You always remember the first time. For me it was a trip to the hairdresser designed to make me feel grown up. It ended with aubergine-coloured hair, definitely frowned on by school, which I tried and failed to convince my friends was deliberate. After that I stained my mother’s towels orange with foul-smelling henna for years before turning platinum blonde in about 1989 with a dye job done by a Swiss hairdresser friend of my flatmate’s, who burned my scalp with bleach.
I carried on dyeing my hair long after teen rebellion had ended, and well before the grey set in – copper, blonde, mahogany, russet streaks; strands of hair pulled painfully through the holes in a rubber cap with a crochet hook before the merciful discovery of wrapping hair in twists of foil. The hairdresser’s chair was one place I felt that I could play around with my appearance in a way which didn’t involve the miseries of clothes shopping (I am not a standard shop-size: shorter than average, broader of back, larger of chest. Things are slightly better now, but trips to buy clothes always seemed to end in accepting the things I could fit into rather than anything I might actually want to wear and a consolation trip to a bookshop to cheer myself up. At least your hair always fits).
During the child-care years, the hairdresser represented a couple of hours’ peace and quiet, a link back to my pre-motherhood life where I could read a magazine without interruption and someone else made the coffee. More recently it’s become a chore. As the grey advances it feels like a necessity not a pleasure; maintaining the pretence that I’m not getting older, out of a fear that older means past it.
It’s a jolly expensive pretence though. I have my hair cut every couple of months. At London salon prices, a cut and colour six times a year runs into many hundreds of pounds, which frankly at the moment I can’t afford, and which has become one more damn thing to worry about.
And it’s not just the cost I care about. I’ve been quite strident about the evils of ageism, so what does it say about me that I can’t bear to display a public sign that I’m not 35 any more? The cut is important, I think, to show that it’s a considered choice not just a grand abandonment of caring. The cut I have now isn’t right, so I’ll be heading back to the hairdressers soon to get it shorter, sharper, chic-er. But I won’t be asking them about the colour. By the end of the summer I’ll be grey. I can put the money I save towards some new clothes (or maybe some books…)