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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 10 December 2018

Rooting for silver: meet the UAE women embracing the natural hair look 

The salt-and-pepper look is thought distinguished on men, but women tend to go to great lengths to hide their grey strands

Fakhria Lutfi stopped dyeing her hair when she suspected it was contributing to allergic reactions. Leslie Pableo / The National
Fakhria Lutfi stopped dyeing her hair when she suspected it was contributing to allergic reactions. Leslie Pableo / The National

Most women go to great lengths to colour over their grey hair.

They spend countless hours and small fortunes at salons. They absorb harsh chemicals into their bodies on a monthly basis for years on end. They occupy valuable brain space fretting about millimetres of growth, feel shabby as the next salon visit looms and panic when they can’t get the appointment they want. And they have decades of this ahead of them. They do it to look younger, to feel better, and in an echo of the iconic L’Oreal Paris advertising phrase, because they are “worth it”.

Donna Howarth, a 45-year-old British personal trainer, massage therapist and mother of three living in Abu Dhabi, was one of these women. Howarth resorted to dye when she first began to go grey about 12 years ago. But in April 2017, she said to herself: “enough is enough”.

“I hate being sat in the hairdressers chair for hours on end,” she says. “It’s OK now and then, but when you’re going every three weeks, it’s taking up your whole day. I hated it.”

 Donna Howarth stopped as she grew tired of spending hours at the salon. Leslie Pableo / The National 
Donna Howarth stopped as she grew tired of spending hours at the salon. Leslie Pableo / The National

Fe Wagner is a 55-year-old free-­spirited Pilates teacher living in Abu Dhabi, with two grown children back in the United States. Wagner was never one of those women. She rarely thinks about her partially grey hair. “Because I’m lazy, because I’ve seen my mum’s side of the family – they cannot let it go,” she says. “Every two weeks, they have to colour it. And the chemicals, you know.”

Wagner was also inspired by her mother, who had let her hair go white from 60 until she died at 85. “She had a pixie cut,” she says. “It was so cool.”

Fe Wagner couldn’t stomach the chemicals. Victor Besa / The National 
Fe Wagner couldn’t stomach the chemicals. Victor Besa / The National

Fakhria Lutfi, 56, worked as a graphic designer for 24 years and now volunteers at the Dubai Autism Centre. She has two grown children and a 14-year-old, who was still nursing when she found out she had breast cancer in 2004. Before her hair fell out from chemotherapy, she was 10 per cent grey; when it grew back, 90 per cent of it was. While still taking cancer medication, she had severe ­allergic reactions, and after being prescribed allergy medication, felt even worse. By then, she was touching up the front of her hair with dye every four or five days – and wondered if it could be part of the problem. “Then I decided, why am I doing this to myself?” she says. “So slowly, slowly I let it grow.” She admits the process was painful: growing out the grey, cutting her hair short, “like a boy”, and letting it grow out again. And then a funny thing happened.

“I liked it,” she says. “I heard from the family, because I am the youngest one in the family. They said ‘it makes you look older’. I said: ‘I am at peace with myself. I don’t care what people think’.” These days, Lutfi has a ­glorious mane of grey hair and a message for other women: “It’s better to get used to it.”

Dubai resident Caroline Labouchere, a mother of two grown children, did that and much more. She stopped dyeing her hair five years ago, tired of the time and money it took from her – and found herself with a hot new career as the UAE’s first grey model. The 54-year-old has appeared in British Vogue and walked at London Fashion Week for the brand Rixo this year.

“It gave me this opportunity that I never would have had,” she says. “Now I walk into this place and I’m the only grey person, and I’m really proud. I feel that I really stand out and I stand taller and maybe walk differently. I feel empowered by it.”

Caroline Labouchere, 54, is the UAE’s first grey-haired model. Courtesy Caroline Labouchere
Caroline Labouchere, 54, is the UAE’s first grey-haired model. Courtesy Caroline Labouchere

Aside from her supportive husband David – who wrote in an email that he is nothing but “proud of this mature, beautiful person who defies age and celebrates change” – initially most of the feedback was negative, she says. It’s not easy to buck the norm in such an obvious way, says Labouchere, who struggled at first, before finding her way. “It’s your attitude more than anything,” she says.

Howarth, who has not met Labouchere but has followed her on Instagram for the past 18 months, using her as inspiration, agrees. “For me, I think it’s made me embrace the changes I’m going through, made me embrace the next chapter in my life,” she says. “So okay, I’m getting older, this is the change that’s going on with me, with my hair, with the rest of my body. Why not? It happens to everybody. Why should I have to spend money dyeing my hair to fit in with society? I can do whatever I want. So if I’m going grey, I’m going to go grey.”

Aside from the time and money spent dyeing hair, there is a significant health risk from the chemicals in commercial dyes. Faryal Luhar is a 43-year-old Canadian naturopathic doctor at The Hundred Wellness Centre in Dubai. She was a teenager when her hair started to go grey and back then, she dyed it.

Her turning point was going to naturopathic medical school and learning about what impact toxins have on the body. “You’re basically absorbing so many of those toxic chemicals from the scalp directly to the brain,” says Luhar. “It’s just so close to the important organs in your head and to your lymphatic vessels and things like that, so it’s not a good idea.”

Faryal Luhar learnt about the impact of toxic chemicals from dye. Courtesy Faryal Luhar
Faryal Luhar learnt about the impact of toxic chemicals from dye. Courtesy Faryal Luhar

And although she then used natural dyes for a while, eventually she stopped that too. “I think as you get older and you develop the attitude of ‘I’m just going to be comfortable with who I am’,” she says.

Luhar says the reactions to her natural look were varied. Sometimes people stopped her in coffee shops or at a drive-throughs to compliment her. “Then I’d have people who would pressure me. They’d say: ‘You’re so young, why don’t you dye your hair, it will make you look more vibrant and younger and why do you want to keep the grey?’,” she says.

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And then there have been the ­hairdressers (“every single one”), pushing her to dye. “It’s not even their fault, it’s how they’ve been trained, it’s what’s in their mindset,” she says.

Labouchere advises women who are considering going grey to go for it. Times have changed for women, and continue to change: ­having grey hair and getting older no longer means becoming a grandmother and fading into the background. “I find from now I’ve been given a tool to maybe help women of my age not sit back and watch the world go by,” she explains. “But get in there, join in and maybe even create something new.”