Róisín Ingle on... grey matters

Photograph: Getty images

Photograph: Getty images


O ne abiding childhood memory I have of my mother is her walking around the house with a see-through plastic bag, like something you’d carry sandwiches in, on her head. Underneath the clear plastic

, her hair was plastered with an unnatural looking shade of brown gunk which would sometimes splash onto her cheeks giving her a sort of mad scientist appearance.

She was dying her hair in the kitchen sink with Clairol’s Nice ’n’ Easy. Covering up the grey that began creeping in during her early 30s. She got the stuff in McAuliffe’s, the local chemist.

I remember as a child how the women on the packets of hair dye always looked so happy. As someone who regularly gets unnatural gunk put on her own hair to cover up grey, I now recognise the true nature of those delirious facial expressions: relief.

I grew my grey roots out for a while recently just to see how far I could go. I even began to like it a bit. I felt – and I know it’s ridiculous – sort of brave. I’ve got roots and you’re gonna hear them roar or something. But I knew it was time to take action when I noticed my teenage niece staring at the space just above my forehead. “Are you looking at my grey roots?” I asked. “Might be,” she said. Luckily I had an appointment that afternoon to stem the advancing grey tide.

“When did you stop dying your hair?” I asked my mother the other day. She was surprisingly specific in her answer. She stopped applying her own Clairol at the age of 54 because a woman she met complimented her hair, admiring “that purple tinge”. From then on she let Christian, her hairdresser, take care of it. Then at around age 65 she asked Christian to leave a sort of transitional streak of grey at the front, which she thought looked cool at the time, but when she looks back at photos she’s not so sure. And then, at age 70, she decided to stop playing the dyeing game. “By that stage I reckoned there was no use pretending. Everybody knew I was old anyway,” she says, grey and proud now, and still cool.

Grey matters. To a lot of us. I wish it didn’t but it does. At this stage I’m not dyeing my hair to look more attractive, I’m doing it to blend in. We all, men and women, do this in different ways. It’s why, although I don’t think I’ll ever be bothered with it myself, I don’t have any judgement around women who use Botox. There’s not much difference between putting toxic chemicals on your head or into your skin. You make these choices in life. You draw those lines. When it comes to what some people call “maintenance”, you do a little or you do a lot, or you are somewhere in between.

I don’t have the time, energy or inclination to do all the things that, as women, advertisers are killed reminding us we should be doing. I’m lax about “attending” to all manner of body hair. Sometimes I don’t wear make up, sometimes I slap it all on. I watch all these women wearing what look like printed silk pyjama trousers at the moment and am relieved I’ve never been one to follow trends. That’s too much like hard work.

But I do dye my hair. And these days I do it using gunk that is less harmful. Recently, Catriona Coyle of the Irish-owned company, simplynatural.ie, introduced me to Natulique, a brand containing a lot less of the nasty ingredients (get behind me, parabens) and more natural components. Highly dubious as to the results, I tried it out in Herman’s salon on Grafton Street. The colour was perfect, my hair was in much better condition afterwards and I won’t be going back to my usual, more toxic, brand.

Sometimes when I meet my friends, I think about what we’d all look like if we didn’t spend such a lot of time and money covering up the grey.

In a restaurant this week, I watched a woman of around 40 with short grey hair and sharp accessories laugh with her friends, the cheeriest looking person in her group. I think of the men I know, attractive men, with heads of grey hair that’s simply a fact of life rather than an affliction, men who don’t feel under pressure to dye their naturally occurring grey.

I know one day I’ll be in that place and I hope I’ll be as happy as my mother is to have declared herself out of the dyeing game. I’m not there yet. But in the meantime I’m glad I’ve found a way to be kinder to my hair. roisin@irishtimes.com

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