Greying hair in your 20s? I honestly don't care

Who knew sporting salt and pepper hair in your 20s would be dubbed as an act of valour, a symbol of courage?
Updated 10 Dec, 2019

I was six years old when my class teacher in grade one shamed me for wearing big, round glasses by calling me Daadi Amma.

At that moment in time, it became my unsaid mission to never resemble a ‘granny’ before I hit the age to be called "old".

Illustration by Namerah Khan
Illustration by Namerah Khan

Back then, I didn’t know about ageism but I wasn’t too hard on that six-year-old child because the pictures in my Little Red Riding Hood book did show her grandmother to have round spectacles and, well, grey hair. But what I also did not know was that sporting salt and pepper hair in my 20s would be dubbed as an act of valour, a symbol of courage.

Keeping quiet

Soon after I turned 20 — and having lost my father unexpectedly at 19 — I realised that my hair had started to turn grey. The period was a very stressful one in my life as I constantly worried about survival for many years, and perhaps it was one of the reasons why my hair started to grey earlier (no, I don’t have sinus). 

However, that’s where my hijab came to save the day because nobody could see my greys and I was comfortable under my skin (read: scarf).

But for two years or so, I did give in to the pressure and would apply mehendi on the pretext of improving hair quality, and the brown shade would reflect for at least three months before wearing off gradually, as I would be at my mother’s mercy to apply it again. 

Once, a friend didn’t hesitate to ask if the hair under my dupatta was greying and I sheepishly said yes, but he went on to say that he was proud of me for not dyeing it and showed me his hair too. I kept quiet because I didn’t want to tell him that I did use mehendi sometimes. 

I was quite keen to know the reason behind my premature greying, so I decided to call the barber and shave my head once more.

However, despite applying different oils and taking care of my scalp, my hair was still a mix and match of the original colour with different shades of grey. I could still get away with it due to my hijab but after two years, I decided to part ways with it.

Soon after, I realised I had become the center of attention for many people. 

My trips to the nearby salon became increasingly difficult — the staff would remind me I would not be eligible for marriage and would promptly offer a wide range of colours, listing the ones which would suit me better. I'd smile politely before explaining to the woman threading my eyebrows, with tears streaming down my face, that I liked my hair short and untouched by any dye — for now. 

She would roll her eyes at me and call me a tomboy, as a few who have seen me frequent the place for a decade laughed how I have been like this forever. 

Something in the water

My experience in a salon in Nepal was the complete opposite. Nobody bothered to comment on the colour, rather they just chopped off my hair as I asked without any questions. Yet here, I did become thick-skinned, with just nods and hoping to get done with my ordeals quickly.

One would think that doctors are supposed to tell you about your health. Under this impression, I gathered the courage to visit a general physician as lethargy was becoming the bane of my existence. But the moment he saw me, he asked my age and profession, and commented that I was so "smart" but letting it all go to waste by not dyeing my hair. He just couldn’t assess what was wrong with me but was sure that it had to do with my weight and of course, hair colour.

Needless to say, I never visited him again, and battled with the lethargy.

While in Lahore once, I took a rickshaw from the bus terminal, and didn’t mind answering a few basic but intrusive questions as the driver drove me through the lanes of Old Lahore, unknown to me as a lone traveller. 

In the middle of the ride, he asked me about the water quality in Karachi. Truth be told, we all know it isn’t the best but I couldn’t explain to him that the availability of water was such a blessing that we didn’t really think about the quality. But it turned out he wasn’t worried about it. 

Hearing my reply, he casually said, “Oh tabhi baal ese hogaye hain”, and I just didn’t know whether to laugh at this deduction or just let it be. 

I knew for sure that while riding a motorbike astride in Karachi, I did draw attention sometimes if my scarf slipped off from my head revealing my cropped greying hair, but what I couldn’t grapple was the thought of how it made me brave. 

Honestly, if I got paid every time someone stopped me to ask if my hair is natural or not, I might worry less about delayed payments for my work. 

A fine-tuned radar

It's difficult to even get an appointment for anything without someone looking at me skeptically before asking me about my hair and feeling sorry for me.

I think the best ones are those who just ask me why, and if my mood is sour, I make them feel awkward by bringing in death, grief and the class struggle and its implications on the human body in ways we can’t imagine. If they are lucky, I say, "Life happened," and move on. 

Also, for some odd reason, people also think I won't notice them staring at my hair. Hello! I am a woman living in a city, my senses are a fine-tuned radar when it comes who is looking at me and my backpack — and why.

Come to think of it, I have been asked so many uncomfortable questions in public and private alike about my appearance that I expect anything from anyone now, whether on a footpath, in a park, elevator or a clinic.

Sometimes, people get so perplexed that they ask, "How come your face looks so younger but your hair so gray?" and I have to remind myself to be gentle with myself. One person had the gall to say that I looked a lot older than their son, and hence their disapproval of me. Thankfully, I had stopped caring for that person’s validation.

Weddings and other gatherings within my community were perhaps the last places where I let go of my hijab. I regretted it immediately when a relative came over to my table to tell me how he thought I was an older woman and certainly not Zoya, all the while laughing. I honestly tried really hard to locate the joke but I failed miserably. 

Now, when someone tells me that they can’t recognise me, I try to say “I get that a lot,” and “No worries, I know people can’t handle change,” and other one liners, which sometimes I mutter under my breath while still looking for the joke they are guffawing about.  

Uplifting support — and never giving up

My family and friends, especially my mother, have been my biggest support.

My mother, who had been dyeing her hair for quite a long while, also stopped dyeing her hair because of the hassle, and when people realised I wouldn’t budge, they turned to her — but she just waved them off. 

My brother once told a person that the reason I had grey hair was because it was my body and I had the right to it.

Alongside my support system, there are also those who tell me that they wish they had hair like mine and can’t wait for their hair to age gracefully.

Women also tell me that my hairstyle looks incredibly sexy especially because of the colour, and that they wish I were a man, making me sigh about the spectrum of sexuality.

During a conference in Vancouver, many people complimented my hair and I would beam with happiness because I knew I did pull it off. 

I am often told by bike riders that they had a hunch I'm a journalist because of my hair, and I wish I could tell them that my act of not colouring my hair had nothing to do with my indifference towards it. Rather, I realised that I would not dye my hair unless I wanted to. I do agree with Fleabag's Hair Is Everything monologue because nobody wants to look like a pencil on their bad days, after all.

My friend told me in 2015 to never dye hair out of societal pressure, and I wondered what exactly about a 20-something woman who just feels comfortable with herself bothers people so much. 

Thanks to time, I know I can shave my head, or chop off my hair and don a sari or gharara or just wear jeans and wear jhumkis. Or just tie a pony and get busy. 

And if someone asks why grey, be cliché and say "Grey is the new black" and hop off.  


Queen Oct 21, 2019 08:47am
I can feel you sister. Unlike you, I have long black hair reaching down my waist, and despite of my luxurious hair (which I am proud of) i always get "why don't you cut you hair?" "Do something stylish with it" "There is no need to braid it as you look older than your age" ..... Society is never satisfied.
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Surya Kant Oct 21, 2019 09:03am
I love my salt and pepper at 60. Age has worked hard to make me look beautiful.
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Usman Oct 21, 2019 09:06am
Very nice article Zoya. thanks
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Umar Bin Ayaz Oct 21, 2019 09:07am
I appreciate the writer so much. Thanks for coming out and talking about it. Props to you. Thanks. I think the more generic problem here is body shaming, and i would go one step further to say that it aint any different than racism, sexism and ageism. Let us be recognized by the values we have, decisions we make. And work we do. Not by caste, color and creed.
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abdul Oct 21, 2019 09:23am
At 32, I have a head full of grey hair and i had them since i was in 2nd year. I never though about dyeing them or even consulting a doctor regarding the same. I love how they make me look distinguish among colleagues who even at 50 dye their head jet black.
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Syed Irfan ALI Oct 21, 2019 09:48am
Inspiring story by Zoya. Moral is don't care what others say and do what makes you happy. I've learnt it as a male of 45 years living in Dubai with a receding hairline on my scalp. I give a damn what others say or think about my baldness.
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Major Zeba Bakhtiar Oct 21, 2019 09:58am
I always say, we as a society are hypocrite and racist. Goray, kahmba, mota, saya are nick names we have in society bcz of looks, same way grey hair people are also called names.. If we start fixing ourselves now we still need 2 generations to change. Happy that u r out of that pity zone.
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Taqi ramzan Oct 21, 2019 11:41am
My father, me and my siblings also had grey hair through their childhood and faced the same name calling and stuff. mine was a bit excessive. I braved those days and now am 34, but now that i am of the age where i should get grey hair they have turned black. funny and ironical, when i needed them black they were not there now that i dont care they are black. life plays games and i have faced lots of it.
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Dr Rabail Oct 21, 2019 12:14pm
You go girl! So proud of you I too have greying hair but i havent yet mustered the courage to accept and love it
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Shafiq Ahmad Chughtai Oct 21, 2019 04:48pm
Great to read all this can relate as I had been in the same boat .... love your courage Thanks for giving us voice ... thanks for standing up for yorself and thanks again for the great lesson our society needs ! !!
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GJM Oct 21, 2019 05:03pm
Zoya, don't be disheartened. I am a male - now 60, was born in India, and US citizen for several decades. I have had a degree of thinning hair since around mid 40s. I am also not the biggest muscle bound. But truly I feel well, healthy, very well professionally employed and respected. Not once that I can recall, in Indian family and friends gatherings, weddings, even funerals, I fail to hear comments and "sympathy" about my folic challenged head and "oh you lost weight". I have tons of American co workers and friends, I rarely hear any of them making such insensitive remarks. Our South Asian people are truly classless boors. Don't really like them all that much. In keeping with my spiritual leanings, all things are impermanent. Not to worry. This is going to happen to all eventually. Be well.
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Shamoon Ahmad Oct 21, 2019 10:24pm
Zoya Anwar, glad you posted your picture. Honestly, you shouldn't care. You look stunningly beautiful. And that is coming from eighy year man who spent his life in America in the midst of blonds and brunets. Enjoy life, it is very short.
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Reborn Oct 21, 2019 10:27pm
Very common to have grey hair in the 20s. It's not even news anymore.
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Ravi Sanku Oct 22, 2019 01:48am
Brave girl with a spine and not bowing down to the whims of the society. The world needs more such people. Best wishes!
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Imran Khan Oct 22, 2019 04:40am
good one and keep it up....people are more worried about others then themself in Pakistani community
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Sadia Oct 22, 2019 07:27am
I got a white strip of hair since I was 16 years old, and since then my hair keeps getting white since its a genetic problem. I can understand the discomfort, but after some time, I also stopped caring about it. My husband also has the same issue and he is even getting bald. I don't care dyeing my hair, and in fact, when I was 6 months pregnant, I remember receiving a senior citizen discount in a cinema in Chicago area in IL. I enjoyed the situation and laughed out loudly. I now sometimes dye my hair on demand of my 5 years old boy.
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Chris Roberts Oct 22, 2019 07:37am
Basically, just love yourself for the person you are. Of course, most of us like to do what we can to look our best, but, really, it's perfectly human and normal to have grey hair at some point in our lives. Why pretend to be what we are not? One can feel great and look sexy at just about any age, grey hair and all.
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Fahad Hussain Korai Oct 22, 2019 11:14pm
More power to you. I just can't seem to understand why people can't keep their unwanted opinions to themsleves. I get these comments a lot. But i just brush them off as ignorant people around us words don't matter to me. I'm sure you look really good with your greys and pull them off really well.
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AJ Oct 23, 2019 09:17am
Good for her, but not really an act of valor. Our definition of heroes have downgraded over time.
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Shanila Oct 23, 2019 02:14pm
Great work. Iam on the same road. While reading your article , i gain strength and courage not to dye again. Keep up the grey hairs
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Alee Oct 27, 2019 07:38pm
You are as beautiful inside as well outside. People in our culture, community are under peer pressure so no matter what you do . I myself started grayish In my 20’s as well since then I’m dyeing them . It’s a big hassle and waste of money but I’m keep doing it because of not looking old. I’m happily married Allhamdulliah but I HATE when people comments on my looks my hair , don’t know why they r so concerned about your looks . That’s their habit to do so like it’s WAJIB . My husband is absolutely fine no matter I look he is the sweetest . probably I will stop dyeing them when I will turn into my 40’s. :)))
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Ali Dec 13, 2019 09:51pm
In my 20s, my hair started greying and I felt immense pressure as my friends, siblings, and relatives began calling me an alien in the family; they blamed it my studying a lot - that's true that I did study a lot always got high marks and positions - but I guess it had nothing to do with my hair's transformation of colours. I did everything such as putting variegated oils, standing on my head for hours, eating almonds and nuts, protein-replete diet, etc. but nothing worked. I did initiate with applying MEHNDI that made my hair strong, thick, and shiny but nothing with colour. Then I came to know that it's genetic as one of my Uncle, the brother of my father and sister of my father had the same situation in their teens. It gave a sigh of relief and stopped worrying about my hair, but I kept dying my hair with Mehndi or synthetic colour. Now in my 40s and thinking about not dying in anymore. World is changing and we should be proud of how we look... Kudos to those who look different and carry it with dignity...
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