How I Dropped The Ageing Cloak Of Invisibility And Found A Much Needed Sisterhood After 50
"When we don't conform to conventional stereotypes about how we as ageing women 'ought to look' we risk personal attack and abuse... and I think, sadly, it comes from other women much of the time."
Not that I had any intention of doing more than just lurking initially. That is what is so good about such groups, it is entirely up to you how involved you get. Watch from the side-lines or dive right in, it’s your choice. I figured I’d pick up some tips from others’ posts, maybe in time ask a few questions myself, and then I’d leave. Except that this is not really what happened at all. I did start out lurking though, and one thing I noticed was that women seemed happy to post pictures of their progress and that others in the group would invariably say comforting things to help them stay the course.At this early point, I could actually see very little that looked terribly good about the process. Just as I’d envisaged, there appeared to be no miracle route through. Honestly, it seemed like a stretch to imagine I would be able to do it at all. But I wanted to try. So I went online to amass the stuff I’d need to see me through the early months: my Going Grey Survival Kit (headbands, root powder, scarves). I dusted off my knitting needles and made a few mad hats. I wore those hats everywhere! Still, I hated my hair. Hated feeling so unkempt. I wished I could go online and buy a dollop of courage and confidence alongside the various products I had acquired. My meagre reserves of both were just not up to it, especially at the start. Occasionally, I dipped into my online group. They all seemed so upbeat. Why? Honestly, I felt at first that I’d joined some kind of positive psychology mutual support group, never a negative word uttered. Oh please, we all look like total crap here! Do these women really believe we rock these grey roots? I was not convinced. Eventually, I plucked up the courage to post a selfie anyway. What harm could it do?And that is when things slowly began to shift for me. The “Like” notifications piled up, and feedback arrived that my grey hair was a lovely shade of silver, that it suited my skin tone, and brought out the colour of my eyes. Really? I paused a moment and looked in the mirror. For the first time, I started to see what they meant. Small steps, maybe, but it was a turning point, an incremental shift in my mind-set. Yes, I still had by now over an inch of grey roots emerging, and I still felt like crap about it most of the time too, but the silver lining (see what I did there?) was that some features were apparently being enhanced and not diminished by going grey. This process might after all have a few unforeseen benefits. Small crumbs of comfort, but crumbs nonetheless.
"Support your sisters, we are stronger together"
So why is it that, after a while, I started to engage in similarly positive behaviour? Was I just following the sisterly herd here, was I turning into a notification junkie? Perhaps. But I think instead what was happening is that I was – like other members of the group further down the track - starting to see the process of going grey in a more positive light. I looked at pictures of others just starting out and I realised how encouraged I had been by those early affirmations myself. What might I say that would be similarly uplifting? Because I had to be sincere in my own comments, I engaged in a kind of mindful looking, I suppose. I resisted the temptation to simply stop at the skunk stripe that immediately caught my eye. As I scrutinised others’ pictures more closely, I looked past the very visible emergent grey roots to the person beyond; always, there was something else I noticed. This approach is akin to psychologist Ellen Langer’s views on mindfulness: moving beyond gut reaction conclusions that shut down alternative interpretations, and instead consciously opening our mind to consider possibilities that might be harder to access.
"Focusing attention on what is good, or has the potential to become good, is a powerful antidote to a society hell-bent on people – especially women - criticising one another."
Paying increased attention to others in the group also reminded me of some of the basic social psychology I’d learned as an undergraduate about how we perceive ingroups (those we belong to) and outgroups (those we don’t). In classic studies by Henri Tajfel and others, it’s been shown that merely being assigned to a group, even if it’s on a trivial basis such as preference for a particular artist, makes us feel more positively towards that group. It becomes our ingroup, our tribe. This can have a number of consequences. For example, we develop a strong allegiance to our ingroups, and are motivated to boost these groups, either by bigging up their qualities, or by belittling those groups to which we do not belong. It does depend on the group, but for some, outgroup negativity is not such a feature. However, the supportive vibe characterised by paying compliments to women in the group is a defining feature of most, and I suspect it does much to boost the collective self-esteem of group members.Whilst I’ve used the Going Grey groups as an example in this blog post, it’s purely because that’s the group I have most personal experience with so it can best illustrate my point. I know both from my time as a parent and my research more generally, that it’s definitely not only here that such sisterly positivity can be found. Groups for parenting, menopause, and postnatal depression for example all fulfil a similar function: women bound by a similar issue who are uniting and empowering each other, both online and offline. (If you want to see this in action, watch this inspirational clip about mums from a Facebook parenting group: http://www.scarymommy.com/online-mom-friends-meet-for-the-first-time-video/ ). It got me thinking, what if the unconditional and mindful positivity among women that we see in some online groups could be more of a mainstay of our offline interactions, too? What if, instead of women tearing each other down over perceived “style crimes” they could practice some of the principles we see in such groups?
"If anything, it seems offline bitchiness can actually be a behaviour which is reinforced and rewarded rather than rebuked"