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Coming to terms with my middle-aged hair

You'll find out things about yourself when you stop blow-drying your hair.

The rules about hair that were made to be broken

One of the common regrets people apparently have on their deathbed is they wish they’d spent less time at the office. I’m not yet on my deathbed but already old enough to wish I’d spent less time in front of the mirror, blow-drying my hair.

It started somewhere around the age of 13, when Farrah Fawcett’s feathered wings were in vogue. Every second day, I’d spend an hour or so in front of the mirror with a curly brush and a hair dryer, shaping my hair into silly wings. This added up to around three hours a week, 12 hours a month, or 144 hours a year, just to get my hair ready to go to school.

What was I thinking? I can’t remember. I could put this down to the vanities of a 13-year-old girl, but I wasted just as much time in my 30s, using the hairdryer to force my hair into submission, to suppress its kinks, waves and cowlicks. Back then, straight, sleek hair was the default style of the professional woman, and often still is.

As Nora Ephron wrote, the amount of maintenance involving hair is genuinely overwhelming. “Sometimes I think that not having to worry about your hair anymore is the secret upside of death.” She wrote that at a time when washing and drying her hair had become such a drag she was going to a beauty salon twice a week to pay someone else to do it. “It’s cheaper by far than psychoanalysis, and much more uplifting,” she wrote. “Still, at the end of the year, I’ve spent at least 80 hours just keeping my hair clean and pressed. That’s two work weeks. There’s no telling what I could be doing with all that time.”

Sometimes I think that not having to worry about your hair anymore is the secret upside (and danger) of working from home. Anyway, I stopped blow-drying my hair when it turned 50, because it was getting alarmingly thin, and most of it seemed to be everywhere – on the chair, in my clothes, on the floor, in the plughole – but on my head.

This attempt to hold onto my hair by giving up the hair dryer is probably misguided, but the time I’ve saved! Getting up and going is so much more straightforward.

And you find out things about yourself when you stop blow-drying your hair. On a good day, you might end up with these weird ringlet things. When my oldest friend, who has known me for almost 40 years, saw me for the first time since giving up the hair dryer, she burst out laughing. “Have you had a perm?”

Friends and acquaintances I haven’t seen for a while stare in confusion. “What have you done to your hair?” My mother, who has known me my entire life, said, “Since when have you had curly hair?” I’m not sure exactly, maybe since I stopped blow-drying it? Later she said, “But it used to be thick, and you wouldn’t call it that now. You should see a doctor.”

If you Google “middle-aged female hair loss”, you’ll be alerted to numerous things that could be wrong with you, such as female pattern hair loss and various thyroid disorders. So I took my mother’s advice, but the doctor assured me there was nothing wrong, that I’m just getting on. 

The grey-white ringlets of New Zealand writer Elizabeth Knox (above left) attracts compliments, but the long locks of English academic and TV presenter Mary Beard (right) drew online abuse.

So, is it okay to talk about menopausal (thinning, drying, fading) hair? There are, of course, countless online sites offering advice on haircuts and styles that are appropriate for the middle-aged, although they don’t tend to include ringlets. There are also countless products that are supposed to make your hair look younger (thicker, shinier, etc) than it is, but therein lies an expensive and time-consuming path to, I suspect, disappointment.

Anyway, it could be my imagination, but women of a certain age – around my age – seem to smile at me more often these days. Why are they smiling at me like that? Is it some sisterly nod to my mad-woman’s-knitting-hair? Or are they thinking, “There but for the grace of God…”?

Of course, women have been concealing their curls for some time now, particularly women with in-between hair, with curly-ish or frizzy hair. “Curly hair signals a lack of control,” says a friend with thick curls. She has fantastic hair, but it tends to frighten the hairdressers. “They’re always trying to control it, but they never can. It has a life of its own.”

While she is often complimented on what she calls her “curly horse-hair”, the compliments often come with the suggestion of waywardness. Once, in her 40s, she got her long curly hair cut into a shorter curly bob, and her (female) boss said, “Oh, why did you do that, you have such great bedroom hair!”

She laughs, sort of. “Maybe that was meant as a compliment, but if someone says you’ve got ‘bedroom hair’, does that mean you look like you’ve been rolling in the sack with someone? I felt like such a whore!” 

We need rules in order to live, and we also need to break some of them, especially rules about hair. Like the (often unspoken, or said behind a woman’s back) rule that, when you get to a certain age, you should cut your hair short if you don’t want to look like a woman who is in denial about her age, or worse, a witch.

The Cambridge University classics professor, author and television presenter Mary Beard was subjected to considerable abuse online and in mainstream media for daring to appear on the telly with long, grey hair. After she presented the BBC2 documentary series, Meet the Romans, for instance, people went online to tell her to brush it or “get it fixed”. The late Sunday Times TV critic A.A. Gill wrote she should be “kept away from cameras altogether” and that her hair was “a disaster”. 

The television ratings showed that close to two million people watched her anyway, and were happy to hear what an articulate, brainy woman with long, grey hair had to say, one who clearly knew what she was talking about.

For middle-aged hair that stands out in a crowd, consider author Elizabeth Knox, whose grey-white ringletty hair reaches halfway down her back. I wondered if she’d consciously decided to let her hair grow long, grey and curly, to make a cultural or philosophical statement, but it wasn’t like that. “I did get it cut short some years ago, but it required a lot of maintenance and then I got very busy and left it, and it grew to just above the shoulders, so I would pile it up on my head,” she says. “And I started getting compliments about the grey curls, and because I was travelling a bit that year, all kinds of women were complimenting it. So I thought, I’ll keep growing it.”

It doesn’t require much maintenance, other than washing it every three days or so, and rubbing coconut oil into it. “Sometimes I turn my head upside down and get a sharp pair of scissors, and trim it.” 

There are bad-hair days, which can go on for months, particularly if she’s stressed, and times she has been tempted to cut it off. Her husband and son talk her out of it: “They’re like, ‘Woodman, spare that tree!’”

She still gets a lot of compliments, and sometimes encourages women her age to find out what their hair would do if they only left it alone.

“It is about identity. Some women feel more like themselves when they go to the salon and get it dyed or touched up or whatever, which makes sense. On the other hand, I think it’s worth finding out what your hair is going to do if you leave it in peace.”

This was published in the March 2018 issue of North & South.