Why do older women dye their hair blonde?

Jane Fonda has an excellent stylist taking her grey to blonde.
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Jane Fonda has an excellent stylist taking her grey to blonde.

OPINION: Almost overnight, it seems, every woman I know has gone blonde. The blondes are even blonder; mousey-heads, redheads, raven-haired, brunettes, all of them are now a uniform blonde. Well, almost all of them.

There are a few brave eco-friendlies refusing to get out the dye-bottle, but even some of those au-naturels have given in after a while and discovered blonde with highlights, blonde with light brown foils, blonde that even lets a bit of the grey and white show through – as long as the overall effect doesn't allow the colour-draining, age-gaining shades of leaden steel-wool. Or worse, the dappled effect of variegated grey-on-granite.  

Turning blonde wasn't an overnight decision. It took years to achieve.

Helen Mirren owns her grey hair.

Helen Mirren owns her grey hair.

At first, when yanking out the occasional grey hair became way too painful because there were so many of them, I tried dying my hair the same auburn it had been before the pesky intruders arrived. But that meant re-dying it every six weeks.

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After a few years of being Clairol's best customer, the procedure began to pall, not the least because of the dye's eye-watering fumes. So, sick of covering up the increasingly evident light-grey regrowth in my late 50s, I started the gradual process of turning blonde. Gradual, because I'd been advised that doing it slowly, over a year or so, can sometimes fool people into believing it's a natural process.

That was some five years ago, and still I toddle off to the hairdresser every eight to 10 weeks for a touch-up – with just enough gold and fawn in it to detract from the grey beneath.

And so do most of the women I know.

The late, great screenwriter Norah Ephron, who died almost five years ago a brunette at 76, wrote: "There's a reason why 40, 50 and 60 don't look the way they used to, and it's not because of feminism, or better living through exercise. It's because of hair dye. In the 1950s only 7 per cent of American women dyed their hair; today there are parts of Manhattan and LA where there are no grey-haired women at all."

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I can't find any statistics for how many New Zealand women dye their hair, but British media have estimated that well over 70 per cent of grey-haired British women, and perhaps as many as 90 percent in the US, are colourers.

Why? Because at work – and often away from work – appearances matter. Stereotypes of grey-haired women abound, and I don't want to be tarred with them. A greying man is called a silver fox and, like the greying George Clooneys and Brad Pitts, seen as a sex symbol. Unless he's prime minister, in which case he's a political silver fox. A greying woman is called old. That's why so many of us hide it – at least while we're still in the workforce. Helen Mirren and Jane Fonda are allowing grey – but they're in their 70s. Maybe that's when grey is OK to display.

More recently, it's become on trend for women in their 20s and 30s to go grey – women like Lady Gaga (31), Jennifer Lawrence (26) and Rihanna (29). But it's a synthetic choice they're making and when you're young you can get away with pretty much any fashion faux pas.

There's even an Instagram page (258,000 posts and climbing) and more than one Twitter hashtag, where young people wonder if grey is the new black and claim "#Grannyhair has officially taken over the internet as the coolest hair trend" and "#Grannyhair looks both beautiful and intimidating". Fine when you're pushing 30 and your collagen and elastin are in perfect condition. But over 60, granny hair, with or without the hashtag, further flags that the collagen and elastin aren't holding hands so well anymore and the parts of the face that haven't produced wrinkles or unwanted hairs have speedily headed south.

Google grey if you dare: it's a synonym for dingy, dull, drab, dusty, and ash. It's the colour countries painted their battleships to blend in with the leaden ocean on a dull grey day. It's the colour of the lifestyle stereotypically expected of women when they give up work and retire to knit peggy squares, crochet doilies, play golf and bowls, complete endless crosswords and Sudoku, and watch reruns of Coronation Street until they die.

But thankfully times have changed. Stereotypes are fast disappearing as women pass 65 and don't give up work or take up a predictable hobby. Instead, women in their 60s and 70s are into multi-sport, gravity biking, mountain climbing, zip-lining, skiing, nannying multitudes of grandchildren, composing music, writing plays and books (often about older women ageing disgracefully).

Proud to have made it this far, I'll openly admit to 65 – I just don't want to look it, or act out the bowls/golf/jam-making stereotypes. I'm not afraid to wave the Gold Card for a discount at the movies or a free bus ride; but the rest of the time we're keeping up appearances – eating healthily, exercising regularly – in our best endeavour to look and feel younger than we are. Sixty is the new forty. Blonde is the new black.

That's at least until it's on trend for women to be the silver vixen to Clooney's silver fox. Then I can spend a year or more transitioning back to something au naturel, though I suspect anything halfway respectable may require hitting the bottle again to make it uniformly silver instead of the unflattering salt and pepper mousey look that's hidden from view unless a strong wind is blowing.

It'll be interesting to see if my friends do the same, and who holds out the longest.

 - Stuff


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