Photographer: Vanessa Mills. MUA: Tori Model: meI was invited to have tea by my son and his girlfriend at their new flat. The conversation at the table took a nice turn. We were talking about body image, as this is what I am interested in at the moment, especially through my connection with All Walks. The Girlfriend told me that by Korean standards - she is from Korea - I would be a plus size and that my white hair would be 'abhorred'. After a moment of slight discomfort, during which I instinctively pushed the plate with the gorgeous slice of chocolate cake well away from me, lest I took a mouthful too many, I began to process the statement.
I could not get my head around it. Not the plus size - I know Asian women tend to be very slender and petite and on these terms, I am a plus size - but the white hair bit. Surely going grey affects all ethnicities. Why this horror of grey? I was puzzled.
Later at home I came across an article by Mary Crescenzo in the Huffington Post and that held some of the answers.
Yes, I tend to take for granted that silver hair is beautiful, partly because many of my friends are involved in the 'Embrace your Silver' movement. But a great many people truly do not think grey hair is beautiful. Definitely not. And that goes for both men and women. Here I am referring to our western culture and society and the views that prevail.
My son, for example, is twenty seven and having inherited my genes, is going grey. He hates it and has confessed to plucking his grey hair out - big mistake by the way, because it grows stronger and it multiplies (been there, done that). 'Why?', I asked him. 'Just because' he says, his favourite answer since his teens, meaning 'none of your business'. But now, having read Crescenzo's piece I can guess. 'Want to rise in the corporate world? ' writes Crescenzo 'White hair will get you nowhere' - Crescenzo uses 'grey' (in its American spelling 'gray') and 'white' interchangeably and refers to both men and women.
So for educated, go getter women living in Asia, aspiring to go up the corporate ladder, going grey is associated with being a granny and with living in the village. Who wants that image?
Out of curiosity, I scoured the internet for pictures of Asian women with grey hair and the only one I was able to track down, amongst a myriad of "old toothless white haired woman from x village" part of ethnological collections, was a picture of the incredibly beautiful and elegant Aung San Suu Kyi, sporting some grey at the temples. Of course Aung San Suu Kyi is a formidable role model, but in a different way. She is a freedom fighter, an intellectual and a martyr. A heroine, willing to sacrifice personal family ties to stand up for democracy. She is definitely not an average woman, by any standard. She also stands up for tradition, so it suits her to have delicately greying temples, wearing traditional Burmese attire.
Aung San Suu Kyi. Google imagesCrescenzo reminds us that in our western society 'when men in ads have gray hair, the women beside them do not. Unless you're Mrs. Santa, the mean witch or a kind Grandma with an apron and a tray of cookies, you are cast on your way to the grave...When female stars date younger men, they make sure their hair is anything but white."
And these are the images that are touted globally. So it is no surprise that Asian women not planning to emulate Aung San Suu Kyi, women who feel less heroic perhaps, much prefer to reach for the dye bottle, caught up as they are in the just fight to be perceived as independent, working women of today, equal to men, working in male dominated environments. It's a case of internalising western aesthetic values.
I occasionally worry that the 'Embrace your Silver' movement may remain the preserve of a few middle class Caucasian women, rather like feminism when it began. However, as Crescenzo reminds us, ageing cuts across social, racial and, to some extent, cultural barriers - even though it remains a cultural construct. Perhaps it is time to subject 'the Going Gray Movement' to some postcolonial rethinking.