I’m just back from a wedding in the city of mandapams and katcheris, and of marriages made as a result of discussions over good strong decoction kaapi. I’m also just back from one of those weddings, this one of course not decided by the exchange of yellow and red dotted jadakams (horoscopes) but by the meeting of two young minds that had grown up together. The wedding is incidental to this post, however, which bears upon matters much more trivial. But the wedding provided the context, the backdrop, against which my determination to not be lured by the promoters of “youngistan” was sorely tested.
You see, I’ve entered the “grey zone” in the past year or so, having decided not to give in to increasingly strident voices in advertising that urge one to “stay young” and buy into the cult of youth, that treats ageing as a pathology to be aggressively tackled and stayed at any cost. The cult of youth comes with a huge price tag, hung innocuously on off-the-shelf goods like anti-wrinkle cream and hair colour (remember the young girl who tells her sister—“Safed baal! Didi, my life is over!”) as well as more visibly on hoardings that advertise brow lifts and anti-ageing treatments that “keep you looking young”. Those who are allowed to turn grey are no longer the parents, but only the grandparents who are safely in their seventies and eighties with no hope of a “life” as the youthful copywriters imagine it. Those in the middle zone—the 40s, 50s and 60s, must look young if they are to partake in that “life” in any way!
So, here I am, pushing the half century (very hard) and like Clarissa Vaughn in Michael Cunningham’s The Hours, very decidedly and “defiantly” grey. And strangely enough, I meet with a subtle disapproval, not unlike that meted out to outrageous piercings and tattoos sported by those much younger. Comments range from a fairly even “Oh, so you’ve decided to take the gracefully ageing route?” to “You seem to be really busy, you’ve gone quite grey!” (implying that I do not have the time or the inclination to take care of my appearance). I’m still not totally immune to these reactions that vary from the said disapproval to pity but I do take refuge in my mental images of the stately and still beautiful and very grey Nafisa Ali and many other silver-haired women I know, and stick to my guns, usually responding with no more than a smile.
My greyness is as much a cultural and political statement as it is a matter of convenience. I have no quarrel at all with those who choose to “stay the grey” with L’Oreal or Revlon or even good old kali mehndi and tea leaves, in fact I admire how they look. But I myself do not have the patience or the perseverance to check my roots week after week and ensure that they are adequately covered with the right dash of colour—not too black, not too brown, just the right shade in between. But there’s another side to the story. And that’s the argument that holds in the long run. Why have we as a race privileged youth above all other stages in life? The market is geared to their appetites and whims, often sacrificing good taste and good values in order to pander to their tastes in everything from the texture of fabric to the storylines of soap operas. They are the big consumers, so everything fit to be consumed is directed at their wallets and their eyeballs and earlobes.
Of course, the youth cult is nothing new; now it just has a bigger machine to fuel it and sell to it. And there are more places where it can be worshipped. I haven’t yet been able to find a nice, stylish coffee bar where the music is muted, the magazines on the tables are cerebral, and there are people of all ages, maybe just as many with salt and pepper hair as those with gelled spikes. Or a bookstore where I am not pointed to the spirituality section just because of the color of my hair!
I know a lot of really “cool” people, many of whom have radical and very progressive opinions and lifestyles, and who have chosen to let the silver spread through their hair without resistance. While we talk about getting past superficial judgments based on how we look and dress and speak, what about avoiding judgments based on the level of grey in one’s hair?
The wellness industry has expanded its horizons by making age a pathology, and moving closer to the beauty industry so that the margins between the two are now blurred. Is Botox a treatment for nervous tics and muscular spasms or is it a means of erasing lines and the signs of age? Is a brow lift a means of treating a potential threat to vision or is it a way of defining the eye so as to prettify it? But these and other such treatments take us into another area all together, a totally different ball game.
Of course, another way of looking at this is to say that we now have more choices; we can choose to look the way we feel, and we have the means to make our inner selves visible. If I have the inner vitality of a 25 year old, why can’t I do what it takes to look as close to that age as possible? If I feel young, why can’t I do what it takes to look young?
But my point is, why should I look young in order to prove to someone else that I feel young? Today, I look in the mirror, and yes, I confess, I am a little alarmed at the rate at which silvery glints in my hair are increasing; but a moment later I turn away, and I forget how I look. I am what I feel; I am what I think; I am what I like to do. And all you need to do is to talk to me to figure out if you can relate to the person I am…not the age I am at!