By Gul Berna Ozcan.
I had frizzy boisterous black hair for as long as I can remember. Not only was it difficult to tame but also I lacked styling skills. It took me forty years to discover its curls!
Until the birth of our second child I never dyed my hair. Then the sudden spread of white hair in my mid-thirties led to two decades of hair colouring, blow dry sessions and frequent hairdresser visits. Initially, I enjoyed this and allowed stylists to flatten and straighten my hair, and exercise their tricks.
Going to the hairdressers once a month became a kind of pampered luxury for a mother with two kids and a full-time job. Alas, over the years, dying sessions became more frequent and increasingly a burden. I tried to do it myself but disliked the mess the whole thing generated. I also played with supposedly organic and ‘natural’ dyes. Eventually, I became increasingly dissatisfied with the whole hair colouring enterprise. But most friends reacted with ‘Oh no!’ when I suggested just going white as I would be naturally.
However, I became aware that people with natural white hair did not look unattractive, as I was made to believe by friends and others in my social circles. When working in Seoul, I first thought Koreans just don’t go grey, perhaps for genetic reasons, as almost everybody has pitch-black hair. Later I saw a striking newspaper photo: the Korean minister of foreign affairs looking fetching as well as commanding surrounded by her male cabinet colleagues. All had unnaturally black hair while she stood out with her distinguished silver-white hair.
I began to notice other such examples and decided to try. First I psychologically prepared myself. Once I wore a silly white wig and used that image as my WhatsApp status. Then my daughter confirmed what was only a nagging suspicion when she showed me images of women with curly white hair from hairstyle pages. They all looked stunning.
I chose the summer break for transformation, as it would allow time to go back to the status quo. I took those images to my hairdresser and asked to be transformed. Although initially he was not enthusiastic, he agreed with me that it was worth trying. It took two sessions with a two weeks interval to get rid of the dark dye.
Within a short time my white hair, with a few fetching natural variations and highlights, delighted me. By the time I returned to work I was more or less used to my new hair colour. But it was an initial shock to my family and friends as well as colleagues. Yet, many expressed their surprise that it suited me much more than they imagined.
There is much to say about how our attitudes to hair are constructed through very early childhood experiences and how these later get embodied in social pressures and manipulated by the fashion industry for enormous profit. Through these experiences, we often negotiate with our natural endowments and physique.
I must have been about 5 years old when my mother and sister returned to our provincial town from a long visit to Istanbul. Somehow, I had the impression that my little sister had returned with blond curly hair, so I demanded the same hair do from my parents. As opposed to my thick black hair, my sister had soft light hair. It seemed to me that my hair often looked like a hedgehog and was in general kept in place with pins. Moreover, blonde girls were adored and popular where we lived, especially as the vast majority had dark hair.
My mother was a primary school teacher who hated girls who came to class with fringes and loose hair, especially over their eyes or cheeks. As with passport picture requirements, all girls had to have ponytails or very short hair with their faces and eyes fully open. She would occasionally insist they use hairpins and would put them on her students herself if she felt it necessary!
Our conservative town in those days would not tolerate boys coming to school with long hair, but there were always contradictions, often funny. One neighbour braided her son’s long hair until he reached school age. However, in our household, hair was something to be kept orderly at all times and my sister and I had limited chance to play with it for different effects during our early adolescence. This may have been one of the reasons why I had a delayed discovery of my own hair.
When she was growing up, my mother was not allowed to cut her hair and endured painful combing and braiding sessions prior to going to school every morning. She recalls it as a daily torture that brought tears. Her first act of defiance, when she left home for teacher’s training college, was to have short hair.
Her class pictures show about two-dozen girls mischievously smiling, almost all with boyish short hair, a common form of rebellion in 1960. Women were supposed to have long hair as part of their traditional identity, as an act of social conformity and following the expectations of feminine beauty.
From the 1960s to 2000s popular expectations about feminine beauty have transformed dramatically towards new forms of social conformity, often alas this time dictated by a corporate world. Greying hair for women has become taboo. Looking natural as we age is supressed by an ever-increasing number of fake options and interventions ranging from aesthetic operations to miracle techniques to meet western beauty constructs.
With possible future methods, such as genetic modification, will people eventually all look the same in the pursuit of attaining an ideal standard of beauty? Those of us who refuse to toe the line would be like unaltered ‘organic’ specimens. The fashion industry, media and the business of aesthetics constantly encourage individuals to become someone other than themselves. One can perhaps disobey traditions and social rules but the corporate prison incarcerating women and men is incredibly effective and has powerful tentacles.
I am delighted to be bucking the trend of aesthetic conformity and embracing what I now consider to be my natural asset, lovely white curly hair that stands out. I have not dyed my hair for 4 months and feel liberated.
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Gul Berna Ozcan teaches international business and entrepreneurship at Royal Holloway, University of London. She is the author of several books and many research articles. Her monograph, Building States and Markets: Enterprise Development in Central Asia (Palgrave, 2010), explores the characteristics of the emerging entrepreneurial middle class in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan.