I got my first grey hair at seventeen. After screeching in horror and pulling it out, I found two more the following week. At that point I began surreptitiously colouring my hair with a black semi-permanent rinse. I was late to the hair colouring game in the 1980s, mostly living with mousy brown hair (and the occasional sneaky rinse because my father disapproved of hair colour) until I moved to Toronto a year or two later.
In the interim, I had a variety of silly mid-80s haircuts with long bangs that hung in my eyes, leaving greasy marks on my glasses (think Dale Martindale from Images in Vogue). These ranged from a brush cut to a diagonal shaved line across the back of my head with floppy asymmetrical bangs on one side. I worked in a hospital at the time and many of the older patients who had been flappers back in the day would chase after me to pat the teddy bear fuzz on my neck and reminisce about their own bobbed hair in the 1920s.
When I moved to Toronto, the first thing I did was dye my hair a bright cherry red. It’s been some version of that shade for thirty years with a few digressions into black, black cherry, and bleached white, which I maintained for one the summer until it started falling out in big chunks.
At one point shortly before I turned forty, I tried to let my grey hair grow out, hoping there was enough grey to have actual grey hair and not just that dishwater colour that brown-haired folks suffer through as they go grey. It was about 50/50 grey to brown at that point and I got to about two inches of growth before it was clear that the grey and mousy brown together made my hair look like it was the colour of one of those horrible beige trench coats most often worn by flashers. To quote the artist Sue Kreitzman, “Don’t wear beige, it might kill you.” When I dyed it back to red, friends remarked on how washed out the grey/beige combo had made me look. When I asked why they hadn’t said anything their reply was, “We thought you liked it and didn’t want to insult you.” I’m still not sure if that’s a good thing or not.
Over time, as those sneaky grey hairs multiplied, it was harder and harder to keep the red red. I tried different brands of hair colour, I diligently slathered a toxic neon red tinted conditioner on my head twice a week (which would dribble down my neck when I got sweaty, and which I left on pillowcases at massage and physiotherapy clinics across the city), but nothing worked.
The back especially would turn a weird orange colour within a week. The hair was too lacking in melanin to actually hold the colour. The hair around my face was fine, for some reason, and immediately after an application of colour I would have hair that was two distinctly different shades of red.
I went back to black cherry and even full-on purple shades, figuring that the darker colours might take better. (That came with a bottle of freakishly bright purple tinted conditioner that left purple streaks on pillowcases.) Fuck you, I said to my head one morning, Imma fix your little red wagon, and good. And so I dyed my hair black.
Good, nice; a sleek, classic, little black bob. Because while I’ve explained my lifetime of hair colour, I’ve clearly neglected to mention that my hair is straight. Poker straight. After a childhood of painful rollers, stinking perms, and singeing curling irons to create some semblance waves and ringlets, as an adult, I figured that the best thing to do was also the easiest, and just let it be straight. With a few exceptions, such as a darling pixie cut that required way more product and effort than short hair really deserves, I’ve worn a classic 1920s-style bob for almost three decades.
After I dyed it black and was happy with it being black, the hair on the back of my head faded out to an orangey-brown colour that was everything that was sad about the 1970s.
“You know,” I said one afternoon to my husband Greg, “the front is holding the colour and I really like the black against my face. I should just shave it into a Chelsea cut. You know, to let the grey grow out.”
Without batting an eye, Greg said, “I’ll get the clippers.”
Yes, readers, I trust my husband enough to let him shave my head. He shaves his own head, and he cuts the back part of my bobbed hair each month and does a fantastic job. So I combed and pinned the front bangs and long, straight pieces and he shaved off the rest.
Dudes, chill, it grew back.
Now, despite my various experiments with asymmetrical haircuts in the 80s, the Chelsea cut, typically worn by female skinheads, was a style that I had always wanted but never had the nerve to do. If I had come home with my head almost entirely shaved, my parents would have kicked me out. Besides which, I was never really into the hardcore scene and wearing that style would have marked me as part of a specific tribe that I wasn’t actually involved in.
But at 49, well after the style no longer had political implications? It would certainly be more fun that growing out my haircolour via that awful, ever-widening skunk stripe down the centre of my head that most people go through.
So Greg shaved it off and we gasped at how much hair was piled on the floor, then we rubbed my head repeatedly to feel the fuzz.
Reasons not to shave your head into a skinhead haircut:
1. No hat ever creates the same amount of warmth on your head as hair
2. There’s a lot of stuff about Nazis in the news and you wander around terrified that someone will attack you for being one (this didn’t happen, in fact, nobody seemed to get the connection, because it was in fact, Toronto in 2017, not Leeds in 1982)
3. For the first few weeks the hair is short enough that it pokes through the weave of the fabric of a pillowcase and you literally get stuck on your pillow and cannot turn your head
3. The grow-out is… interesting
So the goal really was to grow my hair back out into a full bob, keeping the black in the front, sort of a negative version of the lucky folks with black hair who get those lovely and distinguished white flashes along their hairlines. A reverse Lily Munster, if you will. With enough hairspray, the long black bits at the front can be back-combed to look like I have a giant spider on my head. Or the stripes of a badger. Super awesome bonus points.
As the shaved hair got longer — and it really was a spectacular shade of silver now, not completely white, but probably about 75% grey — it went through various phases. First the Bay City Rollers/artichoke heart phase where it just kind of stuck up all over. Then the Paul Weller phase, which happened in part because I had trimmed my bangs too short. After that there was a shaggy Clem Burke phase. These were interspersed with some awkward lengths that made me happy it was winter and I could hide under a hat.
Shortly after the original cut, someone sent me a message on Twitter to tell me that my dream job had opened up. After not having a Toronto restaurant critic for eighteen months, the Globe and Mail were adding this column back to their paper and were interviewing qualified applicants. Having spent the last ten years writing about food, and knowing that an opportunity to interview for what is, really, the top position in the food writing field in the country was rare, I sent in my resume and some samples and got an email to come in for an interview.
Because I was a conscientious food writer, there are few pictures of me on the Internet. I made a point of not having my photo taken if I could help it. The one or two that exist show me with bright red hair. So when the Globe editor came to reception that day to collect me, she did a double-take. I knew right there that I wouldn’t be getting the gig, but soldiered on through the interview anyway. We discussed how they didn’t really want an incognito critic anymore, that they really wanted a personality along the lines of UK restaurant critic Jay Rayner, who could do appearances if necessary, and that there wouldn’t be disguises or pseudonyms. But I knew that a conservative paper wouldn’t want a stripy-haired skinhead-looking broad representing their publication. Even if the hair would eventually grow back.
The paper eventually hired someone from outside Toronto who was not known to local chefs, and who had a fairly common appearance and name (there were more than 30 people on LinkedIn in Toronto with the same name when I Googled the guy), so it seems they changed their minds about wanting a “personality” for that column. But being able to say I walked into an interview at the country’s most conservative newspaper with a full-on skinhead haircut is a bit of compensation for not getting the gig, especially considering how very, very qualified I was for it.
Since the haircut and the grow out, I have a lot of people stopping me to comment on my hair. Cool folks, plain folks, and lots of women who are probably also going grey and are wondering if they could get away with something similar in their own hair. (The black stripes on grey might be a bit daring for some. The only other person I’ve seem with something close to my style is UK personality Phillippa Perry.)
While there is a cliched idea that older women become invisible as we age, the hair seems to be an opening for strangers to approach me and ask about it. A lot of them even want to touch it, which is weird, and many people seem to think I’ve dyed it grey. (This is even more attention than I got when my hair was red and people would chase me down the street asking about brand names.)
That’s right. I choose to let my grey grow out at exactly the same time that colouring your hair grey became trendy with the young people. “Wait, that’s real?” is a refrain I hear a lot these days, along with, “Oh my God, you don’t LOOK 50!” Uh huh.
It’s disconcerting to realize that people — especially young people — are envious of my grey hair, given how we tend to treat older women in our society. I suspect that if I hadn’t kept the black Chelsea bangs and side bits, I’d not get the same amount of attention, as it wouldn’t be nearly as striking. But I’m a firm believer in working with what you’ve got and if my black and grey hair is something to be admired, by young and old alike, especially if it encourages anyone to be unique and creative with their appearance, then it’s a truly positive thing.
Recently someone referred to my ‘do as “Badass” and I don’t think there’s a higher compliment to be had.