Casting off society’s expectations to grow old gracefully felt subversive. Ever since, I have grown bolder in body and mind
Mon 25 Nov 2019
In my early 40s, it hit me that I was ageing. At first, the physical signs really bothered me. Solving the grey-hair part was easy: I embraced hair dye, rejoicing that I could cheat the grey grim reaper for ever. Next came the wrinkles and saggy bits on my body. I fought them with an array of costly, time-consuming and mostly ineffectual rituals. Seduced by a barrage of ads playing on my fears of growing older, I diligently bought and applied a cupboard full of allegedly age-defying serums and moisturisers to my face and body. But it began to take so much effort, especially the hair. Those darned roots required a fortnightly touchup. I planned my life around the emergence of that badger stripe.
One day in my late 40s, I had an epiphany. What if I just … went grey? It really shouldn’t be a big deal, but for many women it is. No silver-fox badge of honour awaits us: we are likely to be pilloried for “letting ourselves go”. I feared not only being grey, but going grey; facing not so much a bad hair day as a bad hair year. Grey hair would unequivocally position me as old, heralding to everyone that my inevitable downward slide towards invisibility, senility and death had begun. Nonetheless, I decided to try it.
I can’t pretend that I enjoyed the process to start with. My burgeoning roots looked unkempt and it took for ever for the grey to grow out, offering a life lesson in humility and patience. Going grey led me to question the narrative I had mindlessly absorbed over the years: stay young at any cost.
Then, a few months into my great grey grow-out, something unexpected happened. I realised I was starting to enjoy the process. It felt subversive to deviate from the societal diktat that says women must not visibly age. And, as I became more comfortable with my grey hair, I scrutinised the rest of my outlook more closely. Whether or not I now looked older, I realised that I cared less. Casting off society’s expectations was curiously liberating.
Psychological research is clear: a positive outlook towards ageing is mentally and physically healthy. What’s more, there is mounting evidence (explored in books such as Bolder by Carl Honoré) that there are many upsides to growing older. Of course, there are some downsides, but the received wisdom that inevitable decline is to be expected as you age is vastly overstated. As a psychology lecturer and avid consumer of such literature, I knew this in theory, but had still succumbed to the whole anti-ageing narrative. Enough! I was ready for a midlife reboot.