This week, guest blogger Louise Pendry shares her story of finding her authentic self.
Discovering what authenticity feels like FOR ME as a silver-haired woman
I stopped dyeing my hair three years ago. I let my silver hair grow in and I love it. Truly. A common reaction among those of us who’ve gone this route is that we feel more authentic. And I do. I think. No, I do, but this process has been about more than just hair. So much has changed for me. I would be lying if I didn’t fess up to wondering just how much about me was, strictly speaking, that authentic. Let me explain.
Because, you see, a recurring conundrum for me around going grey has been the gnarly issue of authenticity. Embracing my natural silver hair is one thing, but if anything I have become more concerned, not less, about my appearance in other ways. In her book Going Gray Anne Kreamer talks about giving yourself the full 360 degree treatment after going grey, looking at yourself from every angle, and I think I did this. I chose a sharp signature haircut and made sure I maintained it. I took notice of my make up, and made changes to soften it, to wear less. I scrutinized my wardrobe. It turns out many of the colours I’d preferred before no longer suited my silver hair. So over time I treated myself to new clothes. I tried new styles, too, some that I’d previously discounted as being too young for me. Tried them, and loved them! Brightly coloured Converses? Check. Leather jacket? Bring it on! Dungarees? Hell, yes! Who knew clothes could be so much fun? I became more aware of the need to age healthily, to eat better, exercise more. I just felt I wanted to do this ageing thing in the best way I could. What was happening?
I discussed this with many people. I asked them, “Was I now silver-haired mutton dressed as lamb, trying too hard?” Was I dressing younger to fool people, to offset the ageing effect of my silver hair? Just where was the authenticity in all this? The answer I got very much depended upon who I asked. Those who were rather skeptical about my going grey in the first place cautioned me, told me to be careful I didn’t start drawing even more attention to myself. My hair was already a silver beacon advertising my ageing presence, pile on “too young for me” clothes, they kindly proffered, and I’d end up the subject of ridicule. Surely, I didn’t want that. Better, perhaps, to just try to blend in more, to dress in the kind of shapeless dowdy clothes Helen Walmsley-Johnson in her book The Invisible Woman dubs Menopause Chic. Well I’m not fussed about blending in any more, and it struck me as kind of ironic that this advice, from people who had not so long ago urged me not to stop dyeing for fear of looking old, was now urging me to do precisely that – to wear clothes that went with grey hair. It was as though I’d chosen to leave their “Defy ageing club,” in part, and I didn’t really belong any more. They could still dabble in ageless fashion, but not me. I’d defected to the other side and needed to face up to this. These well-meant suggestions just didn’t sit well with me. In fact what I started to realize was that if I did go this route, I was conforming to a societally prescribed authenticity that was in itself a stereotype: other people’s expectations about what a grey haired women in her fifties should look like: sensible and staid. Authentically middle-aged, in other words. Well b*llocks to that.
Unsurprisingly, I got a different perspective from friends who had also gone grey. I posed a question to members of my Going Grey Facebook group along the lines of: “What is authenticity? Am I really being authentic when I’m making so much effort to do other stuff alongside going grey like taking care of my health and my looks and wardrobe?” One of the members asked me whose definition of authenticity I was following, and sent me the quote below. The essential point was that it’s up to me, no one else, to decide how I look, and what I consider to be authentic. I have decided I am authentic. I don’t need anyone’s permission here.
I posed the same question to one of the few male members of my going grey group. His reply was that basically, authenticity was for me to decide, no one else. That I could wear a white rabbit on my head and if it felt right to me, then that was all that mattered really! He shared an article on his page, a wry rejoinder to the increasingly prescriptive list of sartorial commandments dictating what Thou shalt and shalt not wear that one often sees circulating on Facebook. It was entitled “24 things women over thirty should wear” and listed 24 photographs of far older women clad in a variety of totally cool and wild outfits. The heading for each was “Whatever the f*ck she wants.” Quite. Maybe I’m just over-thinking this.
In my research on this topic, I encountered Christiane Northrup’s celebration of older women: Goddesses Never Age. Much about this book resonates with what I’ve evolved into thinking over the past few years. It’s a liberating account of the healing powers of self-nurturing, self-acceptance and self-love. Learning to love oneself as an older woman can seem selfish, immodest and weird, at least it did to me. But the deal here is that when you achieve it, there is more of yourself to give back to others, so it’s a win-win situation. Part of this self-love encompasses owning your beauty, expressing yourself honestly, and not being confined in the process by the date on your birth certificate if you don’t want to be. This extends to your personal style. She urges women that part of being ageless is about being daring and courageous and taking risks if you so choose. It’s about not succumbing to what other people and clothing manufacturers think is appropriate for you in terms of style and hair. Exercising your right to be who you really are, and to express this in your styling choices is a way of owning your beauty and authenticity. Yep, I can sign up to that.
In any case, clothing is becoming more generic, less age bound lately. In part, this is a response to the high street finally realizing that we older women are an increasingly diverse bunch. The so-called “grey market” today is a multi-faceted thing and this is reflected in debates around whether lifestyle, rather than age, would be a better way of carving up the market here. If we are now older fitter wrinklies, then perchance we can be allowed, nay encouraged, to wear attire that our younger fitter counterparts might wear and to do so without fear of ridicule. A recent Daily Telegraph article observed that ‘In today’s Converse-and-jeans uniform, worn by everyone from 10 to 70, you often can’t tell how old a woman is from behind.’ Precisely. My eighteen year old daughter has stolen stuff from my wardrobe and I’ve been known to plunder hers when the fancy takes me. A slightly different route, as espoused by new fashion line The Bias Cut, for example, is to curate beautiful stylish clothes, with flattering, colorful, timeless cuts that cater to the more mature woman in terms of quality, style and fit, yet are created for women of any age. These clothes don’t conform to fuddy-duddy ageist stereotypes. Featuring styles modelled by real women, this is a place where women can “shop with attitude” safe in the knowledge that for its founder, Jacynth Bassett, “ageism is never in style”. That’s more like it.
And this blurring of the lines between age and clothing may have additional health benefits for older women, too. Research by psychologist Ellen Langer suggests if we feel older, we age faster, and this even extends to the clothes we wear. Becca Levy’s pioneering stereotype embodiment work also reminds us how the age stereotypes we hold about ourselves can affect both our physical and cognitive health, for better or for worse (for more on this, please see here: self-stereotypes about age ). I’m loving this phase of my life and I’ve no plans to stop. Ever. For the good of my health, and because I am an (aspiring) Ageless Goddess who just happens to have perennially cool silver hair. Now THAT is my kind of authentic!
How to age well
Don’t tell me how to age well.
You are not me and I am not you.
Finally, I know how, for me.
Not with fakery,
nor with denial,
but with my silver head held high.
I’ll wear it how I want and yes, that may even include long hair; you might call it witchy.
I do not.
We are mermaids.
By whose law are we obliged to cut off our apparently age-inappropriate tresses once we reach
a certain age?
And I’ll wear it with what I want.
Which will most likely not be a twin set and pearls.
Or sensible slacks with an elasticated waist.
Or frumpy shoes.
Not my style.
Who determines the right age to cast off the clothes I have always loved wearing?
If I am happy in my skinny jeans and Converses, they will continue to enjoy a hallowed space in my wardrobe.
If I want to embrace my inner biker chick, well, darn it, I will!
Old lady hair and teenage apparel,
what a bundle of contradictions I have become.
You just don’t quite know how to take me, do you?
Get used to it.
I may wear make-up or I may not.
There are no rules here,
or if there are, I will wilfully
We age any way we damn well please.
I’ll do my ageing my way.
About the Author:
Louise Pendry is a fifty something Senior Lecturer in Psychology at the University of Exeter. Over the past twenty years, she has published articles focusing on online communities, stereotyping and prejudice. She’s delighted to be able to combine her academic background with her long-standing personal interest in and (more recently) her lived experience of women and ageing. Currently she is exploring how online communities can help support women experiencing identity transitions as they grow older, whatever route they take. A passionate believer in women being able to style themselves as they please without fear of ridicule, she has been known to plunder her eighteen year old daughter’s wardrobe looking for style inspiration and loves that her daughter is just as likely to steal stuff of hers. In her job as a lecturer, she’s come across research suggesting that this blurring of the lines between age and clothing may have additional health benefits for older women. She hopes that it may also go some way towards dismantling outdated prescriptive stereotypes about what older women “ought to wear”. Summing up Louise’s style philosophy and outlook on ageing, she says: “I enjoy wearing whatever I like, trashing and distancing myself from those negative prescriptive age stereotypes and confusing the hell out of everyone I meet. For the good of my health and because that is my kind of authentic!”