Mary Beard was in her early 30s when she started going grey. For a while she toyed with the idea of dyeing her long hair green to shock her colleagues at the University of Cambridge before deciding against colour altogether.
“There’s something about hair dye that wouldn’t suit me,” she explains matter-of-factly. “Then at a certain point you have to say, ‘Right, I’m not doing it any longer,’ and you go through months of growing it out. I’m very happy I never got into those dilemmas.”
But while Beard’s natural locks went uncommented on in bookish, sensible Cambridge, it was a different story when she started presenting history documentaries on prime time television. “I got tweets saying ‘you look like a witch.’ No, I don’t darling! But you could see how unusual it seemed to people [to have a grey-haired woman on TV]. And then of course dear old AA Gill drew attention to it.”
This is Beard, now 61, being good humoured about what must have been a painful personal attack. Gill didn’t just “draw attention” to her hair colour; in a Sunday Times review of her 2012 BBC series Meet the Romans with Mary Beard, he decreed that she should be “kept away from the cameras altogether” unless it was to appear on the Channel 4 series The Undateables.
“I was in America when I read it and you feel like you’ve been punched. But actually, he did quite a lot of good because people really thought that what he said wasn’t on and that I looked perfectly fine. There were certainly people out there who agreed with him – that if you’re appearing in our living rooms you should at least get your teeth and hair sorted – but most people wanted to see figures in public life who looked like real people. It was a good idea to have a discussion about it.”
It’s a discussion that Beard expands on in Glad to Be Grey, a new Radio 4 documentary that examines why so many women feel they have no option but to dye their hair as soon as the first salt and pepper hues peep through.
“I want to be clear that I don’t have a moral objection to people dyeing their hair. If people want to colour their hair for fun – great, but it’s that feeling that somehow I can’t go out of the house unless I don’t look like this old lady. It goes back to well-mown issues where the white-haired craggy male talking about politics on telly is fine, whereas the wrinkled, white-haired lady isn’t. With men, the signals of ageing suggest authority but with women they don’t. Some women buck that trend. Shirley Williams, Mary Warnock and Diana Athill all have grey hair and still come across as decisive in that very male way but most women in the public eye don’t feel comfortable doing that.”
Is it because women feel that their power – whether it be as an employee, friend or wife – is inextricably linked to their sexual attractiveness? “Yes, some people would think about it biologically and say post-menopausal women have lost their biological function. Then there’s the grim reaper. When you’re 61 you’re closer to the grim reaper than when you’re 41 and there’s a sense of fear in acknowledging that.”
When it comes to appearance, it seems that women in the public eye can’t win. Dare to appear on TV with greying hair and wrinkles and you’re considered decrepit; spend too much time on your hair and make-up and you risk being hired as a pretty face rather than for your expertise. Is it more difficult for female broadcasters and academics to be taken seriously if they’re conventionally attractive?
“I think that some women would say so. I know some who think that they’ve been invited to a conference because they look glam. I think they’re wrong and I think there are a lot of women putting themselves down in all of this. ‘I worry what will happen if I go grey’ versus ‘I’m only getting these gigs because I’m a young woman who looks conventionally attractive.’ We used to think we could blame men for making women feel they had to look a certain way but it’s more complicated than that. We’re all implicated.”
The biggest revelation in the documentary says Beard is the number of men reaching for the dye bottle. “I hadn’t realised quite how many men colour their hair but don’t talk about it. We meet one man who says, ‘I want to look younger. I don’t care if that’s vain – I like colouring my hair. I like the reaction to me as a person that comes from looking younger.”
Ironically, “granny hair” is currently having a moment in high fashion/ celebrity circles. Rihanna, Cara Delevigne and Zayn Malik have all experimented with grey dye jobs in recent months while at Paris Fashion Week last September, Jean Paul Gaultier’s models sported backcombed silver beehives. What does Beard make of this reappropriation?
“There are funny stories of irony in all of this but essentially it’s about being comfortable in your own skin. It’s always puzzled me that when I’m 61 it’s supposed to be a compliment when someone says, ‘you don’t look a day over 50’. Why would I not want to look like what I am which is a grey-haired woman of 61? I know TV is a fickle movement and one day I won’t get asked to do another programme but I’ll shrug my shoulders and that will be it. My day job is as an academic and I can sit in the library with my grey hair until I’m 102 and no one will ever bat an eyelid.”
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