Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

The great grey howl

The Duchess of Cambridge has just a touch of grey -- and hardly anyone in Britain likes it

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There was a royal scandal recently when the Duchess of Cambridge made a public appearance sporting one or two practically invisible grey hairs. Three days later she wore a black beret, which was viewed by some as a furtive scheme to cover her shame. (Yes, because otherwise we would never, ever see a royal in a hat.)

It was almost impossible to see those subtle silver strands. The reactions, on the other hand, were immediately obvious. "Catherine the Grey-t," blared the headlines. "Royal Hair Crisis Alert!"

Amid calls for emergency hair care -- "a box of Clairol STAT!" -- there were many tangled investigations into the semiotics of hair.

For progressive royalists -- kind of a contradiction, but you know what I mean -- the great grey sighting was just one more proof that the duchess is the reassuring middle-class face of the Family Firm. After all, what says "modern monarchy" better than being too busy to colour your greys? Talk about relatability!

Some sterner monarchists thought the former Miss Middleton was perhaps letting the side down. "Send that colourist to the Tower," one royal watcher joked. (At least we think he was joking.)

Meanwhile, anti-royal feminists were in a bit of a pickle. While believing that princessing is grossly overpaid, they couldn't help but extend sisterly sympathy, feeling that nothing could possibly compensate for the tyranny of the zoom lens and the sheer exhausting responsibility of having the most scrutinized centre-part in the world.

My own reaction had more to do with my own head. If Kate can get caught with visible grey hairs, I thought, then what hope is there for the rest of us? (You know, those of us who don't employ household staff?) The Kate Effect, as it's called, involves the boosts in sales of her favourite fashions. The chic black coat she wore on Remembrance Day, for example, sold out within a day. I doubt that her visible-roots look will catch on, however, which is too bad for plebes like me, who don't always have the time or money for another salon visit.

Kate's hair affair also highlighted a fundamental shift in social attitudes. It used to be that dyeing one's hair was the shocking secret, back when it was believed that only chorus girls "painted" their hair.

Now the shame seems to be in not dyeing your hair enough. Falling behind on that punishing regimen for root touch-ups -- which can be needed as often as every three weeks -- is now seen as evidence of weakness, of laziness, of a crucial lack of the steely will required to embody modern womanhood.

Hair colour for women once prompted coyness. ("Does she or doesn't she? Only her hairdresser knows for sure,"). Then defiant empowerment ("I'm worth it!"). Now it seems depressingly compulsory. We can supposedly have it all -- but heaven help us if we have grey roots.

Grey hairs are increasingly viewed as unnatural, as aberrations. With an astounding lack of sensitivity, even by the snakey-low standards of the Internet, one blogger saw the duchess's grey as a possible sign of post-partum depression.

There is a certain amount of confusion, in fact, about how the duchess's maternal role might interact with her public duty to represent shiny-tressed flawlessness. Having a newborn might "go some way to explaining the appearance of a few silvery strands in Kate's otherwise perfect silken locks," said one commentator, clearly feeling that he was being charitable.

Other commentators speculated, in a vaguely scientific way, that the hormonal roller-coaster of pregnancy, childbirth and recovery might have affected the colour and texture of Kate's hair. "Will the frizz last forever?" asked one particularly mean-spirited headline.

Mommy-bloggers rallied in ferocious defence. Many also railed against Big Dye, suggesting that perhaps Kate was avoiding colouring her hair during breastfeeding, as some women do.

Ultimately, the weirdness about Kate's grey hair reflects our cultural denial about aging. An instructive slideshow that's online shows pairs of celebrities then and now, pictured at the same age. We have sexy 40-something Marisa Tomei next to frumpy 40-something Jean Stapleton. We have the 51-year-old Demi Moore next to the 51-year-old Rue McClanahan (who was just starting off with The Golden Girls). Examining this eye-opening photo-exercise, it almost seems as if there has been a general decree that celebrities are no longer allowed to grow old. For many, grey hair is just the first line in what will be a long, hard trench war against time.

The Duchess of Cambridge's official job is to cut ribbons and shake hands and smile during long speeches. Unofficially, her position seems to be acting as a lightning rod for all sorts of charged issues. Since her appearance on the royal scene, she has become the focus for conflicting cultural attitudes about social class, femininity and motherhood, for heated debates about beauty and body issues.

And now, before the woman has even hit her mid-30s, Kate is bearing the brunt of our social anxieties about age.

Yikes. No wonder she has grey hairs.

alison.gillmor@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 16, 2013 D12

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