Anecdotal evidence collected by yours truly proves beyond doubt that Indian men have become bolder. A variation of the following scenario occurs every time I’m at any domestic airport: Me, impatient, in line at the check-in counter. Thanks to my sharp peripheral vision, I notice the suited, Venugopal Dhoot-lookalike who won’t stop staring. I hurl an icy, dispassionate missive guaranteed to freeze any lascivious thoughts. Instead, he smiles and gathers the courage to ask the question that’s been plaguing him since he first set eyes on me: “Is your hair natural? Or have you coloured it white?” When I blink, switch to neutral (why crush his new-found spirit?) and answer in the affirmative, he responds shyly: “Looks nice.”
Going Gray: Little, Brown and Company, 209 pages, $23.99 (approx Rs940)
I can’t begin to count the number of times a Mumbai taxi driver has asked: “Original bal hai, madam? Ya chemical lagaya?” Or the number of times relatives who haven’t seen me in a while go: “Omgod! What happened to your hair? It’s gone white!” Or the older women who have come up to me in public spaces and whispered: “I wish I had the courage to stop colouring my hair.”
As Anne Kreamer points out in her book Going Gray, “Today it seems as if the most provocatively political statement a women can make with hair is to let it be naturally gray.” Perhaps, but we’ll get to that in a bit.
At 49, when Kreamer decided she wanted to end her roller coaster romp with hair colour (over 24 years, she had flirted with aubergine, walnut, rockstar jet-black and various roan and chestnut shades until finally, in her 40s, she went on “hair colour autopilot” with an “acceptable, middle-aged brownish”), she was more than 10 years older than I am now.
Singer Emmylou Harris
I began going grey in my 20s, coloured my hair briefly in the early years, but haven’t gone near the stuff for years. I attributed the white streaks to my genes, my mother said it was my vegetarian diet and the fact that I didn’t drink my milk every night. My second editor, a Briton, once said he was glad I didn’t use that “ugly red stuff” that was popular with so many Indian women. But that was the henna era, the early 1990s, before biggies such as L’Oreal, Wella and Schwarzkopf had set up a Rs200 crore industry here. It was a time before you could spot more blondes at a Sindhi wedding than in an episode of Baywatch.
Kreamer’s revelation came when she casually looked at a photograph of herself and her 16-year-old daughter Kate. “All I saw was a kind of confused schlubby middle-aged woman with hair dyed much too harshly,” she says. That’s when she decided to go grey.
The first step was to survey close friends and family—her “advisory board” so to speak. Her pal, writer Nora Ephron (of When Harry Met Sally fame), said that some people “feel like they get points for having gray hair, a kind of moral superiority”. Kreamer’s theory is a little less judgemental. “Hair is the salient shorthand sign we use to communicate to others who we want them to think we are,” she says. Her younger daughter Lucy was aghast. “Please keep dyeing your hair. I don’t want to have one of the old mommies at school,” she told Kreamer.
By the time she had polled her family, tackled her stylist and looked back at the historic use of hair colour, Kreamer was ready for her “bad hair year”, the transition from colour to grey (you know it’s not easy to strip colour, right?). That was the year one friend remarked: “Oooh, how lovely— you’re going gray just like a man.”
Once Kreamer started, she just kept going. She commissioned a nationwide survey, hit the online singles space, conducted experiments in New York’s bars, cased corporate headhunters and interviewed scores of men and women about their attitudes, self-perceptions and fears of growing/looking older. Because, at the end of the day, isn’t that what it’s about?
American Idol Taylor Hicks
Of course, the book has been written by an American who lives in Brooklyn, so going grey or not, you’re unlikely to identify with some of Kreamer’s ideas. For instance, she says that letting her hair go grey was “a bit like an intensive five-day-a-week-on-the-therapist’s-couch crash course”. But if you’ve ever thought about this issue, wondered why you colour/don’t colour your hair, this book is a good read. It is full of surprising—sometimes devastating—discoveries (grey hair is a liability in many professional worlds) and honest insights about the way women think men think and the way men actually think. And, of course, the chapter, “Is Gray Hair Illegal in Hollywood”, could just as well apply to Bollywood.
So what does grey hair say about you? Of the people Kreamer surveyed, 6% of the women and twice as many men thought women who go grey are “letting themselves go”. For the author, it was a slightly different kind of letting go. “If I could allow my hair to be its natural gray, maybe I could learn to be a bit more accepting and easygoing in the rest of my life too,” she says.
Then again, grey hair could mean you don’t think it’s worth your time/money to spend an hour at the salon every six weeks to touch up those treacherous roots. You don’t want to look younger (hair colour makes you look an average three years younger, Kreamer found). Colour ruins the texture of your already dry hair. You believe in a chemical-free existence. You’re allergic to the chemicals. You don’t believe in fake tits, fake fairness creams and fake orgasms either (your only “artificial” turn on is the AI in Spielberg films). You got early positive reinforcement from a significant other about your natural look (Skinner’s theory, not mine). Or perhaps, you just feel suffocated in a cookie cutter world and this is your little rebellion.
Besides, it’s a great two-minute test—for like-minded friends, family, potential partners. Though I must say, I have not yet given my number to any man who has accosted me at the airport.