50 shades of grey (and still sexy!)

Well, that was my original title for this piece that was published in The Hindu Sunday Magazine in December 2014 :)

What does it take to embrace your grey hair in an age when selfies reign supreme, where brunch is often a botox break and dress size is as much a status symbol as an Herm├Ęs Birkin? A growing tribe of women--in their 30s, 40s and 50s, all confident and yes, succesful at what they do, show you can scoff at this collective obsession with superficiality. And make going grey, a matter of pride.

Binaifer Bharucha (36) in fact, recently proved greys can be downright glamorous too. The freelance photographer from Mumbai is one of five women appearing in the April 2014 issue of Elle India fashion magazine in a photo feature celebrating grey hair. Bharucha started greying in school.  “Now it is a part of my personality. I have short hair, so it looks pretty funky and individualistic. Total strangers often ask why I look young and still have so much grey hair,” she laughed.

Radhika Chandiramani is another woman who believes sexy is a silvery shade. Chandiramani (48), a clinical psychologist and founder of non governmental organisation TARSHI (Talking About Reproductive and Sexual Health Issues), in New Delhi, has always loved grey hair. “My greying began when I was about 25 years old--I had a grey streak right in the centre and it did wonders for my assessment of my sex appeal!”

Like both of them, Maureen Gonsalves, (53) programme coordinator at the Goethe-Institut/Max Mueller Bhavan in Bengaluru, thinks grey hair looks great. “My hair is very important to me and that’s precisely the reason why I don’t colour it,” she said.

Good at the job not good enough?
But in a world where image is everything, do your looks (and your hair) better your prospects for promotion? Chandiramani and Gonsalves feel,at the end of the day, you need to be good at your job. Results matter more than anything else. On the other hand, Swaroop Rao, chief marketing officer at The Writers Block, a technical communication outsourcing company in Bengaluru, pointed out that it takes a certain level of personal self esteem, strength and professional success, to stay true to one's hair colour. “Looking good (and glossy haired,),..is second only to one's professional skills, especially if you are in a customer facing role. For my organisation, I'd consider it on par with having good communication and people skills,” Rao stressed.

It takes spunk for a woman to let her greys be, agreed Rao but admitted frankly: “Not everyone has it... not me”.

A greying world

What makes things more stressful in this looks-talent conundrum is that premature greying is on the rise. Bengaluru-based dermatologist Dr Mukta Sachdev has seen increasing numbers of children and young teens, with greying hair. “Canities is the medical term and it is a genetic condition. The increasing numbers definitely points to a multifactorial etiology of lifestyle, diet and environmental factors,” she explained.

Today, just as melanin in the skin requires extensive use of beauty products, lack of melanin in the hair is as ruthlessly tackled. No wonder India is one of the fastest growing markets for beauty products and services. And no wonder also that 40 per cent of the daily clientele at Manjul Gupta's chain of Bodycraft unisex salon/spas across Bengaluru, seeks root coverage and colouring of greys.

Self esteem in a 'selfie'

 Early greying and the growing market catering to that phenomenon are both indicative of the need and the constant pressure to look good. As Bharucha pointed out: “It is tough for women to embrace grey hair at any age. We are continuously bombarded with images of women being told to colour their hair the minute they find a grey strand. We place immense, sometimes almost unrealistic, emphasis on looking younger”. Dr Anjali Chhabria, psychiatrist, psychotherapist and founder of Mindtemple in Mumbai, felt women today “..are pressured to fulfill all their roles and maintain a young and fabulous self. Selfies and advertisements of cosmetic products and various treatments/surgeries available now and which celebs espouse, adds to the stress”.

Such pressures, said Dr Chhabria, can lead young women to feel depressed, overly self critical and self-conscious, especially in social gatherings. “It can lead to unhealthy coping strategies such as eating disorders or body image disorders,” she said. That is why dermatologists like Dr Sachdev end up counselling their patients. “It definitely affects your self esteem as grey hair has been traditionally associated with ageing,” Dr Sachdev said.

To belong or ...to just “be” yourself
So, is it the toughest thing in the world is to just 'be' yourself? According to Dr Chhabria: “Women with a high sense of self-worth and esteem choose to be exactly who they are. This is applicable to their physical appearance as well. They take pride in their ageing. Acceptance plays a key role in this”.

A woman can have grey hair and feel sexy and be successful, stressed both Gonsalves and Chandiramani. And Bharucha on her part, said she often receives compliments on her salt-and-pepper hair.... “especially from younger people who colour their hair, wishing they could let go and do the same.”

“Self confidence,” added Chandiramani, “speaks louder than any fashion statement.”

And when a national fashion magazine makes a point of featuring women who embrace their greys, that makes going grey a positive, welcome process.
Ageing 'grey'cefully: There are many people who, well in their 50s and 60s, stay unusually dark-haired. Many of our film stars, socialites and celebrities, for instance. “Such people,” declared Bengaluru-based journalist, author and columnist C K Meena, “are disgusting”. Meena, who is in her 50s, has had grey hair from her teens. “Why have jet black hair when the rest of you is shrivelled and wrinkled,” she asked. “Perhaps for those who colour their hair, the dilemna is when to stop dyeing. Because if you suddenly stop dyeing, your hair turns a ghastly colour,” she said.

According to Dr Mukta Sachdev (47), “greying and your attitude to it is a personal choice. You need to be comfortable with your looks and body. Personally, I have grey hair and am quite comfortable with it at this time. But honestly, it really depends on your state of mind. Life is dynamic--feel good about yourself both externally but more important, internally,” she stressed.

Yet sometimes, for those in the spotlight, the constant pressure to always look good leads to them desperately pursuing youthful looks. For such people, said Mumbai-based Aishwarya Subramanyam, editor of Elle India magazine, “...youth, or the appearance of youth, seems to be the only way to stay relevant, and we all contribute to the obsession”. Subramanyam, in her early 30s, claims she is as “superficial as the next person, and not terribly fond of ageing. I tell myself there is wisdom in every wrinkle. But ask me (about going grey) in ten years' time and I might be desperately trying to hold on to youth myself,” she said, wryly.

The Elle photo feature, she added, was “to send up a great big cheer for women who break tradition and champion a different kind of beauty”. 

Going grey at the workplace: What happens to older employees in new technology companies in India where youth is omnipresent? Where Human Resources (HR) policy is geared towards keeping the extremely young workface happy and motivated? Do older employees face 'ageism' in India as they do in the West? According to a tech industry veteran working in Delhi with one of the best known tech companies in the world, ageism per se, is not a problem in the Indian tech industry. “Though at 43, I do sometimes find it awkward to be dealing with 20-something, pony-tailed colleagues,” he smiled. Referring to “looking good” at the workplace, he said Indian tech firms tended to prefer being formal in terms of clothes, while American tech firms encouraged casual dressing.

Vaishali Khandekar, a former Infoscian, who now runs literary magazine Reading Hour in Bengaluru, too agreed she never found anyone treating people with grey hair differently, during her time at Infosys. “We were total geeks, actually,” she said. Asked about the pressure to look good as well as be good at the job, Khandekar pointed out that most Indian tech firms work in software services while American tech firms such as Google and Facebook are product companies. “They are their own bosses. But in software services, you cannot be less smartly dressed than your client,” she pointed out.

Today, there is more pressure to look good, but that is happening everywhere and not just in technology firms. “A friend who works at a multi national company told me she is forced to buy three-four new outfits every month, for work,” Khandekar said.

On his part, the tech veteran added that as the Indian technology sector matures,  the industry will eventually need to deal with the disparities in age among the workforce. “But there is no ageism, per se, as it is perceived in the West,” he added.

For the published piece: click here: http://www.thehindu.com/features/magazine/an-increasing-number-of-people-are-greying-with-grace/article6711164.ece

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