Authenticity vs competency: the impossible decision older women face when it comes to dying their hair

Authenticity vs competency: the impossible decision older women face when it comes to dyeing their hair

gray hair

A new study from the University of Exeter shows that older women regularly face the impossible choice between looking natural and being seen as competent.

Researchers surveyed eighty women who chose not to dye their grey hair in an aim to understand why some women choose natural hair. They found a “conflict” between these two perceptions. 

The paper titled: “Gendered ageism and grey hair: must older women choose between feeling authentic and looking competent?” was published in the Journal of Women & Ageing, and involved women from English-speaking countries. 

Researchers interviewed the members of two Facebook groups about transitioning to natural grey hair, revealing that the main dilemma women faced was choosing between feeling authentic and being seen as competent.

Participants described being shamed by others for “letting oneself go” when they decided not to dye their hair in addition to appearing as if they have “tried too hard to conceal their age.” 

Many women dye their hair to avoid being marked as “old”, while others chose to let their natural grey hair show to feel authentic. 

Lead author, Vanessa Cecil from the University of Exeter, believes those who were supported by partners, family and friends had an “easier time” of transitioning to grey. 

“We are all constrained by society’s norms and expectations when it comes to appearance, but expectations are more rigorous for women – especially older women,” she said. “The ‘old woman’ is an undesirable character in Western societies, being seen as incompetent or unpleasant – if she is seen at all.”

“In the face of impossible standards to be natural and remain youthful forever, these women are doing what they can to retain status. Although many reported negative consequences such as being ignored or treated as less competent, they also felt happier to be ‘flying my natural flag’.”

Cecil also found that women chose to compensate for going grey by using other beauty practices – “… so embracing grey isn’t the same as embracing looking old,” she added. “Grey-haired and youthfully glamorous is one thing, but in Western societies it’s still not OK to look old.”

Researchers also noted “solidarity and sisterhood” among women who belonged to online groups whose members allow their natural grey hair to grow out. 

During the COVID lockdowns, many women chose to grow out their natural grey hair  — both due to hairdressers closures, and to the fact that many of us spending less time in public, including at work.

“This appears to have accelerated a shift that was already happening, with more and more women choosing not to dye their hair,” Cecil said.

“I wanted to break the grey hair stigma,” councillor Sarah Orr told The Guardian last week. “There’s an expectation for hairdressers to look a certain way and I wanted to break the grey hair stigma. I’m no longer a slave to that horrible white stripe that appears every three weeks.” 

Jamee Moore, an executive assistant at a LA-based tech company said before she went grey, she feared she might not be ‘accepted’

“It’s been and still is a daily emotional and mental journey,” she said. “The questions that pop in your head are about ageism and the corporate work place: “Will I be accepted?”

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