommend.