By Karen Espig

Last summer, there was a flurry of drama, criticism, and you-go-girl when photos of Sarah Jessica Parker having lunch with friends circulated. She was scandalously out in public sporting grey hair! Posts on social media that weren’t shaming her were applauding her bravery. 

Yet the feeding-frenzy made no comments regarding her grey-haired (and male) lunch companion that day. Andy Cohen rightly called the paparazzi to task in a later interview. 

What Is So Brave About It?

Well, my off-the-cuff response is: if people are going to maliciously attack you for going out in public with grey hair, you might feel pressured to colour it. Seriously, nobody should be shaming anyone about their physical appearance, but this is sadly the world we inhabit. 

Whether it is brave or not, let’s dig a little deeper.

Gendered Ageism

The Journal of Women and Aging recently published a study investigating why a group of women chose to rebuff norms and not camouflage their grey hair. It looked at how they felt about themselves as a result and how they thought others perceived them. The report cites several grim facts, including the reality that ageism in Western societies is more pronounced against women (particularly in the areas of finance and employment) and is unfortunately on the rise.

The pervasive experience of the women in the survey was that they felt a conflict between being authentic (going grey) and looking competent. Unfortunately, they are not incorrect in sensing the weight of this choice. 

Physical appearance does impact how people perceive and respond, and choosing to appear older has social consequences. The women who let their hair go grey reported being treated as though they needed extra help or were not noticed at all (social invisibility). This is due to pervasive Age Stigma, which can be subtle, materialising in ways such as being offered help or having people speak slowly or loudly to you.

An InStyle magazine article recounts one woman’s story of how she was treated differently by peers, co-workers, and friends when she went grey. Her husband was asked “how he felt about his wife going grey”, furthering the gender gap. 

Seriously, would anyone ask how we felt about a male partner going grey? 

Furthermore, a Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH) report indicates that women are perceived to deteriorate physically more than men. The so-called “George Clooney Effect” means women appear older than men of the same age. And because they seem older, they are treated as though they are, which is not favourably.

How The Young View Older Adults

The report also revealed that millennials (ages 18-34) had the most pronounced negative attitude regarding ageing and elders, with 40% believing dementia is inevitable as one ages. A further 25% believe being older brings depression, and 24% indicate that older people cannot be considered attractive. 

The final point speaks to a very limited view of beauty propagated by social media and media in general. There are scant examples of older women depicted as living well and, dare I say, thriving that young people can look to.

Speaking Of The Media

We continue to live in a youth and beauty-obsessed culture where the images of (mostly young) women in advertising and film are not only unrealistic, they aren’t real at all. Thanks, software and filters. 

We have been bombarded with the notion that youth and beauty are where it’s at. All the happy people are young and beautiful—it is hope based.

The American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) reports that older adults are seven times more likely to be portrayed negatively in the media. The advertising that does include mature adults tends to portray them as ill, feeble and lonely.

How Do We Change This?

It starts with you. You are not going to change the media content coming at you, but you can change your response to it. You cannot fix social prejudice but do not participate in it. Ask yourself how you perceive ageing and older adults. Do you have any friends that are significantly older than you? If not, why not?

Chances are, if you are reading this article, you are middle-aged or older, experienced and have wisdom that transcends your hair colour. You may have young people in your world who look to you as an example. Be an authentic one, living your best life.

So is it “Brave”? Yeah, it is a little bit, which is unfortunate. We are still a long way from grey hair being just another colour, despite the trend of grey shades for younger women a few years ago. 

Regarding the hot-ness factor, sexiness is more about confidence than looks. So perhaps drop the hair colouring appointments and spend the numerous salon hours and money doing something that truly builds your confidence instead. Win, Win!