The human factor: What my white hair taught me

Mum only ever said one thing to me about to me about ageing, “When your hair goes grey, you become

Mum only ever said one thing to me about to me about ageing, “When your hair goes grey, you become invisible so you have to get a bit pushy sometimes dear.”

As she passed away when I was only 46, with a head of wild dark brown curls, the matter did not really interest me so I was denied her other insights but that one went deeply into my subconscious where it remains today.

During my final working years as the Executive Officer of a community organisation in a small conservative country town I experienced both sexism and ageism but felt strong and assertive enough to be able to ignore it and be effective in my role. Like most of the other older women around me I continued to dye my hair. If the subject ever came up there was a common agreement that this is what you do, it is necessary to maintain respect in the work force. There was no analysis or discussion, it was an accepted fact.

Far from the glossy dark brown of my youth my hair was now a kind of flat blondish brown colour and it had thinned considerably. The crunch came for me was when I arrived home from the hairdresser one day and saw my blondish brown dyed scalp in the mirror.

Something snapped in me as I asked myself why on earth am I doing this and who for? Certainly not for my own wellbeing and self respect. I don’t look younger or more beautiful, it looks pathetic. The older men around me in the workforce were all white or grey and appeared to have no issues at all about it.

Once I reached retirement age it had begun to grow out and my roots in the front had begun to gleam, not grey but bright white. I went travelling to India and by then they were three to four inches long. I held my head high in the ashram I visited for a conference and nobody appeared even to notice.

Eventually my hair revealed itself as it wants to be. Bright white in the front merging with grey and even some dark brown streaks at the back. All in perfect harmony as nature intends it. I feel strong and proud and confident and love the bright colours I now wear.

Yet back in the everyday world nothing has changed. I became increasingly aware of the patronising language and would internalise the way younger people often address me and the assumptions they make about my limited intelligence, just smiling and being the smart and assertive woman I have always been.

However one day I had an experience that caused me to redefine my own deeper attitudes. This is what happened. I was in a major retailer in a busy mall in Northern New South Wales. It was the one where the self service checkout not only talks to you but you have to press a touch screen to show you are listening. I was not at my best in this environment and my fuse was short.

“Are you all right dear, can you manage?” The voice came from behind me and sounded young with an Asian accent.

Very reasonable words at face value but something snapped in me and I swung round and said angrily, “Please do not patronise me! Just because I have white hair I am not stupid!”

Instead of a young person I saw a late middle-aged Filipina, very poised and immaculately groomed with a kind face and warm smiling eyes. I felt ashamed at once and mumbled “I’m so sorry for being rude to you, I’m fed up with being patronised and I snapped.”

She looked into my eyes and held her gaze. “I’m not patronising you, this is who I am, I’m a friendly person. I know exactly how you feel. I’m from the Philippines. What do you think it’s like to be an Asian woman? I migrated with my own family 20 years ago. Yet people still ask me what it’s like to be a mail order bride and what do I do to keep my Aussie man, rude things like that”.

We had one of those special timeless moments as our hearts collided and locked as we reached out for each other in an enveloping hug. As it happened I realised nothing was more important than the human factor. Everything else comes from ignorance and it is up to each of us to be who we are, and stand tall with pride and dignity.

Tell us, have you ever had a moment of realisation like this?