Mary’s hair

It was a joy to see Professor Mary Beard back on our TV screens last week, talking about Caligula. Mary is the only person I know who can stand in front of an ancient tombstone, in a museum, and make it look fresh and exciting. She also almost made me feel sorry for ‘Little Boots’ – although I shall always picture him as Joaquin Phoenix playing Commodus in Gladiator, and not even Mary can elicit much sympathy from me there.

I’ve written about Professor Beard on another blog, comparing her (favourably) with Coco Rocha, the model. I know she read my comments, because she politely replied to them. Which made me feel guilty because although I was complimentary about her in many ways, I was critical in one – Mary’s hair – and that of course is the one she responded to. Even brilliant Cambridge Classics professors are human. They are also, in Mary’s case, vocal and brave. They don’t sit there and take criticism in silence. They make you think.

Since then, inspired by that guilt, I’ve been thinking about Mary a lot. And I have come to the conclusion that her hair is even more important than I thought it was.

Mary is a busy academic, Times columnist and public figure, who is changing not only our appreciation of Roman culture but also our appreciation of women past childbearing age in public life – and I’m sure she has better things to think about than her ‘do’. I, however, am fascinated. But not from a hairdressing point of view.

Like Mary, I went to Cambridge, where I researched my PhD in Modern Languages. One of my favourite topics was semiotics. It’s the study of signs and their meaning, not only in words, but in objects and behaviour. I’m especially interested in the latter two, because we accord meaning to the things around us in a very profound and subconscious way.

Take, let us say, for example, women’s hair. We know it’s a big deal, because hundreds of millions of girls and women around the world cover theirs, and have done for centuries. For those of us who don’t, paying to have it cut, coloured, curled or straightened, conditioned, extended and styled can be a significant part of our budget.

I recently spent an absolute fortune on mine for the first time ever and the sad truth is, it works. It makes you look different. People notice. Your style says a lot about who you are and the person you choose to be. In The Look, the key scene describes two girls having their heads shaved. It’s a seminal moment for both of them, and an empowering one. Teenage cancer victims often fear losing their hair through chemotherapy more than any of the other side effects, despite the fact that it’s reversible. Hair matters to us: that’s just how it is.

When I first wrote about Mary’s hair last year, what I said was a massive oversimplification, looking back, and I’d like to clarify that now – especially if she’s listening. I do, and always have, liked and admired Mary’s hair. It’s thick and abundant, a beautiful colour (her natural grey), and she’s lucky to have it. What I didn’t like, at the time, was her haircut. Or the lack of it.

I felt, and still feel, that people presenting programmes on TV are inviting themselves into my home and I like them to look smart. On the whole, they do. I didn’t like Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s shaggy locks; Jeremy Clarkson looked a lot better after Trinny and Susannah pleaded with him to make an effort.

Mary wore a wonderful red coat during her series Meet The Romans, which made her stand out beautifully against the ruins, but I felt the whole shaggy hair thing let her down a bit, which was a shame. I didn’t, by the way, mind at all that she doesn’t often wear visible makeup either. She has one of those strong faces that looks equally good with or without it. Again, she’s lucky that way.

By now, she’d got me thinking about what it was that I expected of a TV presenter, I started looking at them more closely. For the blokes, it’s pretty simple: an outfit of shirt and trousers, generally, that’s washed and pressed and suits them, a decent haircut and teeth that don’t look hideously snaggled or startlingly white, like something out of a Jerry Bruckheim movie. The more they look like David Attenborough or Michael Palin, the happier I am.

For women, it took about 24 hours to realise that actually … well, actually, there is almost no woman presenting on TV, apart from Joan Rivers, whose style I truly admire because, unlike Mary, they’re all trying to look like the same super-thin, big-haired, tightly-dressed, massively-lipglossed doll – regardless of the incisive comments they may have to bring to their subject – and it’s really, really depressing.

They look smart, yes. Go them. They made the effort. They made the effort and then they just kept going with that effort until I have no idea, no idea at all, what they’re really like when they’re kicking off their shoes and being themselves. They look ‘TV’. Clare Balding used to be an honourable exception to the rule, presenting the racing, but since she became super-famous at the Olympics she’s doing it too. The hair’s changed. The lips are … lippier. I miss the old Clare, I really do.

None of them, by the way, have grey hair. Oh no. Grey hair would be death to their careers. They’re almost all about my age, a bit younger or a bit older and therefore by definition, starting to go grey or nearly there, but you’d never know. We must not, as a nation, admit that older women are in positions of power and influence. Or … something terrible will happen. I don’t know what, but the high-ups in the big TV companies seem very, very scared of it. So does Mary’s fellow Times columnist, AA Gill.

So I got to thinking about grey hair. Jamie Lee-Curtis does it beautifully. So does Judi Dench. Very short, above a beautiful, pixie face. Gamine. Still sexy. Did I say short? Yes, short, dammit. Barely there.

Short grey hair can be cool on the older woman, but why not long? What is so off-putting about long grey hair in public? Why is Mary Beard the only person who dares have any since, quite probably, Sister Wendy, but hers was covered (see above). Why does it make me think of sandals and sunset-ceremonies, and homemade doilies? What’s wrong with it?

Mary’s comment to me was ‘Coat is good; hair is me’. My guess is that she’s worn it that way since her undergraduate days at Newnham. She just never got the memo that she was supposed to start hating it, dyeing it and/or cutting most of it off when she hit her mid to late forties. She was supposed to stop being her vigorous, romantic, inner self and admit to the world that it was time to start playing games: make it younger, or make it disappear.

When I recently had my own hair highlighted – the first time I’d fiddled with the colour since my student days – the otherwise lovely hairdresser tried to tell me that my natural grey colour ‘wouldn’t suit my skin tone’ and I would increasingly need to dye it as I grew older. This is, as I hope we all know, bullshit. Oh, the things women say to other women to make them spend money and I wish they’d stop.

But beyond the fact that it keeps hair colourists out of profit, there is something about long, grey hair that is … OK, let me just come out and say it: witch-like. Yeah, that’s what’s wrong with it. It makes you look like a witch. And they’re the baddies in every fairytale, as we know.

Another M B, Martha Beck, a stalwart of Oprah Winfrey’s O magazine, has said that women fall into four categories: the ones who gave up family for career, and worry about it; the ones who gave up career for family, and worry about it; the ones who chose both, and worry about it ; and the mystics – women who came from all the other three categories but had somehow found peace with themselves, and “had discovered and come to trust an intensely personal inner voice”.

In Medieval times, men would have called these mystics witches. Sure, they might have known all the best herbs and been able to deliver live babies, but they were self-sufficient and … you know … creepy. In the olden days, they pronounced them them wicked and ducked them; in the twenty-first century, they troll them on Twitter. Sic semper erat, as Mary might say.

Perhaps I instinctively didn’t warm to her hair on Meet The Romans because it reminded me of a witch, and I was concerned and sorry for her – sorry that she’d be marginalised and abused and not taken seriously. But I needn’t have worried. Yes, she’s had bomb threats and death threats on Twitter. Yes, she scares misogynist men, who don’t like confident, articulate women participating in public debates, but she’s a tough cookie. She’s taken on the power. With that long, thick hair that she doesn’t seem to think about and which is a sign of her vitality and matters so much, she’s a shining example of twenty-first century feminism.

As you say, Mary, your hair is you. It doesn’t ‘clash with your skin tone’, it emphasises your inner strength. You are the Samson of our struggle, and a true mystic. Don’t let John Frieda anywhere near it.

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11 thoughts on “Mary’s hair

    • You said something about Mary’s hair when Susie and I stayed at your house and I regretted not saying something and talking about it more, so it made me smile that you’ve been thinking about it too! 🙂

  1. I agree. Do you remember Germaine Greer embracing her crone a few years ago? She made some good points but then tamed it. I am about to let mine grow out but I will keep it short. I think long hair is the sign of the maiden, it is about sexuality and sensuality. When it’s grey it speaks of a transformation of sexual power into something else. I do associate it with intellectuals, mystics and those who want to make a point about not caring about appearance as well as those who actually don’t. Great post.

    • I think it’s all of those things, Nicky, and I think it’s about time we admitted that when we start going grey, we don’t stop feeling sexy. Just as women, Mary included, are starting to speak up about the vile abuse they get for standing up and standing out in public, I think we should admit to that transformation of power you refer to, and embrace it. I should have mentioned Holly Hunter in Top of the Lake, too (like a river of silver), but I’ve only just remembered it.

  2. Sophia what a brilliant post – the politics of hair!

    I’m going grey, so I dye my hair and I really, really resent the time and the money it eats up. Once you start dyeing it that’s it, you’re trapped, unless you can cope with grey roots and dyed lengths as you grow it out or you chop it all off., and not everyone has the confidence to do that.

    • You’re right, Justine. I had mine highlighted earlier and I’m just entering that stage. Tricky, tricky, tricky. At least I’m not on TV, though. The pressure then must be tremendous.

  3. Great and thoughtful post, thank you. Although I didn’t agree with all your ideas it was fabulous to read about someone thinking about hair in a non-‘you should wear it like this’ way. I’m in my early thirties and going grey; although I’ve dyed it with henna a couple of times (which leaves me with bright red strikes through my hair where the grey catches the colour but the dark brown doesn’t) I can’t imagine dying my hair. But then I don’t usually wear make-up either. I personally like to see the ‘real’ person as much as I enjoy seeing the ‘dressed up’ one but I would always rather someone (on TV, at work) used appearance and style to reflect how they felt about themselves than to conform to how we ‘ought’ to look.

    • Thanks, Jess. I don’t have a problem with dressing up, when it’s original (see eg Zandra Rhodes, Helena Bonham Carter or Vivienne Westwood), but it’s such a pity when everyone ends up looking the same. And don’t dye! Why should you?

  4. So surprised – in light of the above – and pleased to see a woman with long, grey hair on a poster outside my local Boots today (advertising red lipstick). The other poster was of a black woman with blue nail varnish. Neither was under 25. Progress!

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