In 2010, when she was 35, Jacquelyn Collins stopped dyeing her hair for two reasons. The first was the cost in time and money, the second was Jacq felt more significantly that colouring her grey hair was in contradiction to her feminist principles.
I stopped dyeing my hair because I no longer wanted to spend at least a couple of hours every four weeks in a hair salon. I also didn’t want to pay for colouring my hair on a regular basis (and didn’t want to pay for cheaper dye and try to do it at home – I am pale, my hair colour was brown, and I was insufficiently dextrous to manage the job without dyeing my ears and having strange dye markings on my forehead and neck).
If you’re disinterested in feminist discourse, this would be a good place to stop reading.
I believe that, whether we choose to accept or acknowledge it, ALL women living in the developed world are viewed according to a very narrow set of appearance standards, and we all follow those standards to some degree.
This does not make us ‘bad feminists’: it makes us people who may choose to challenge some standards but not others. This can be because we have internalised some of the appearance standards so successfully that we genuinely believe that we choose to prefer a certain look entirely independently of the societal expectations placed upon us – and it’s very hard to test that, because you’d need to raise somebody entirely free of the influence of appearance standards, which is virtually impossible. Signs of this thinking can be seen a lot when you do what I did, and stop colouring your hair: I’ve honestly lost count of the number of friends who have told me that they think my hair, which must be at least 40% grey now (and ‘grey’ is a euphemism – my hair is going white), looks great, but that they can’t imagine doing the same thing because their hair won’t look as good as mine. Actually, that’s a lie: virtually everybody I know with whom I’ve ever talked about my lack of hair colour has made that comment, so I could pretty much add up all of the female friends and family members I’ve spoken to in the past six years, and give you a precise figure. These women genuinely don’t believe that they will be able to ‘pull off’ grey hair. And it’s true that, in some lights, my greying hair looks sun-bleached, or even deliberately highlighted. But let’s be honest: you don’t have to look at it for long before you realise that it’s just grey hair:
It can also be that we are well aware that we routinely accept appearance standards, despite knowing that they are unfair, unrealistic, or unattainable. There’s no shame in that – we are social creatures, and it’s important to us to be accepted and recognised by our broader tribe. However, I believe that we shouldn’t be disingenuous about it. We can acknowledge that we feel pressure to look a certain way (even if it’s self-inflicted pressure, because we’ve grown up believing that only smooth legs are attractive, or that wrinkles are ugly, and now we can’t de-programme ourselves), but that we continue to meet the appearance standard regardless. Or it could be that we’re steadily trying to de-programme ourselves, one element at a time. It takes confidence to do that, and some women never obtain it in sufficient quantities to reject even one of the appearance standards. There’s nothing wrong with that – but, again, I think it’s a good thing to be cognisant of what’s going on.
The appearance standards aren’t a new phenomenon: women have been expected to look a certain way for a long time, and certainly long before the proliferation of mass media that we now often hold accountable for the appearance standards against which we’re judged. In virtually every example, appearance standards have developed from what heterosexual men consider to be attractive at the relevant point in time. It has been a few centuries since both men and women felt obliged to wear makeup, elaborate wigs, and restrictive or excessively decorative clothing in order to appear fashionable or attractive. Men recognised that time spent on adorning themselves was time that could be better spent on any number of alternative pursuits, and men’s fashion and appearance standards became simpler. However, the standards for women continued, and still continue.
Some examples of the appearance standards that apply almost exclusively to women include:
- Maintaining an artificially low body weight;
- Wearing makeup;
- Removing body hair in order to have smooth skin (instead of to avoid a beard);
- Wearing restrictive or impractical clothing;
- Using cosmetic surgery or other procedures to avoid or correct signs of ageing; and
- Dyeing grey hair.
These points highlight the key theme of the appearance standards applied to women: the value placed on women appearing as young as possible, for as long as possible. Men are allowed to age gracefully, but women are encouraged by a wide range of subtle and blatant practices to view any physical evidence of ageing as intrinsically unattractive. There’s a reason for this, of course: historically men have valued women primarily as the bearers of their children, and as we age we obviously lose the ability to conceive.
So, when we wear makeup to make our complexions look smooth, with the flushed cheeks and darker lips that mimic sexual arousal, we’re emphasising youth. If we shave our underarms, legs, and bikini lines, we’re harking back to the time when we were younger and didn’t have as much body hair. Younger women are often slim, and as we get older we tend to gain weight (particularly after having children). I believe that all of these statements apply, even if we don’t fully appreciate that these reasons are why we feel compelled to wear makeup, remove body hair, or stay as slim as possible. And the blatant attempts to conceal ageing through cosmetic procedures and the cover-up of grey hair really don’t need any further explanation.
I think it’s obvious why this is all anti-feminist: feminism is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as ‘the advocacy of women’s rights on the ground of the equality of the sexes.’ Appearance standards that apply almost exclusively to women are, by definition, anti-feminist. Obviously, there are some exceptions – there are some men who choose to colour their grey hair, or use cosmetic surgery or other procedures to combat the physical signs of ageing. We live in a rabidly anti-fat modern society, so men also may feel pressure to view their body fat with disgust (although you don’t see many men around who are maintaining an artificially low body weight). And many younger men take a great deal of pride in their general grooming and personal appearance – but the effort required will almost always extend no further than having a good haircut, and shaving regularly. Recently, shaving has become less of an issue in light of the hipster fashion for beards, that most masculine of facial accessory.
For the most part, the men in our lives spend a tiny fraction of their time devoted to their appearance, particularly when compared to the time spent by the women in our lives. What confounds me is how – even in an age where I honestly know of very few women who, when forced to set aside their prejudices against the term ‘feminist’ and whatever undesirable political or social connotations it holds for them, and instead just acknowledge its true meaning, wouldn’t qualify as feminists – so many of us keep obeying the appearance standards. We don’t question why it is that, for example, men’s underarm hair is totally normal, but women’s underarm hair is regarded as ‘dirty’ or ‘gross’, and cultures where women don’t shave under their arms are ridiculed for it. Do women have special magical underarm hair that becomes more offensive when they sweat? Or is it simply because any normal bodily odours are regarded as ‘unfeminine’, and woe betide any woman that doesn’t value and emphasise her femininity?
And pertinent to the topic of colouring grey hair: why is my 72 year old mother unwilling to stop dyeing her hair, because she feels like it will make her look like an old lady (despite being an absolute legend who got her law degree in her fifties and is still practising, helping families in crisis on a daily basis), while my 72 year old father has snow white hair, and not much of it left, but wouldn’t dream of concealing it? My mother is quite justified in her concerns, in my opinion: in a professional context people possibly would make negative assumptions about her competence and mental acuity, based on their perception of how older women typically think and behave, but those people would almost certainly not make the same assumptions regarding my father. My mother has a young face, and with dyed hair she does look younger than 72. Like I said, it’s a man’s world.
So, I stopped colouring my grey hair because I was fed up with imposing yet another appearance standard on myself, and, in particular, an ageist appearance standard. I refuse to accept the idea that greying hair is ugly, or that looking older is a bad thing, or that getting older is a bad thing. We systematically undervalue older people in society, and it is a disgrace. One day soon it’ll be our parents who are being disregarded and seen as sexless, witless, and irrelevant, on account of their age – and then, before you know it, it’ll be us.
Like I said earlier, many women with strong feminist sensibilities are on a de-programming spectrum when it comes to appearance standards – and many more of us are entirely and unhappily aware of the appearance standards, but choose to keep obeying them. I don’t colour my grey hair, but here’s what I still do:
- Prefer to be a body weight that is on the light side of healthy for my height;
- Wear makeup on occasion (although I’ve stopped wearing it at all on a day to day basis);
- Remove ‘excess’ body hair (in the summer, at least); and
- Make at least some attempt to wear flattering clothes, most of the time.
The above list is why I have no judgement for anybody who chooses to get Botox, dye their hair, live on a permanent diet, put their makeup on as soon as they wake up each morning, and remove all hair south of their eyelashes. Also, I have no judgement because it’s none of my business what other women choose to do to their bodies. However, I do harshly judge women who feel that it’s appropriate to criticise other women who have rejected certain appearance standards (and this includes consumers of magazines that gleefully highlight any apparent step away from the appearance standards by celebrities who may have gained weight, or neglected to get a face lift after their thirtieth birthday). My suggestion is this: rather than making unpleasant remarks about somebody’s hairy legs or whatever, we should probably wonder what we can do to gain the same amount of body confidence that the hairy-legged woman possesses – after all, she’s turned her back on something that most of us are still enslaved by. And any woman who negatively comments on the physical signs of ageing in another woman needs to worry less about what people look like, and more about what people do.
Do you agree? Let us know in the comments.