Dr Rachel Heinrichsmeier from King’s College London reports on a practice used by older women in her research in a hair-salon.

In the western world, we live in an environment where women are still expected to attend to their appearance. This expectation doesn’t change as we age, just the emphasis, as we’re urged left, right and centre to manage the look of age with a whole array of ‘anti-ageing’ products. But older women face a dilemma: on the one hand, we can’t ‘let ourselves go’. The penalties for doing so range from disapprobation to increasing invisibility. But we can’t either be seen to invest too much time, money or effort in our looks. This could seem vain.

So how can we invest effort in how we look but still seem as if we’re not all that interested? And how can we do this precisely at the point when we’re sitting there in a hair-salon spending quite a lot of time and money on our appearance?

Older women managing appearance in a small village salon

I explored this by looking at what the mostly older clients of a small village hair-salon did. Small, bright and clean, this wasn’t a site of frills and femininity, but it exuded friendliness and frequently lively fun. A large number of the women came in for a weekly shampoo-and-set, and the bank of old-fashioned hood-dryers was one of the first things you saw on entering the salon. But a range of styling options was on offer, including of course cut and blow-dries and various kinds of colour treatment. I spent nearly two years hanging out in this salon, observing the clients and their appointments and audio-recording the kinds of talk that went on.

One thing I noticed was what seemed to be an inconsistency between the way the older women dressed – as if appearance mattered to them –, and the way they often talked – as if it didn’t.

What they did: ‘I’m not letting myself go’

So in terms of what they did, most of my participants seemed to invest both time and effort in their appearance. They attended the hair-salon regularly and quite frequently, and they also mostly dressed quite presentably for it. This interest was actually also shown verbally during occasional long consultation talks and remarks that revealed they were closely monitoring what the stylist was doing. They might break off from a story, for example, to make a comment. In all this, my participants displayed themselves as women who weren’t ‘letting themselves go’. And of course they were in fact self-evidently taking care of their appearance, simply by being there in the hair-salon.

Much of what they said: ‘I’m not vain’

But when it came to the end of the appointment, when the stylist showed them the back of the head in the mirror, then it was another story… quite often literally. At this point, as my audio-recordings showed, participants often didn’t do more than nod or produce an in-passing sotto-voce monosyllabic ‘thanks’ before continuing with whatever story they were telling. Basically, they constructed their story-telling as more important right now than what they were ostensibly there for, their hair. In one extreme case, a client who had just spent over an hour having her hair cut and coloured made no verbal approval at all, instead overtly displaying lack of interest:

“She didn’t really want to see the back at all,” said the stylist to her colleague.

“No,” responded the client, “so long as there’s hair there still”.

Interested or uninterested in appearance?

So were these women invested in their appearance? Or didn’t they actually care? The answer really is ‘both’. Looking after our appearance is a deeply ingrained habit in many women’s lives. And with age come added pressures. But at the same time, there’s this nagging sense that we shouldn’t (look as if we) care too much (or for the ‘wrong’ reasons). Having to scrutinise our appearance in the mirror at the end of the appointment makes ‘caring’ seem rather salient.

So for my participants, these small verbal manoeuvres were ways of managing both these constraints. There they were in the salon and so showing some interest in their appearance; but when it came to the stage of the hair-appointment when they were called upon to focus on their looks in the mirror and show an interest verbally, they instead displayed themselves as “really” uninterested.

It’s often said, ‘the devil’s in the detail’. And this is really so when it comes to seeing how older women negotiate conflicting ideas of how they should manage their appearance. When we look at these fine-grained details of everyday talk in this everyday place, we see just how – low-key, subtly and cannily – older women may manage to avoid seeming vain whilst simultaneously doing work to ensure they’re not ‘letting themselves go’.

Further information

‘So long as there’s hair there still’: displaying lack of interest as a practice for negotiating social norms of appearance for older women is a research paper by Rachel Heinrichsmeier of King’s College London. It is published in the journal ‘Ageing & Society’.


  1. An interesting piece on a neglected topic.

    The phenomena of small local inexpensive hairdressers with their daily gaggle of old lady weekly regulars has existed for many years…bread and butter income!
    Why they go has not been explored. The majority could do their own hair on a weekly basis and really only need to come in occasionally for a trim, perm or colour. So why are they there?

    This piece hints at it. It is clearly a social occasion, a legitimate reason to dress up a bit and have a good hour of gossip and chat.

    However, there may be a further hypothesis. They are in the main elderly and often widowed. An hour a week of another person giving them caring rubbing, combing, brushing may well be the only soft human touch in their lives.
    In our society, it is the only accepted way of receiving that kind of touching. Other cultures frequently massage their elders legs or shoulders as a routine caring task by daughters or daughters in law. Or they go to a Hammam
    We dont, but the lack of such contact is never discussed.

    It should be! It is a normal human need and I suspect these old ladies have found their own solution. Appearance as you clearly found is not the only reason they go.

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