Grey Is a Feminist Issue — An excerpt from The Journal of Urgent Writing 2016


Grey Is a Feminist Issue

Claire Robinson


2015 was the year grey hair went mainstream. What started in the noughties as the street-fashion trend ‘granny chic’ — younger women wearing old or pre-owned clothes — had by the end of the decade moved to the catwalk, with fashion designers using older, grey-haired women as models in their campaigns and styling their younger runway models with silver hair. The hair trend was picked up by celebrities such as Lady Gaga, Pink, Rihanna, Nicole Richie, Kelly Osbourne, Cara Delevingne and even by the characters in Disney’s hit movie Frozen — Anna has a silver streak in her red hair, and Elsa’s hair is platinum-white.

In the northern spring of 2015 young women flocked to salons to have their hair coloured steel-grey, silvery grey and platinum-white with violet undertones. Fashion blogs and magazines proclaimed it the ‘hottest’ hair colour trend in 2015. BuzzFeed and YouTube videos explaining the process of dyeing hair grey were viewed millions of times. Social media acknowledged the phenomenon with #grannyhair. Twitter had a #grannyhair feed, Facebook a granny-hair community and, by the end of 2015, over 100,000 images celebrating grey locks had been uploaded to Instagram. The New York Times reported that searches for grey hair dye on Amazon tripled, while 2015’s Google Beauty Trend Report noted a spike of 234 per cent in searches for the term ‘silver hair’. And it wasn’t a trend limited to young women. When former member of the boy band One Direction Zayn Malik dyed his hair grey at age 23, the hysterical headline on BuzzFeed read ‘Zayn Malik has grey hair now and people are losing their damn minds’.

Commentators in mainstream media agreed it was fundamentally a ‘visual signature’, an attention-seeking calling card. In a Guardian story titled ‘Grey and proud: the hairstyle trend where millennials and middle-aged men meet’, columnist Priya Elan noted ‘a hint of irony and a Warholian poise about the colour [grey] on a young head: it is about redefining and reappropriating the shade’.

‘It’s a statement,’ said expert English hair colourist Jo Hansford in the Daily Telegraph. ‘All the celebrities, they’ve done every bright and bold colour under the sun, so what’s next? The only other “shocking” colour left is grey.’

While it may have been about redefining the shade, the last thing it was about was redefining ageing. More complex than just getting to the only unused colour in the hair colour spectrum, the success of the granny-hair look relied on the surprising juxtaposition of having an ‘old’ hair colour on someone who still looked very young. Implied by the New York Times headline ‘For millennial men grey hair is welcome’ was that, for anyone not a millennial, it wasn’t.

The term ‘granny’ conjures up feelings of endearment and respect. We think of grannies as loving, caring, staunch women who support their families through hard times and crises. According to Dr Laura Hurd Clarke, a researcher of health, ageing and the moving body at the University of British Columbia, the stereotype of the sweet, kind and nurturing grandmother exemplifies one of the few culturally valued roles available to older women. But let’s get real. The grannyhair hashtag wasn’t celebrating how much women want to be like their grannies. If anything it was the exact opposite: a statement that only served to emphasise how far away from being aged these young people were; how looking ‘with it’ was defined by being at the other end of the spectrum from looking ‘past it’.

Over the past 60 years, a complex web of economic, cultural and technological influences has constructed an anxiety about women’s ageing, and fed that anxiety with hair colour products, messages and appeals to persuade women that colouring their hair will help them retain respect and beauty as they age. The truth is the polar opposite. Keeping women thinking they have to have the same hair colour as their teenage selves only renders mature women invisible, a factor that unquestionably contributes to the inequalities that still exist between men and women in the twenty-first century. This makes grey hair a feminist issue.