We have been quick to admire mature men for donning their salt-and-pepper mane, but seldom do we appreciate women who choose to age gracefully. As a society that’s gotten used to praising middle-aged women only when they’ve preserved their youthful appearance, it’s high time we redefined our beauty standards — or better yet, just shattered them altogether — when it comes to ageing.

The grey rebellion

As salons shuttered amid lockdowns last year, women began embracing their naturally grey roots with wild abandon. It’s all every news headline could talk about, especially since celebrities like Andie MacDowell and Jodie Foster made it a buzz-worthy moment by owning their silver locks at Cannes, as did Sarah Jessica Parker from the many glimpses of her return as a 50-something Carrie Bradshaw with some silver streaks in tow. Given the sudden surge in positive publicity surrounding this, one can’t help but wonder: Why has it taken us this long to appreciate women who are naturally greying?

For as long as we can remember, men have been romanticised for showing visible signs of ageing — whether it’s in the form of grey hair, wrinkles (hello, George Clooney) or even a ‘dad bod’. Meanwhile, the beauty industry is raking in billions by selling bottles of eye-lifting potions and root touch up sprays to women who are stigmatised for looking old. In her 1972 essay titled ‘The Double Standard of Ageing’, late writer and activist Susan Sontag put it best when she aptly stated that, “Beauty, women’s business in this society, is the theatre of their enslavement. Every wrinkle, every line, every grey hair is a defeat.” According to Sontag, “This is not to say there are no beautiful older women. But the standard of beauty in a woman of any age is how far she retains the appearance of youth.” Sadly, her words ring true even today. 

Described as stereotype embodiment theory, the process of internalising the age stereotypes that permeate in our society begins at childhood and continues even afterwards. Once internalised, the ageist construct becomes part of our implicit or consciously unaware, subconscious set of beliefs regarding old age and older people. The only way to combat it is by reinforcing positive implicit attitudes towards feminine ageing.

Every grey cloud has a silver lining

Laura Freeland, a hairstylist at the Pink & Rose Salon in northwest London has had her suspicions about the sudden surge in grey hair, assuming that it could just be a temporary phase. But ever since a majority of her clients aged over 40 began to go grey, Freeland has found it refreshing to watch them embrace their natural beauty and just be themselves. “Letting your hair go grey is quite like searching for hidden treasure — at the outset, you can’t be sure about what you’re going to find at the end of the trail, but the journey is always interesting,” she said.

While most of us can expect to go grey by the time we’re 40, some of us end up reaching that point a lot earlier. Shloka Sagar, a 30 year old professional based out of Dubai, began prematurely greying at the tender age of 20. Having spent the entire duration of her twenties obsessing over her roots, Sagar recalled, “I would constantly struggle with styling my hair in ways that would hide my greys, not to mention stress about scheduling my root touch-ups around social events since I only had a two-week window before they would show up again. Even the weather outside would have me worried if a gust of wind would reveal my grey parting. Running my fingers through my hair was not an option if I had applied some root cover-up spray, as it would stain my fingers. Even casual conversations would fill me up with dread, wondering whether the person I was speaking to was staring at my roots even if they weren’t.” 

The Beautiful Shloka Sagar

A newfound self-acceptance amidst the grey skies

After what seemed like a tiresome decade of relentlessly covering her greys, she finally decided to grow out her natural roots amid lockdown and has found the journey to be rather cathartic. But stepping back into the social scene wasn’t as easy, Sagar claimed, “Even while I was working from home, I was the odd person on zoom video calls who was sporting a cap and refused to take it off even if my boss called me out on it. I would avoid stepping out for grocery runs and even if you would spot me outside out, chances are I was wearing my cap.” Crediting her husband who motivated her to ultimately embrace her greys and face her fears of being seen in public, Sagar now finds that negative remarks on her hair rarely affect her since her newfound self-acceptance trumps everything else. 

“I have found an immense sense of freedom by accepting my greys. Freedom from chemicals, sprays, and all the stress that was weighing me down all these years. At times, I’ll encounter strangers who tell me I have ‘nice hair’ and that just makes my day. My hair has equally shocked and inspired a lot of people, I never thought I could own my greys with such confidence — you wouldn’t guess that you can actually look good, but you can,” Sagar said. As a hairstylist, Freeland agrees, “I definitely think it will give you a sense of freedom, both internally and externally. Grey hair on younger women gives them a hint of mystery which is incredibly sexy. And on mature women, it gives them an experienced and well-versed air of sophistication which only heightens their perceived class. I also love how grey hair brings out the colour in your eyes, it really makes them pop.”

Sagar hopes that she can encourage women — both, young and old — to embrace their natural-selves just as she has. Whether it’s through finding solace in self-acceptance or inspiration in women like her on social media (#silversisters), she added, “As women, we get criticised for everything. You may as well do what you want.”

Style is undoubtedly beneficial for individual exploration and group identification. However, it should also be noted that style can have negative implications too if the power of what we wear, and its symbolism, is abused. One noticeable example is the stigma that the media and fashion industry has created surrounding the natural process of ageing. With drab clothing lines purposely designed for the older population and the stocking of shelves with copious ‘anti-ageing’ products, it’s no surprise that ageing has become a fear for so many people today. 

 .. the danger of the ageing stigma in making people feel a lack of control over their own bodies.”

Implicit rules surround us in society about what we ‘should’ and ‘shouldn’t’ do, including what we should and shouldn’t wear. And whether we are aware of this or not, to some extent, most of us are abiding by these restrictive regulations. Along the high street, multiple clothing lines have been purposely designed for the older population, ‘cut generously with longer and looser shapes, lower bust seams for women and higher rise trousers for men’ (Twigg, 2013). The reduction in clothing options for  older people, indirectly suggests to the public what is and is not ‘acceptable’ to wear at a particular age. These expectations and assumptions can be internalised through the process of enclothed cognition, whereby what one wears can influence cognition through an item of clothing’s symbolic meaning and the experience of actually wearing the clothes. This can be detrimental and degrading to self-concepts by creating feelings of frustration and sadness towards one’s image and capabilities. 

However, the presentation of ageing as a negative process is implied to consumers from an early age. Skincare products aimed at young adults are marketed as ‘anti-ageing’, with the use of the preposition ‘anti’ presenting ageing as something to fight against and be seen as the opposition. Therefore, there is arguably a social pressure to remain youthful, which creates a limited perception of what is considered as ‘beauty’. Research has found that women are more likely to consider cosmetic surgery and purchase anti-ageing products when their appearance is important to them (Halliwell & Dittmar, 2003). However, women are also reported to be largely sceptical about the effectiveness of anti-ageing products, yet the mere act of using these moisturisers, cleansers and toners creates a feeling of control over our own health and progression of ageing (Muise & Desmarais, 2010). This highlights the danger of the ageing stigma in making people feel a lack of control over their own bodies.

Furthermore, the fashion industry largely underrepresents or rather ignores, the presence of ‘older’ women in the market. One study found over 50% of readers of top-selling magazines like Cosmo and Vogue are over 35 years old, yet the images they include are of ‘youthful and slender, smooth-skinned and able-bodied individuals’ (Lewis, Medvedev & Seponski, 2010).  This encourages readers to internalise these standards, leading to self-destructive behaviours such as restrictive eating, low self-esteem and mental health issues like depression. The power of fashion in constructing ‘ideals’ is therefore somewhat significant and dangerous if not managed responsibly. On the other hand, this also demonstrates how the fashion industry can use its status to empower women, reducing the stigma that surrounds ageing and the connotations of deterioration it holds. 

It is evident that ageism is a pressing issue in today’s society; the narrow beauty standards the media creates and promotion of products aimed specifically at the older population shapes our society’s negative perceptions of ageing. However given the fashion industry’s significant presence across all platforms, it has the potential to reverse the negativity that surrounds ageing and open up the market, so older people feel less isolated and more empowered.