Image: Som Puri.

My grey hair is slowly becoming woven into my identity

Som Puri, 39, reflects on her experience going grey and choosing not to colour and the societal perceptions around letting yourself go.

As a child, I was always prone to worry. Sure that the next wrong move, the next mistake, would be the thing that did me in. Curly hair and a unibrow when everyone else in my friend group looked like posh spice – was it a mistake? My South Indian mum packing idlis in my lunch box instead of the cool ham sandwiches everyone else had – definitely a mistake. In college, not particularly caring for neat Vodka at 9 am– big mistake.

With a lot of worry comes a lot of hiding – shrinking, dimming, shushing. You spend a lot of energy masking anything about yourself that could draw attention, trying to convince everyone you’re perfect.

So you hide – hide your voice, your personality, your strong legs, your big appetite. Your sense of humour, your glasses, your messy kitchen, your intuition.  I got really good at it too. Hiding quicker, always one step ahead. But all that expert hiding had a side-effect I didn't quite expect. I was hiding “my mistakes”, yes, but in doing that I was hiding myself too. Its own peculiar kind of invisibility.

But what if the parts of ourselves we consider to be our mistakes, are actually our superpowers? The specific mistakes, insecurities, flaws we make could be different for each one of us. But the fact that we have them at all, isn’t that the one thing we have in common? 

I was at that cusp –  growing a bit suspicious and tired of hiding, but doing it anyway, when in came my very first batch of grey hair. Marching out from the exact place where I normally part my hair, they shot out like a movement, a witch’s claw, a fascinator I don't remember choosing but now went with me everywhere.

My reflection started to look different. Every part of me screamed – “Hide!” But underneath that, a small voice saying, “It’s alright. Go on, show yourself.” Reluctantly at first, I listened. It was an experiment initially. A game of who blinks first. How much of myself can I show before I fold?

Soon, the doubts followed. What was I “allowed” to pair with grey hair? Could I wear those long dad socks everyone is wearing to brunch? Maybe it said it somewhere in the care instructions – cold wash with like colours, and do not wear it if you have grey hair. I was knocking about in Zara when I saw a Barbie pink bustier top of my dreams. I closed my eyes tight, gave the lady my card and ran away with the little paper bag under my arm.

Then I waited, waited for someone to call me out, to tell me I was wrong, that this was against the rules. Public flagellation, arrest by the youth police with glass skin and zero knee pains. But no one came.  

While I was afraid of the youth police, my inner voice sounded alarmingly like the Indian parlour aunties of my youth. Parlour culture is big in India where I grew up. Unfailingly, each month we go to the beauty parlour. There is the waxing and the pedicures and the manicures. The Hollywood waxing (let’s not even go there, the waxing strip barely does), the eyebrow threading, the head massages.

The beauty parlour ladies are always cut-throat, casually scathing about how your eyebrows are too bushy (joke’s on them) or your hair is too dry. Then there were the other aunties – neighbourhood cults assembled to discuss everyone's choice of clothing or hair or love life.

I have a wedding to go to in India this year, my fascinator in tow. Aunties in full attendance, communal beauty parlour visits galore. Can I stick to my “I’m not hiding anymore” cause? I feel myself regressing to being 16, trapped under the threading auntie’s sharpest weapon – her feelings about my time between visits.

But each time I hang out with my six-year-old daughter on the sofa, she doesn't seem to care about any of that. We read books after dinner, and she just pats my hair as she listens, like it's a loved pet. Sometimes at school pick-up, women tell me that they love my hair. Not despite my grey hair, but because of it.

Like all the other things about me – my struggle to make decent scrambled eggs or my strong feelings about animated movies – my grey hair is slowly becoming woven into my identity too. Loved by the people who know and love me. 

So maybe I will go to India for that wedding after all. I will wear my saree and my dangly earrings and my kajal. I will part my hair where I normally do. Grey will splice into view, unashamed as it always is.

Maybe I will feel no tension at all. Or maybe I will and I will choose to stay put anyway. 

Because maybe, it's time for me to be loved by me too.