Are we dyeing for ageism?

Our Age Proud Leeds campaign has been encouraging people to talk more about ageism, including the way we can take on negative ideas about being older which can affect our wellbeing.

One of the ways we all identify an older person is by their grey hair, and the way we start to see our own ageing is in the gradual appearance of grey hair. Of course, a lot of people choose to colour their hair to conceal this change. Some have continued doing it themselves at home during lockdown, but others have chosen not to. As we are now able to return to the hairdresser many are opting to dye again.

But we are hearing about people who have embraced their grey hair and have decided not to return to colouring. Our friend and ally Grandma Williams has been campaigning about this and in her recent blog, We are age proud, she proposes we adopt a more positive attitude towards ourselves and others about things like grey hair.

Sometimes the pressure to ‘look young’ can come from those closest to us, and we have heard that some people have lost their confidence about the ‘Stay Grey’ idea after comments by family members. Some are being swayed back to using dye after people have said things like “Ooo, you look so old!” and “It’s better to dye it, it’ll take years off!”. It can be hard for us to accept that our parents or adult children are ageing; it can remind people that they are also ageing so stimulating their own anxiety about it. This pressure can affect younger people, like 31 year old food blogger Rachel Farnsworth, who took an age proud attitude towards the negative comments on social media after she revealed her grey roots. This BBC blog tells her story.

The pressure to dye is particularly strong for women, and we are much more likely to see an older man with grey hair as ‘distinguished and wise’. However men do also have their own age linked hair issues - ‘hair today, gone tomorrow’ - as the fear of going bald is another sign of ageing which many men (and some women) really struggle with.

Hair is of course tremendously important to transgender people, and people who transition in later life may face additional issues. For example, older trans women may have to use wigs. Transgender people, like everyone, are also exposed to all these messages about hair, ageing and gender.

Key aspects of our current Age Proud Leeds message ‘Older, Different Equal’ are that older people are not all the same and that other forms of discrimination like sexism, can combine with ageism. For this reason it is important to understand that the social pressure to conceal these signs of ageing are often expressed in different ways linked to gender. Although underneath all of these reactions to grey hair is the idea that ‘old is bad’ and ‘young is good’.

It has become fashionable for young people to dye their hair grey. This presents an interesting contradiction - it’s ‘cool’ when young people do it but ‘sad’ when it’s older people. Although some older people have been encouraged by this trend, including some celebrities, and it certainly has helped to get the debate going.

So, should you Go Grey, or Stay Grey?

It’s important to acknowledge, especially in these difficult times, that for some people colouring their hair helps them feel positive and enables them to maintain good self-esteem. Individual choice and balancing the benefits and costs in your own life is important and we certainly don’t want people to feel guilty about dyeing their hair.

What we do want is more awareness that the pressure to conceal ageing is ageist. The way we talk about this can confirm ageism and make it harder for people to feel positive about being an older person. It's important to support people who want to make this change, whether they are a colleague, neighbour, family member or friend. Age Proud Leeds is all about celebrating the positives of being an older person. Grandma Williams shows us the way in another one of her great blogs.

Anne C Smaller

Anne (pictured) one of our Age Friendly Ambassadors and a member of the Age Friendly Steering Group, says:

“During Lockdown as my grey roots became longer, I found I actually liked them, so decided to discuss my transition to grey once I saw my hairdresser. As I’m now well on the road to being grey, I feel like I’m more my true self and it’s surprised me as to how more confident I feel. I’m happy to celebrate my maturity and wisdom by showing that there’s nothing to fear about being old, it is good too!”

So, if you want to Go Grey or Stay Grey you can direct any critical friends and family to this blog, because we say ‘wear your grey hair with pride’!

Accept ageing, resist ageism!

Jude Woods
Communities Officer, Time to Shine

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