Grey All The Way – Barbara Crow, Ana Rita Morais & Allyson Mitchell

Image Credit: Allyson Mitchell, 2011

Allyson Mitchell: Help yourself to some cheese and crackers, hummus, veggies.

Barbara Crow: This is great. Cheers.

Allyson: Yes, cheers.

(Ana) Rita Morais: Cheers.

Barbara: You had to have grey hair for today.

Rita: I did, yeah. Well, I managed to avoid it altogether, so we’re good.

Allyson: What do you mean manage to avoid it? Managed to avoid meaning you wanted to dye your hair and you resisted doing it?

Rita: Well, I get haircuts from somebody who does them as seminar haircuts. So he’ll teach a class and I’ll get my hair cut and there will be people there. The last time I was there he wanted to do a jet-black series but I was like oh, I can’t commit to that, especially not right now.

Allyson: Did you tell him why?

Rita: Oh, yeah, I told him we were working on an interview about grey hair. He had actually let his hair go grey and he wanted to be interviewed as well. He was definitely interested in this article.

Barbara: The guy who cuts my hair is really interested in this article too. He also has grey hair. The last time I got my hair cut I picked up all the cuttings of my hair, I was walking by a woman who said “Oh, you have beautiful hair. If my hair was like that, I wouldn’t dye my hair.” But I said, “You don’t know if you don’t try.” And the other hair stylist said “ Hey! I want to stay in business. Don’t give her any ideas”. And then John, the guy who cuts my hair, said that he really struggles when women want to keep dying their hair or “they want to keep in pursuit of youth,” is what he said, but it’s time they stopped dying their hair because dying is wrecking their hair.

Rita: One of my aunts is a hairdresser, and my mom and sister both dye their hair. My mom is at the point where it’s every three weeks. To have grey hair for my mom is absolutely not acceptable, which is kind of humorous that I’m at this point where I just don’t care about my own grey hair. There is a difference in everything about her. It’s interesting to see that I’ve come from a place where they don’t want people to know that they have grey hair. I started getting grey hair when I was 19. My sister is 30 and is starting to get grey hair only now, but my mom, by the time she was 20 she already had grey hair. If she didn’t dye her hair she would have pretty much a full head of grey hair. So I think it affected my mom and I both really young, my dad was a lot later to it. My dad doesn’t have that much grey hair in between dying his hair.

Barbara: Allyson, when did you stop? Did you ever dye your hair?

Allyson: Oh yeah. I dyed my hair a lot starting in the mid-‘90s but I was dying for fashion. I bleached my hair, put Manic Panic in my hair.

Barbara: What’s that?

Allyson: Ah, bright coloured …

Rita: Insane colours!

Allyson: … dye stuff. I had magenta pink for a while.

Rita: I did a Manic Panic phase in grade nine and ten. It was all the rage.

Allyson: It was awesome.

Barbara: Oh my god. I would have never done anything like that.

Allyson: I tried a few different colour things and then I started dying regularly. I went with a black and then I got stuck with that from about 1996 on because my roots would grow back in. February 2011 is the last time I dyed my hair.

Barbara: And why did you stop?

Allyson: Many different reasons. I had tried the year before to stop dying. I went to a salon and they did highlights as an “in-between” thing but it didn’t work. I panicked and felt insecure so I just went back to the black. Over the last few years, I’ve been struggling with a lot of issues around health and sensitivity to chemicals [1]. I’ve paid tons of money to see a naturopath, take all kinds of supplements, changed my diet, so it didn’t make sense to still put chemicals on my head. After dying my hair I would have a weird headache for two days. So it just seemed wrong. I have also had a lot of support from folks in my community who said, “grey hair is sexy!”

Barbara: Do any of your friends have grey hair?

Allyson: Yep.

Barbara: Your age?

Allyson: Yeah. Yeah, they do. Not full heads of grey hair but I definitely have friends with different variations of the salt and pepper, and I’m 43.

Barbara: Rita, did you get headaches when you dyed your hair?

Rita: I did actually. I switched because my partner told me that there was a specific hair dye she used that she didn’t find very tough on your hair and didn’t give her headaches because she complained about that as well. So the last one I used was called Ice Cream by Inebrya.

Barbara: Really?

Allyson: You’re not dying your hair now?

Rita: No, the last time I dyed my hair was in December of this year, and then I got a really short haircut in February, sort of like a tank girl haircut. And my hair is pretty much at its natural – but I have one tiny patch. It’s got a red hue of something still bleeding through, but other than that, my hair is natural.

Allyson: Why did you stop dying it?

Rita: I just didn’t really care about the grey and sort of liked the way my hair looked not dyed. I’m not sure what I would do or how it would look if I had all over grey. Right now it’s just concentrated in the front. It’s something that people notice and say, “oh, it’s different.” I guess it doesn’t bother me at all. Ironically it’s a fresh look. It’s very different than what everybody else around me has.

Barbara: So you both dyed your own hair?

Allyson: I dyed my own hair.

Rita: I dyed my own hair.

Allyson: What about you? What’s your dying history, Barbara?

Barbara: I put highlights in my hair in early thirties. At this time, I wanted to have a child and I didn’t want to have chemicals in my body. I was 35 when I got pregnant and I just didn’t want to have the chemical experience trying to get pregnant.

Allyson: And what age were you when you stopped dying?

Barbara: 34.

Allyson: Only two years. You’re pretty pure then!

Barbara: I’m pretty pure, yeah. I I think when I was a teenager, I had highlights put in my hair, and I remembered thinking how barbaric it was, putting this cap on and pulling all your hair through, because I had long hair. I just thought wow, this is really painful. I can’t believe women do this to their hair.

Allyson: You know, we did some research to be able to come together and talk about this, and we read some of the popular and scientific articles as well as some social science research. There were two things that really struck me from the readings. First of all, the fact that people have really only been dying their hair to the extent that people dye their hair now, for about forty years. They say that for genetics to change it takes two full generations. And so we’ve only just experienced, now, two full generations of people using chemical hair dye. The effect can be a change in the composition of the human body. The second thing that really struck me was thinking about it as a workplace hazard for people who work in salons. I was talking about how I decided to stop dying my hair as a personal choice about not wanting those chemicals on me or in me or around me, but people who work in salons are exposed to it all day long.

Rita: Yeah. It’s interesting when you go into a nail salon, a lot of the workers have masks on.

Allyson: And those dust masks do not keep the vapors from …

Rita: No, absolutely not.

Barbara: We didn’t really see a lot of articles on workplace hazards for hair stylists. There haven’t been a lot of sociological studies of hair stylists either. So, I mean, that’s still a huge gap. Why are we not studying that?

Allyson: Yeah.

Rita: I don’t, by any means, think that’s the situation has improved. I mean, sure, there’s products now that are environmentally friendly, but these aren’t the hair dyes that salons are using because salons get sponsorship by using prominent hair dye brands like Goldwell and Wella.

Allyson: There are only two or three companies right?

Rita: Exactly. And that’s the plug. If someone wants to get their hair done a particular colour they can look up a brand and see which salons carry that brand. I think it’s very much a brand name thing and to actually go after what the effects are, you would really have to target brands and look at what their chemical makeup is. So it would have to be someone that can make sense of that.

Barbara: My hair started going grey after I had Eli. And I remember when it started happening. I was going “Oh my God, what’s happening to my hair?” I thought I would be one of those people that it would happen to later. Both my partner and I have grey hair and our son is very aware of us being older parents because it’s an obvious signifier of age. Many of the kids in his school have parents that dye their hair.

Allyson: But are they the same age as you?

Barbara: We are older. I would say there’s a small group of parents who are older. I remember when I was 15, my mom is 22 years older than I am. Can you believe that? I had – have a very young mother. I was friends with a woman and her mom came in and had grey hair and I thought, “is that your grandmother?” I grew up in a neighbourhood where all the parents were young. My mom said that if you didn’t reproduce in the first year you were married, people thought there was something wrong with you. I remember meeting my friend’s mom, going “Wow, your mom is really old!” I’m her age now!

Rita: Yeah.

Allyson: (laugh) Yeah. I think it’s unusual now to see people with grey hair who are under the age of about 70.

Rita: I agree that you either don’t see it or if you see it, it’s very rare. And it is still very much, something that signifies age. I don’t think that that’s actually the case, but it’s what you see.

Allyson: It has come to signify age because of the social construction of what youth is and what age is because of people dying their hair.

Barbara: And there’s such a high premium still placed on youth. Everything that’s new is invocated in youth and normatives around being young and full of potential and promise and possibilities. That makes it really difficult to be outside of the youth narrative…

Allyson: …and also be sexual. To be sexual means to be young.

Barbara: Well, and it’s such a signifier for women. I mean, it’s interesting because men are always reproductive where with women, there’s a time limit. Men, in the heterosexual norm, have this role of being continually reproductive where women with grey hair are no longer reproductive. It’s a signifier that you are on the other side of that.

Rita: Well, that being said, what about the inverse of that? I have a part-time job at a bank and we’re right across the street from a senior citizen’s home. And every Friday when I work, we get the regular people that come in, and I’m talking about people in their late 80s, whose hair is jet-black. What happens there where hair isn’t a signifier of youth because you know

Allyson: Because the face reveals or the neck reveals.

Barbara: But grey hair is about saying I’m aging. So dying it is about resisting aging. If you don’t dye it, you are old. Even though we know looking at people that they are older than their hair colour…

Allyson: Well, that’s the thing, you know when you see a toupee. You know when you see hair implants. You know when you see, after a certain age, maybe 60-ish, the discrepancy between the hair colour and the age, because the face and neck, unless they’ve been augmented or altered, reveal a different reality.

Barbara: Men look great when they age but we don’t have any stories of women looking beautiful or wonderful when they get older.

Allyson: You mean from popular culture?

Barbara: From popular culture.

Allyson: Because we have it from life experience.

Barbara: We do. We have it from life experience. How many of us have stories or know of wonderful grandmothers or aunts who have been really important in our lives?

Allyson: Elders.

Barbara: It’s such a signifier for women. One of the points that Allyson made that’s made me reflect on all of this is the non-heteronormative act or potential of letting grey hair be seen. It is very difficult to be in a culture where all of my friends dye their hair and they see me not conforming to norms of age. It exposes them [to the fact] that they’re dying their hair.

Rita: Right. It makes me laugh when people say, “Why don’t you dye your hair anymore?” In my demographic we’ve been dying our hair since grade nine, so about 13 years. My mom has also been dying her hair since the early 80s.

Barbara: My mom dyed her hair, that’s one of the reasons why I don’t dye my hair. I helped her and I did the line with the ammonia on her head and I swore I would never, ever, ever do that. I didn’t want to be in that place where I had to maintain it.

Allyson: My mom dyes her hair and she’s 65. I was hanging out with her last week and we were chatting and I told her I was doing this article. We talked about how people say really similar things to people who have decided to let their hair go grey, like, “You have nice grey hair, I don’t.” Well, she said to me, “You have your grandmother’s nice salt and pepper hair whereas mine’s mousy.” She has been dying her hair 20 years if not 30 years, and her hair is dark brown.

Rita: My mom has got chocolate brown hair and she has been dying her hair for 31 years- she is 51. Yeah, she’s been dying her hair forever. I’m not talking once or twice a year. We’re talking every three weeks or every month.

Barbara: When my mom had money, she paid someone to dye her hair. When she didn’t have money, I did it. Once she got an allergic reaction to the hair dye and got really sick so she went and had her hair stripped. She has the most incredible head of white hair that you wouldn’t believe. She cuts it in a bob. She looks fantastic. And as soon as she saw it, she went, “Oh my God, why didn’t I do this before? Why did it take me so long to get to this?”

Allyson: This might be a good place to talk about why people dye their hair.

Rita: I think in terms of my age group, that people just don’t like their natural colour coming in and when they notice one or two grey hairs – they become paranoid. When I was in high school, bleach blonde was the thing and now people are dying their hair darker. It sort of makes grey hair easier to spot so I’m not sure if that just becomes a sick cycle of continuously dying to avoid that. I think that the biggest reason why people dye is to mask aging. I don’t know if men or women dye more,but I think that when you see a man with grey hair there is a sexiness.

Allyson: But what about the anomaly of the cougar? Of course you only get to be a cougar if you are conventionally good looking and have a, quote/unquote, good body, and then you can maybe have grey hair and be sexy, and that’s called a cougar.

Barbara: I think for women a lot of hair dying is about sexuality. It gets back to what I was saying before where men are always reproductive, but when women have grey hair it is a sign that we are no longer reproductive.

Allyson: That’s an interesting biological take on it. Something I want to add to that is thinking about cultural implications. Not to say that reproduction isn’t cultural, but there are other cultural judgments about “doing” femininity right. For example the link to Christianity and hair dying, grey haired women being associated with “the witch”, villanizing the woman who was in control of her own faculties.

Barbara: Well, at some level when you do have grey hair you are signifying that you don’t need men anymore. Men always need women in the pursuit of reproduction so it opens up different kinds of possibilities around sexuality. But it’s not, a potential of “Wow, what kind of sexuality can this person have with this grey hair.” We don’t think, “wow, look, she’s really sexy, she’s got grey hair, I can’t wait to get into bed with her.”

Allyson: Well, I don’t know. Some people I know do.

Barbara: Yeah?

Allyson: Yeah, lots of women I know find other women with grey hair really sexy. To flip that a little bit, when I first started thinking about not dying my hair, I got really obsessed with looking around me for people my age who had grey hair. It seemed to me that the only other women I saw who were in their early 40s who had grey hair, um, were queer. And not necessarily queer in relation to sexuality but queer in relation to politics as a kind of resistance to beauty norms, or they are feminists, environmentalists, related to folks who alley themselves with marginalized people in terms of race and ability and class and borders. People who don’t want to play the game and want to mark themselves as not playing the game.

Rita: Resistance.

Allyson: So it’s a resistance. It’s not just about someone making a personal choice. It is much larger …

Rita: Barbara, I would never, in a million years, guess that your hair was natural.

Barbara: We don’t know what grey hair looks like coming in because we don’t see women letting their hair grow in. I’ve been graying since I was 35. Every year it gets more and more white or whatever it is. Lots of people say to me “oh, you’re lucky it came in like this.” What do they mean “I’m lucky”? We really don’t know what it looks like on women. I think it requires a certain kind of confidence and politics to not participate.

Allyson: People are saying “you look young for somebody who has grey hair” is the kind of weird territory that I’m really interested in. I let my hair grow grey as a type of anti-assimilationist strategy. Grey hair on a younger face and body shows a different relationship to time. Thinking about time in this way is the thin edge of the wedge of what’s happening in queer theory right now. A lot of people are writing about temporality, queer temporality, Jack Halberstam, Jose Munoz, [and] Elizabeth Freeman in particular, and I was thinking about what these folks say about heteronormative time. That is, time dictated by the clocks of heteronormativity around accepted aging practices or life markers, like going to school, getting married, having children. Because of the connection between feminized beauty to power and youth, we have this contingent of people trying to look the same age bracket by eliminating their grey hair. If people look the same from the age of 30-70 by dying their hair then revealing the gradual process of aging by showing grey hair growing in is actually making visible a different relationship to time – a queer temporality.

Barbara: Yes, I think that’s a really useful insight. I think that’s what makes younger people with grey hair stand out because they’re challenging the norms around aging, around the high valuation of youth. Grey hair is an absolute statement that you’re not participating in the norms of youth.

Allyson: But, that’s the trick. My argument is that you kind of are because if queer time is about a politics of refusal, right, refusing to grow up and enter the heteronormative adulthoods that are implied by the concepts of progress or maturity, if maturity means that you continue to dye your hair and not look old, then there’s actually this kind of weird, queer wavering or wiggly space for people who maintain their youth by maintaining their grey hair.

Rita: So it’s like a spin on resistance, is what you’re saying.

Allyson: I’m just thinking it through. It might be convoluted but there’s a riddle here that is a trick around time. If you’re refusing to adhere to the norms and one of those refusals is to actually “show” aging …. it’s refusing by showing the progress of time in a very different way than time is thought of according to the heteronormative clock.

Barbara: …grey hair reveals time.

Rita: I think it goes back to what you were saying, Barbara, in terms of that negotiated space where your peers don’t want you to not dye your hair because it reveals a lot about them that they’re actually trying to hide.

Barbara: It is the reveal. I am revealing. When somebody guesses my age they know that this is what 51 year olds look like. This is the kind of grey hair they should have.

Allyson: And what you are revealing is a kind of failure. It is a failure for you to perform femininity and/or age and/or body and/or ability in the way that you’re supposed to. To pull it back again to these ideas from queer theory, think about virtuosity and being able to perform racialized, gendered, classed identities and subjectivities well. The failure to do those well can be seen as queer. Failure is, to bring it back to Judith Butler’s ideas of performativity, the fissures and the slippages….. grey roots peaking out of that dyed veneer. Failure reveals the performance of age as a performance. So grey hair is a failure to do heteronormative time correctly.

Rita: Yeah.

Barbara: Absolutely.

Allyson: And isn’t that a crazy riddle that revealing a process of aging is a failure? That seems very exciting to me. There’s great potential to mess up the norm by showing grey hairs.

Barbara: So what are the conditions that allow some women to not dye their hair and others to continue to prescribe to it?

Rita: Notions of passing, are you passing as someone that’s below your age? I think you might be in an age category where one person has a lot of grey hair and they look much older than the group, but having that person in your life makes you feel younger and so you dye your hair because you feel like “oh, if this is someone advanced and I’m still behind that, I’m okay with where I am.” I think a lot of what you’re talking about is that failure and those notions of passing. How well do I pass, what age do I pass for? I hear a lot of people say that all the time when people ask what year were you born or how old are you? They answer, ”Well, how old do I look?”

Allyson: That’s what makes it weird is that having grey hair in your 40s or 50s in this place, in this time, in this location, makes age harder to read. I don’t think grey hair makes age easier to read because, as Barbara was saying, we don’t have anything to read it against.

Barbara: Yeah. What would it look like if women didn’t dye their hair, man? I would love to see what hair really looks like. I would love to see it on Jennifer Aniston or Courtney Cox for example.

Allyson: Well, on that note, one concern about this discussion is I don’t want to come off as being judgmental or sounding judgmental about people who dye their hair.

Barbara: Absolutely not. I think that there are tremendous things that you do for decoration. Makeup, the way we dress, is all about saying something about who we are. I think decoration is really important. I think what is troubling to me is when it becomes an imperative …

Allyson: Right.

Barbara: … and then you don’t have a way out. And when you do challenge it there are costs. I’m not saying that it’s a burden to have grey hair or whatever, but to occupy that place – there are certain things that I’ve given up. I’ve given up a certain ambiguity around people guessing how old I am. I’m semi-invested in having people think I look good for my age.

Allyson: But we disagreed with you about that. We disagreed that people can know your age because of your hair.

Rita: It reminded me that I had a friend in elementary school and similarly, both of her parents didn’t dye their hair. And they probably were not that much older than my parents but to me, who saw my parents with dyed hair… her parents seemed like a glimpse far, far into the future of what I’d expect my parents to look like in twenty years.

Barbara: Right. But I guess what I’m telling you is that I am aware that by participating in this I was consciously aware that I was not going to be able to play youth. I knew consciously that I was going to occupy this other kind of place around femininity. And I was okay with it. And if more women did it, I think we would have a wider range available to women when they get older about how they can represent themselves.

Rita: I think the question that goes with that is what would have to happen for women to do that? What needs to change for more women to be onboard with that?

Barbara: Well, I think the queering thing is really important …

Rita: And as much as we don’t want to dwell on that either, it’s definitely a pop culture thing.

Barbara: Where are the images of older women in our culture?

Allyson: There aren’t very many. We see a white haired granny or a long grey-haired “witch” and there was a little blip last spring where grey hair was on the runway, but it was young women dying their hair grey – Kate Moss, Kelly Osborne, Pixie Geldof. And that 13 year old woman, what’s her name who has that fashion blog …? Tavi! They all dyed their hair grey, but it was copying something that was being done on the runway and they were all “fashion” people, so it was okay within those parameters. But it was still a kind of resistance, even if it’s used as a ploy to create a sensational or shocking image. There’s a comment and a discourse that’s created by that being shocking …

Barbara: I also think there are issues here about how you want to engage in this stuff. The larger environmental issues, making demands in the market and the economy around …

Rita: So there’s still, I guess, a resistance but in another form, obviously. It seems like that’s the main thing, resistance in different forms. Not necessarily negating the other group and saying, you should be doing this.

Allyson: To be a “good” feminist …

Rita: Exactly.

Allyson: … a good environmentalist …

Rita: Yeah.

Allyson: … a good queer, whatever.

Barbara: That always gets my back up.

Allyson: Yeah, nobody wants to be that guy.

Rita: No.

Barbara: But I do think, though, around the grey hair, I was aware of the conscious participation in aging, but there weren’t a lot of ways to represent that I was going to go somewhere that I wouldn’t necessarily be rewarded for it. And here are the ways you hear about it; “oh, if mine looked like that, I would let mine grow like that”; um, “oh, yours is coming in really nicely”; “I’m glad she’s doing but I wouldn’t do it”. You just let everybody know how old you are.

Rita: What about getting Botox to mask age?

Barbara: I think anything we do in pursuit of youth – the kind of body regimes have been introduced to sustain a certain kind of youthful appearance. Being toned is all about how to defeat the aging body. It’s not about how to accept it. It’s not about how to enjoy it. I also think the other thing about grey hair for women is, in my context, around not being sexual, is that somehow it signifies that I’m not interested in that kind of stuff and I think “well, I am.”

Rita: The assumptions.

Barbara: Yeah.

Rita: Yeah … It’s scary.

Barbara: I think decorating is important and I often think about Kathryn Morgan’s article on cosmetic surgery. She argues that cosmetic surgery is the norm. She says, it has the potential to make us all kinds of things but what do we all want to look like in cosmetic surgery? Particular nose, particular eyes, it’s a particular kind of femininity, masculinity and often whiteness.

Deirdre (Logue): Hello, everyone.

Allyson: Hi.

Barbara: Do you dye your hair?

Deirdre: Oh God, no. Never have. What I want to know is are you guys going to address the “matching the drapes” issue?

Rita: We did not talk about it.

Allyson: (laugh) We did not talk about the curtains matching the drapes.

Barbara: Where is that situation?

Deirdre: It’s this situation. This grey hair situation here. (points at her crotch)

Barbara: Oh!

Deirdre: I’m sorry to bring it up.

Allyson: But do women who dye their hair to cover the grey also dye their pubes?

Rita: I’d say no.

Deirdre: Well, the reason I ask is because I think that women in sexual scenarios would be concerned about there being a co-ordination …

Barbara: No, because we’re not sexual when we have grey hair.

Allyson: And I would argue that a lot of women who dye their hair also rip their pubes. I would think that the pubes are ripped.

Barbara: Really?

Rita: No, wait! That’s a huge assumption.

Allyson: I know.

Rita: No, no, no, no, no!

Allyson: This isn’t going in the article. That’s not going in the article.

Rita: Are you cool with that? Are you cool with making an assumption?

Allyson: No, I’m not. That’s why I’m saying it’s not going in the article. This is the more the relaxed after-conversation.

Barbara: Oh, no …


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Barbara Crow is 51 years old with half a head of grey hair. She works at York University as the Associate Dean of Research in the Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies and is the co-director of the Mobile Media Lab.

Ana Rita Morais has embraced her natural silver highlights from the moment they started coming in at age 19. Now 24, she is a masters student in the joint Communication and Culture program at Ryerson and York University.

Allyson Mitchell is a 43 year old novice silverback. She is an Assistant Professor in Women’s Studies and Sexuality Studies at York University, an artist and she runs FAG Feminist Art Gallery in Toronto with Deirdre Logue.