I am 47 and I have gray hair. I decided to stop coloring my hair some months ago. A decision that was and should be a personal one, set me up, like a badly dressed starlet in the pages of a fashion magazine, for commentary from everyone.
This includes my mother and assorted sisters in law, cousins and stepson, friends and even salespeople.
I was prepared for my mother’s reaction who is in her late 60s and starts getting restless when a minuscule amount of hair roots begin to show their natural colour every couple of weeks. Who still has her eyebrows threaded in that ultra thin style that was (thankfully) only fashionable in the 1970s. Obviously then, when I first announced to her that I was going to abandon the hair dye, she wasn’t thrilled.
Imagine being confronted with a powerful and disturbing image illuminating the vagaries of time beside a daughter, your child, with a head of gray hair, when your own is burgundy brown.
Or at least that is what it says on the box.
A stranger, a woman in hijab, stopped me in a supermarket aisle and told me I was ‘brave’.
“I wear the hijab and I wouldn’t ever stop coloring my hair,” she further stated.
A gorgeous friend, always perfectly manicured, expressed confusion, “but why, baby?”
One of my cousins, to whom I sent a selfie, text back, aghast, “Ya Allah!”
In Cape Town, a fashion conscious young woman who works for my mother in law caught me alone one day and approached me warily.
“Can I ask you a personal question?” she asked.
“Is your hair natural or did you pay to get it done?” she continued.
“It’s all natural”
“People here pay 2000 rand to get it to look like that”
I mentioned to my sister in law that I was going to stop coloring my hair.
“Will you also stop waxing and wearing make up?” she replied
I have a mole on my nose. Apart from a woman, a stranger, telling my mom once that it must be removed immediately because otherwise who will marry me (I was 13); a Lebanese nurse who insisted that I should get plastic surgery done on my nose (tired of being hassled, I said to her “I’ll check with my husband.” She stared me at as if I was dim: “why would he not want you to?”) and kids under two years of age who poke at it, sometimes quite aggressively, nobody has commented on it, ever.
Or poked at it.
My emerging gray hair though is in a different realm where societal propriety is abandoned and it seems it is quite OK to give opinion freely. Don’t mind my feelings.
Is it real? Why? Where did you get it done? Isn’t attraction an integral part of a marriage? How does your husband feel about it? Why? I like it. I don’t like it. You are making me feel old. Maybe I should also not color my hair. Why? You have such a young face. It makes you look tired. I like the weight loss, I don’t like your hair. Why?
I was sharing all this with a friend one afternoon recently and although she listened and we laughed about it, she probably thought I was exaggerating a tad. Later in the evening, before we attended a comedy show, at dinner, we met one of the performers, a female comedian who loudly commented on my hair. My friend was aghast.
What is it about gray hair that makes people so uncomfortable and agitated? Are we scared of what it represents? Passage of time? Missed opportunities perhaps? Or our immortality?
Or is it that we are so colonized by a uni-dimensional idea of beauty that anything not fitting into the prescribed ideal is viewed as troublesome?
And ugly. Isn’t attraction an integral part of marriage?
I understand the economics of the advertising agencies in Hollywood. I understand the inner workings of powerful beauty industries around the world.
My decision to stop coloring my hair was not to rebel against these narrow notions. Although, I am against them intellectually, I would be dishonest if I said I don’t fall prey to these notions of beauty now and again. I just don’t want to be completely enslaved.
I didn’t make this decision to make my mother confront her own aging.
Going gray did not automatically mean giving up on myself. I was giving up on one perceived ideal of beauty.
It is because at this point of my life, I want to be authentic. Quite simply, I want to be me.
Wasn’t I myself before? I was but not fully. Not completely. We, the diaspora from the subcontinent, often grow up with the fossilized culture of the country our ancestors came from. My grandparents were from a village in India who moved to a village in Tanzania. “What People Will Say?” is a strong part of village culture. Individuality makes you stand out. People point fingers. They question.
Just as they do now.
However, I was older, stronger and living on a whole another continent where “What Will People Say?” had no meaning. Not those people. Not any people. I wasn’t interested in what people say, only why they say what they do.
I had gray hair, laugh lines, and was fatigued from masking these, from masking me. Not so much from the world, but from myself. I was wearing a self-imposed pardah, a niqaab.
My hair has been greying since from what seems like forever and yet I had never seen myself with gray hair. Ever.
Though, it is who I was. Am.
Who am I?
Wife. Daughter. Student. Sister. Daughter-in-law. Step-mom. Friend. Writer. Photographer. Cook. Landlady. World traveler. Sister-in-law. Homemaker. Employer. Teacher.
I work out almost daily, and eat relatively well. I buy clothes. I wear red lipstick. I am mildly obsessed with MAC’s Paint Pots. I wear distressed denim. I am applying to study for yet another Master’s degree. My conversation is peppered with terms like ‘awesome’, ‘dude’ and ‘cray cray’ (though I am told I shouldn’t use that one). I buy colorful Le Creuset pots. I am well-traveled. I write, take photographs, and create recipes. I bake bread.
Clearly, I am not giving up on living life and shopping for a zimmer frame. I am also not going to take off for a lunch time to shot of botox, which is readily and easily available where we live. I am not going to have my mole surgically scrapped off. And I am never buying hair dye.
Of course it would be naive to hope there will be a time when a woman who decides to just be who she is, and how she chooses to express herself and how much control she maintains over her own looks and health, will be accepted wholly and fully. Without question or comment. That society won’t try to force an almost 50 year old woman into a box marked ‘Forever 21’ and expect from her black hair and an unlined face and a fully functioning memory.
That the idea of what is beautiful will be widened and left to be interpreted however people choose, defined by their culture and experiences, rather than what is sold to them in boxes and jars.
Til then, I can only wish that those who are confused by my gray hair can perhaps pause and consider, confront themselves and their fears, and ask themselves why they get so bothered by an aging woman with gray hair. Why?
Jamila Sumra has an MA in Teaching English and is currently applying to study for another one in Islamic Studies. She speaks six languages and understands many. Jamila’s grandparents migrated from India to Tanzania in the early 1900s. She was raised both in Dar es Salaam and Palo Alto, California. She currently lives in Saudi Arabia where she celebrates life and all its joys with her South African husband; gratefully indulging in her passion for cooking, books, photography, writing and travel. Straddling multiple cultures and extensive world travel has made Jamila reflect upon certain truths: that we are all really the same the world over and that no one, anywhere, really likes ironing.