A dear friend sends out a question on Facebook. Should she let herself go grey, or keep colouring her hair? Ah, I think, here is a glorious question, and one on which I have many, many thoughts. I am on the verge of writing her a long and winding answer when I think – no, this deserves to be a blog. This deserves to breathe.
I’ve been thinking a lot about women lately, and especially about us women in our fifties. I thought about it because a brilliant, vibrant, talented woman I know said, the other day, quite casually, that she often feels invisible. I’d read strangers saying this on Twitter, and every time I saw it I felt a little piece of my heart break.
I’d been thinking about make-up too, which should not be an interesting subject, but is. One of the famous YouTube professors once said, ‘Why do you make your lips red? Because they turn red during sexual arousal. Why do you put rouge on your cheeks? Same reason.’ I was utterly baffled by this. Have I really been dancing around my empty house during the long weeks of lockdown with my lipstick on because I wanted to mimic the sexy sex? There were only my two lurchers to see, and they were not thinking about the evolutionary psychology of red lips, but whether I was going to give them a Bonio or not.
My lipstick is a symbol, but it has nothing to do with me trying to pretend that I am still fecund. That dear old ship has sailed, as my ovaries shut up shop and my oestrogen gently ebbs. My red lips are a sign of defiance, a sign that I have not given up, a sign that I am still here. There were sixty-four long days at the beginning of lockdown when I would go days without seeing another human. The only people I did see were the scant villagers in the local shop, where I went to get food once a week. Yet I put my lipstick on, every day. I really don’t think I was trying to remind the shoppers in the Co-Op that there was still such a thing as sexual arousal. (I very much hope not. They had enough to worry about.)
The debate over the grey hair, the baffling lipstick remark, the talk of invisibility – all these tell the same story. It’s the story that women only really count as sexual beings. We have the sex and we have the babies and that’s all she wrote. Which is why so many people think that when the menopause comes, that’s the end of the story. I hear the voice of Leonard Cohen in my head: ‘Sing another song boys, this one has grown old and bitter.’
Except, I don’t think it’s the end of the story. I think it’s the beginning.
Having children, being mothers, propagating the species is an epic tale. It’s George Eliot and Tolstoy and Victor Hugo. It’s one of those books you can’t put down. It’s got unexpected twists and subtexts without number and every single human emotion.
But you don’t just read one kind of book in your life. Sometimes you want haikus or short stories or some fabulous non-fiction. Women can tell more than one story. And since we humans are the stories we tell ourselves, this is important.
When my beautiful, brilliant friend asked her question about the hair, this is what I wanted to say: grey is just a colour. She will be the same glorious, funny, big-hearted human being whatever her hair looks like. What matters is what makes her happy.
Some greys are enchanting. I love the hard metal grey that some women go, what you’d call iron grey in a horse. My mother, who was naturally blonde, went an ethereal platinum in her very old age, and it looked like a whisper or a promise. I did grow my hair out a few years ago, curious to see what my natural colour was, and it turned out to be an exceptionally dull mouse blonde with flat grey streaks in it. I didn’t care about the grey, I just didn’t like the colour, in the same way I don’t like blazing orange or boring beige. So I went down to the chemist and got a nice box of dye and put the hair back to unapologetic blonde.
All the way through the lockdown, I cut my hair with the kitchen scissors and dyed it and put my lipstick on, because even though there were days when I was literally invisible to the human eye, I wanted to be visible to myself. I wanted to create my own preferred aesthetics. I have to look at myself in the glass each morning, and I want to be able to smile at the sight.
The grey, though, carries stories of its own, and they all contradict each other. If you do go grey, you are past it, you have given up, you have accepted your decline. But it you carrying on colouring your hair, you are going against nature, you are faking it, you are being superficial. (Goodness knows what story the famous prof would tell about that.)
As I looked through the answers to the going grey question, I saw one that gave me the familiar cracked heart feeling. My friend, wrote one woman, says that women lose power at menopause and that grey hair adds to that loss.
I stopped to think about that. It struck me how often I write about ‘The Women’ as if we are a monolith, my sisters and I. And it’s true that we do have things in common, those humming subterranean secrets that men will never quite know. I don’t think I shall ever feel more understood in my life than I feel when I am with my women. But women are no more a block than men are; all of us are idiosyncratic, unexpected individuals, with our own dreams and wants and ideas. I realise I can only speak for my own self when I say that I don’t see the whole loss of power thing. I’ve never felt more powerful and more visible than I do now, at the age of fifty-four. I feel strong because I’ve lived long enough on this planet to learn stuff.
I teach, and when I teach what I’m giving to my students is my experience. That’s the secret sauce, as the Americans say. That’s what I did not have when I was young. I had a head full of book learning but I had no life learning. I hadn’t been knocked around enough; existence had not yet tested me to my limits.
Clive James once wrote, in one of his most haunting passages, ‘Knowing you will survive doesn’t make it any easier to bear.’ I think it does. I think that is precisely what gives you the power that comes with age. They hurled the kitchen sink at you, and you are still standing. Let’s throw a parade for that.
Luckily, the women with the melancholy friend also turned out to have a sanguine friend. This one said ‘Attitude – the way one carries oneself, how good one feels in one’s skin – matters.’ And then she herself wrote, ‘I absolutely never want to conform to someone else’s idea of beauty. I want to understand my own idea, and live it.’ Yes, I thought. Yes and yes and yes and yes. That’s why the grey does not matter, that’s why you are as powerful as you choose to be, that’s why you can put your lipstick on and dance.
When I’m working with my writing students, the most important thing I do is help them to find their own voice. I can’t teach them that, because it comes from somewhere deep inside; it lives in that liminal space where creativity thrives, a beautiful, wild country between the conscious and the subconscious. It’s a glorious land, where there are no borders and there are no rules and the only limit on the imagination is the far horizon.
I can’t teach it, but I can encourage them to go looking for it. And once they find it, they can tell their own story, sing their own song, run their own race. I want them to run free. I want to run free.
Power is in the mind, not in a number. Grey is an aesthetic, not a state of mind. The stories we women tell ourselves can be brave stories or fearful stories, stories filled with hope or stories of defeat. Perhaps the loveliest thing in life is that we really do get to choose our own stories. In the last two years, I’ve been through times of such grief and loss and shock that I thought my human body would not bear it. There were times when I told myself the story that went, ‘I can’t take this. Not again. This is too much.’ And then I would catch myself and remember that I had agency. The death was real; the pain was real. I could not escape those or change those. But I could tell myself another story about them.
I started to see the griefs that come with age as something more than suffering. I decided to see them as learning. They had come to teach me something. They taught me patience and compassion and gentleness. They taught me the true meaning of empathy. They stopped me judging everyone so strictly, including myself. They showed me what really mattered in life. I became devoted to the small things – the tiny, daily kindnesses and beauties and moments of delight. I cherished those up, and they helped me go on.
I knew I could survive, and that did not just make it easier to bear, it made life truly precious, and that knowledge is a gift beyond price.