Written By: Ranjani Rao
Edited by: Clarissa Lilananda
Illustrations & Design by: Catharina Neves Schultz
In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, when asked to stay home to help curb the spread of the virus, people got creative. With time on their hands, some baked bread, others whipped up frothy coffee or created TikTok videos.
While others uncovered previously hidden talents,
I discovered grey hair.
Unlike the zealous artists of the Covid-age who were pleased to publicly display their creations, I chose to keep my find under wraps. My grey hair was not really a secret. From its first appearance on my head almost two decades ago, the strands had steadily increased in number. After recovering from the initial shock, over the years I had come up with a natural henna-based hair colouring regimen that could be done at home. Given my lack of patience while waiting around at beauty salons and lack of interest in meekly accepting society’s standards for youthfulness and physical perfection, my chosen method was perfect for me.
A pleasant side-effect of working from home during the circuit breaker phase was the option to keep the camera off during meetings. I could thus avoid looking at my face framed by silver-streaked hair staring back from a corner of the screen. The pandemic allowed me to further lower my bar for keeping up appearances.
I was not always this blase about my looks. While growing up in Mumbai (aka Bombay), home of Bollywood, like many of my peers, I too had hoped to grow up and be as pretty as a movie star. During my twenties, when supermodels Sushmita Sen and Aishwarya Rai turned into beauty queens by winning international beauty pageants, an entire generation of young women in India aspired to become like them. The two women who had put India on the world map for beauty were fair-skinned, tall, thin, talented, well-groomed and most importantly, young.
By this time, despite being tall and thin, I had already been called ‘aunty’ at the ripe young age of twenty two. During the wedding reception in India, a few weeks before my departure to the US, my in-laws introduced me by name to some relatives. The family seemed pleasant enough – a couple in their early thirties with two kids under the age of ten.
“Say hello to Aunty,” the mother prodded the younger daughter.
The child was bashful. I was aghast.
How had I turned into an aunty purely by virtue of
my new marital status?
I knew married life would be strange and exciting. But I had not expected to be instantaneously promoted to an ‘aunty’. The term ‘aunty’ was not exactly derogatory, but it was one that I associated with people of my parents' age (at least fifty and above) who sported grey hair and dispensed unnecessary advice.
I had black hair and thought of myself as cool and interesting. Certainly not an aunty!
Although guilty of generously using the word to address older women as a form of respect, when the same term was applied to me, I found it jarring. It made me feel old. And ugly.
How does one define or measure beauty?
A pleasant face?
A striking smile?
A skinny body?
A sharp mind?
A considerate personality?
A thoughtful demeanour?
Is it style – that hard to define quality that demands a second look?
Or is it just the vibrancy of youth?
Fortunately for me, I don’t recall being called beautiful, even in my youth but I cannot forget a job interview at which I was asked my age.
After having worked in the US for several years after my Ph.D., I had returned to India and was looking for a suitable job.
Armed with my multi-page CV which listed my educational qualifications and exceptional achievements at work, I showed up for the interview, prepared to discuss my technical abilities and global work experience.
“How old are you?” The distinguished looking gentleman looked questioningly at me through his rimless glasses.
In America, my workplace training had included interviewing techniques. We had been explicitly forbidden to ask potential candidates about their age, race, sexuality or physical ability. And here I was being asked the first taboo question.
“Excuse me?” I replied. Not sure I had heard correctly.
The gentleman smiled and thoughtfully re-phrased the question in what
he thought was a flattering way.
“How young are you?”
I was taken aback. If I chose to not answer, it could be construed as rude. If I did, despite my discomfort, at least I could hope that the discussion would proceed further.
“Thirty-five” I replied.
“You look much younger,” he said. He may have meant it as a compliment
but I was not flattered. Nor pleased.
This was a professional meeting, an interview. My CV had details that were pertinent to the job. My looks and my age were irrelevant. Why couldn’t we just get on with what was truly applicable to the job at hand?
More than a decade after that interaction, I still recall the nagging feeling of discomfort I felt during the interview that afternoon. I worked in India for several years after that episode. In every professional encounter, I tried to leave a legacy of professionalism, competence and empathy. My hope at work and in life, was to be seen for the person I am.
There are rules against ageism in most workplaces these days. It is forbidden to deny opportunities to people solely based on assumptions about their ability to do the required work. But culture is insidious. It impacts our decision-making ability even before our conscious mind can intervene. I am not proud to admit but I have been equally guilty of judging a person based on their age.
In the first year of my job in California, when I had returned to work after my daughter’s birth, I had scoured lists of daycare centres located close to my workplace. I liked Catherine, a pleasant British lady with curly silver hair who ran a licensed daycare in her lovely home in Los Altos. Her house was clean and spacious, with clearly separated sleep and play areas and a big backyard. My only concern was her age. Could a sixty-five-year-old handle half a dozen small children each day?
I called Katrina, a parent whose child was in Catherine’s care, for a reference.
“Don’t worry about that. Catherine has more energy than you and me put together,” she replied confidently. The other parents voiced similar opinions.
Clearly, there was no negative correlation between Catherine’s age and her competence. Leaving my daughter with Catherine during the week for the first five years of her life was one of the best decisions I made. Knowing that my child was genuinely loved and cared for allowed me to concentrate on my fledgling career.
From a young age, we begin to take cues visually. But as we grow, we begin to use these initial impressions to jump to conclusions, quite often disregarding facts.
Not surprisingly, children, particularly girls, first receive and then begin to expect compliments about their appearance. From an innocuous “You look so pretty” that you hear as a little girl to “You are looking beautiful tonight” when you grow up, how could any woman resist such flattering words?
While ‘looking beautiful’ may be easy to achieve in the peak of youth without much effort, it is seen as an accomplishment as your age advances.
The clock doesn’t stand still for anyone, and we see that as one advances into their ‘middle ages’, the compliment is revised to “You don’t look your age.”
On the surface it seems like a simple distinction. But in effect, it holds within its five words, a subliminal message to always strive for a look that doesn’t give away your age. Therefore the untiring focus on beauty products and treatments, invasive or otherwise, to maintain the illusion of youth as a medal and a prerequisite for a good life.
In “The Forty Rules of Love”, author Elif Shafak writes:
“Forty is a most beautiful age for men and women. In mystical thought, forty symbolises the ascent from one level to a higher one and spiritual awakening,”
While we remain fixated on the physical markers of age – hair that greys, a body that becomes flabby, eyes that need reading glasses – we forget to take note of the invisible signs of the emotional and spiritual awakening that happens in tandem.
Everyone (including myself), who has crossed this milestone birthday can honestly attest to the fact that entering into middle age brings with it a subtle shift in our attitude – even if it is only in how we see ourselves.
The accumulation of years and personal experience teaches you that the cliche “change is the only constant in life” is true. But you also learn that while becoming older may change your priorities, it does not limit your life. Many of the myths are shattered, revealing what they truly are – shallow beliefs of a youth-worshipping society.
As we grow up, we try to meet the expectations of those we respect and fear – parents, teachers and peers. Adulthood is a race – for jobs and promotions, houses and cars, honours and recognition. But in midlife, age brings with it a strange kind of liberation. Based on what the preceding years have brought into your life, there is a slow dawning of understanding, of the ways of the world and more importantly, of the fundamental motivations that fuel your desires.
In the words of philosopher and author Alain de Botton: “Looking old is just a version of looking tired that doesn’t go away with more sleep.” Even though I agree, I can’t help but feel a twinge of jealousy when I watch Jennifer Lopez perform at the Superbowl half-time show and draw comments like “This is what 50 looks like.” But then I look at Kamala Harris preparing to become the Vice-President of the USA in a few weeks and feel pride as a fellow woman.
In the inspiring movie Wonder (based on the eponymous book by R.J. Palacio), Julia Roberts who plays the role of the mother tells her son:
“We all have marks on our face. This is the map that shows us where you’ve been.”
The definition and look of success is different for each of us. There is no single path that leads to a meaningful life. No matter which one you choose, it will not be easy. It will mark you in ways that you cannot anticipate.
When I look in the mirror, my grey hair calls out my age quite accurately. The wrinkles on my face narrate a story of the path I have taken. I could never have been a beauty queen, but I have always tried to be the best version of myself. It just turns out that the current avatar sports grey hair.
The pandemic served as a catalyst to reveal my grey hair. It was a wake up call and a reminder to bring harmony between my inner self and outer persona. And I am glad I listened.