In a world that normalises hiding our imperfections at all costs, these women embrace their natural beauty with pride

Alia Soraya Gontier found her first grey hair when she was just 17 years old. What followed was years of colouring her hair until she realised the damage it was doing. Moving to South Korea was the unlikely motivation she needed to embrace her hair’s natural beauty, a departure from the pressure to keep up appearances in her days as a fashion stylist.

“When I worked in fashion back in the day, there definitely was that emphasis on image, but honestly the definition of Asian beauty has evolved since then,” says the Singapore-based writer, mum of one and global head of content strategy for COMO Hotels and Resorts. “While the fashion industry pushes the forefront of trends, it paradoxically remains steadfastly rigid in other ways. Grey hair still isn’t seen as an acceptable standard of beauty even as women try to hang on to the last vestiges of perceived youth.”  

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Moving to South Korea was a chance for this former national equestrian athlete not simply to reinvent herself, but to find herself. “I celebrated with one last hurrah going platinum blonde, then cropped my hair and never touched hair dye ever again,” she says.

“It might seem weird that I chose South Korea as the location of my little experiment, but I felt that since no one knew me, I could grow out my grey without judgement and start over with a new identity as the girl with grey hair. It was a hit! Every ajumma stopped and stared while young women who were paying money to get this colour wanted to know how mine was so consistent and even. I was surprised and emboldened. I learned to love it through other people’s eyes.”

Going grey doesn’t have to mean a crash and burn into the cracked landscape of old age. It can be a gentle and even bold reclamation of what beauty means while ageing gracefully.
Alia Soraya Gontier

Sporting a youthful (and admittedly low maintenance) pixie haircut today, Alia is convinced that women can and should own their natural beauty, regardless of age or hair colour.

“I don’t look like anyone else and that is important to me. My hair truly reflects who I am–a person who believes in natural beauty, that I’m comfortable with myself. I know who I am, I don’t need to hide behind what society deems beautiful.”

See also: 5 Asian Women on Beauty, Wellbeing and Loving the Skin You're In

Datuk Dr Mazlan Othman

As Malaysia’s first astrophysicist, Datuk Dr Mazlan Othman devoted a great deal of her career to the study of outer space.

The director of the International Science Council (Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific) and former director of the Vienna-based United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs says her journey to grey hair acceptance was also marked by a change of location. After returning home to Malaysia, she decided it was time to make some long overdue changes.

Related: Astrophysicist Datuk Mazlan Othman Reflects On A Life Dedicated To Science

 

“Luckily for me, one’s looks were never the focus in my field of work. Rather leadership, vision and coming up with brilliant new ideas together with the ability to implement those ideas were valued highly,” Mazlan says. “I embraced my grey hair when I decided to come home to Malaysia to start a new life and reinvent myself: I wanted to get past the image of being a ‘space person’.”

Growing out her greys was a decision she didn’t regret. It simplified her life and left hair styling matters to the capable hands of her barber.

“Accepting your hair is already grey sets you free from conforming to stereotypes,” Mazlan says. “I believe my grey hair shows that I am an independent thinker and that I do not conform.”

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Dato Dr Hartini Zainudin

At one point, Dato' Dr Hartini Zainudin couldn't bear the thought of going grey.

Today, the children's rights activist and co-founder of Yayasan Chow Kit rocks curly, snowy-white locks that reach down to her shoulders, sometimes with the ends dyed colourfully.

It's a look that radiates quiet confidence, making it hard to imagine her in years past when she was careful to dye her greying root hairs every three weeks for fear of letting them show. "I used to think grey hair was for old people, and I didn’t want to look and feel old," she muses. "Now I see more and more women with grey hair, especially after the pandemic and lockdowns."

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I’m more confident of who I am.
Dato' Dr Hartini Zainudin

The turning point for Hartini came rather abruptly. "About five years ago, my hair started thinning out and dropping. I had allergies that spread to my scalp," she explains. "The dye stung when I tried to touch up my roots. So I said, forget it. I didn't care anymore about how I looked while growing my hair out; I just wanted to avoid the pain and stop the hair loss. And it worked." 

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After the two and a half years it took to grow out her hair completely, Hartini admits that she’s grateful about not having to run to the hairdresser as often as before. "What I think my hair colour says about me is that I’m more older, calmer and more confident of who I am."

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