Gray is the New Black by Jamila Sumra

1-jamilasumra 043 I am 47 and I have gray hair.  I decided to stop coloring my h​air 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.

Perfect strangers.

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. 

Categories: Aging, Gender, General

Tags: ,

15 replies

  1. I stopped “colouring” when I moved north and it was too cold to sit around with a wet head while chemicals did their work! Freedom is more relaxing! Now I colour coordinate with my lovely silver hair and try to get my wrinkles into smile lines so I look more like a pixie than a grouch!

    I think you look gorgeous!


  2. I stopped coloring my hair over 5 years ago, and have been gray for quite awhile now – was gray at about your age. Why did I stop? Economics – just too expensive. Too much upkeep. And besides, if someone likes/loves me based on my hair color, I want nothing to do with them. Most folks actually compliment me on the salt/pepper thing I have going – though I know I would look a heck younger if I did color it, the fact remains I am NOT young and why pretend to be something I’m not? But I have to admit, I have toyed with the idea of coloring it just for a change…but then I think about the cost again and there is WAY too many other things I would rather do with the money than that. Yes, there is hair color in a box, but when you are as gray as I am, it really needs to be done professionally.


    • I also would look a lot younger if I coloured my hair, but as you rightly say, why pretend to be someone you’re not. After a certain age, one needs freedom to be authentic. I think we have earned our gray hair :)


  3. Love your title, Jamila. I used to dye my hair too. And then one day I saw a photo of an online friend for the first time and wow her hair was grey and I thought, the fact she doesn’t dye her hair is what’s gorgeous!! After that no worries about hair color, hooray!


    • That is awesome! As I said to someone earlier, being authentic is just so much more, well, comfortable. I’ve been gray since I was 16 and its a heck of a long time to not feel like who I really am. I feel so much at ease now. Yay for gray!


  4. Wow does this one hit home! Recently, a young lady at the beauty salon suggested I tint (?) my hair so that I could “still enjoy my gray!”???
    No way dude. At this point in my life, I feel I have EARNED every gray hair on my head! Despite it all, I’m still standing.


    • Your comment hits home as well. For the sake of brevity I didn’t mention my salon experiences but whoa, talk about made to feel like there-is-something-not-quite-right-about-you-let-us-fix-it. Aging is considered almost offensive and inappropriate. Ugh.


  5. Jamila, I chuckled all the way through. About a year ago I too went “au naturel”, and discovered that my “real” color was the color I had been trying to dye it to for years, sort of an ashy light brown. doh. Then I got really radical and dropped the bra. Even my best friends told me I was nuts. And maybe I am. I have sort of compromised on that one. I wear a bra when I have a form fitting top, but ditch it when I’m wearing a cotton blouse or loose fitting thick sweater. But it does feel good, and I am now actively searching for more tops to wear “au naturel” as well. (And doesn’t it feel good to know that you are not putting all those chemicals from the hair dye into the atmosphere?)


  6. I thoroughly enjoyed this post – thank you. The ability to choose–to make one’s own choice in appearance and lifestyle–is a gift, and it truly is amazing how upset other people can become even about one single personal choice that someone else makes. Good for you.


    • Thank YOU for reading Darla. It has been so surprising how many people I have upset. Oh but recently, a 20 something young man told me, ‘I want to get my hair streaked just like you’


  7. Very interesting. I don’t even know what color my hair really is. I’ve been bleaching it since 1992, and before that I dyed it red for a decade or so. Of course, I get roots, and they’re kinda brownish. But a lot of people I know think my bleached hair is the color it really is. ;-)


  8. I am 32 years old and I remember my mother being horrified at my first gray hair at 16 years old. I stopped coloring my hair 6 years ago and I love it. I do hate the comments from friends and family who insist I dye it or ask why. Thank you for writing this.


  9. I will say this the problem of dying hair is not just feminine but a masculine one too. We men have the added problem of facial hair if we decide to sport a beard. BTW you have aged gracefully since I last saw you and the salt and pepper looks good on you. In fact never seen you look better.


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