Bald truth about grey hair

-- ST ILLUSTRATION: MIEL
-- ST ILLUSTRATION: MIEL

Is it time to mask my grey hair by going bald?

We were sitting in the biggest conference room in the building, about to start a meeting with the company's chairman and CEO on the division's key performance indicators, when a colleague sitting next to me at the table suddenly started studying my profile closely.

"Oh my goodness, Iggy - you're going grey!" he exclaimed.

Caught off-guard, with barely seconds left to react before the meeting started, I turned to my neighbour on the other side.

"H., am I turning grey?"

H. turned to study my profile and paused for a moment before giving her verdict.

"You're not only turning grey, you are also turning white!"

She must have seen the look of utter shock and dismay on my face because she hastily added: "No, I was just joking!"

But it was too late. The damage had been done and the meeting had started.

So while my colleagues mulled the merits of changing productivity metrics, I silently wrapped my head around metrics of a very different sort.

Had the time come for me to mask the grey by going completely bald? And what repercussions would this have - Looking older? A new wardrobe?

Now you know what people really think about at important meetings as they listen to those Powerpoint presentations.

For me, it would only be the second time in my adult life that I have changed my hairstyle.

The current style that you see today dates back to the turn of the millennium, when I was in my late twenties.

I had just quit my civil service job and did not see the need to maintain the conservative sloped sides and respectably gelled-back floppiness that would not shock the director-generals and permanent secretaries in government.

After my second trip to Tokyo, I decided to adopt the look favoured by some groups of Japanese men I saw on the streets. Short and stocky, the look of these "G-men" - as they were called - was beefy bodies, goatees and very close-cropped hair that was just slightly longer on the top.

I was so obsessed I sought out a hairstylist in Singapore who people told me was an absolute prophet in the Hallowed Temple of "G-men" Hair. He even had a prophet's name - Isaiah - and used only special razors and scissors bought from Tokyo. I have never gone anywhere else or altered my hairstyle since.

Like clockwork, my hair grows out in three weeks and starts to look untidy, so I go back to Isaiah to fix it.

But no one has ever noticed the grey or commented on it till now. It's the end of an era, I sigh to myself, nervously contemplating the future.

Why are men, in particular, so touchy about their hair?

Women seem to be able to change their hairstyles at the drop of a hat - or should I say, hairband. One minute, it's all long and wavy, then three months later, it's sleek and straight after being rebonded. And three months after that, it's been cut into a Cameron Diaz bob.

Men, on the other hand, rarely change their hairstyles. A poll conducted last year of 1,000 men and women in Britain showed that the majority of men change their hairstyle only three times in their adult lives.

In contrast, almost half of the women polled changed their hairstyles once a year. One in six did this as often as four times a year and had clocked up more than 50 hairstyles by the age of 35.

I guess hair has become too much a part of a man's identity.

For starters, it is widely seen as a marker of sorts of youth and masculinity. That's why there is so much angst about hair loss.

According to studies, about 25 per cent of men begin balding by age 30 and two-thirds begin balding by age 60.

Some men start to lose hair earlier if they have more of a certain type of testosterone in their bodies, a fact that I have always found ironic. In economic theory, we often talk of automatic stabilisers and I see this as Mother Nature's own sly version.

Secondly, however long or short their hair is, I find men eventually tend to settle at some equilibrium. It's a hairstyle that they have looked at countless times in the mirror and decided suits their face and the persona that they want to portray to the outside world.

After such a careful calculation, any drastic change worries them because it could make them look older, younger, more gay, more straight, too boring or too lightweight.

They are supposed to be the more confident sex, yet they often lack the confidence to carry out such a cosmetic change. In that sense, I find men actually more vain than women when it comes to their hair.

Take me, for instance. One look at my byline picture would tell a person that I am almost bald, and have been so for a good 15 years now.

Yet the prospect of shaving off those few millimetres scares me. It signals to others that I have joined the growing league of men who are intentionally bald because having hair on their heads looks so much worse. And it signals to me that I've entered the phase in my life that is marked by a slow and sad physical decline.

For where can one go after greying hair, if not wrinkles and crow's feet, sagging muscles and loose, leathery skin?

I suppose one place you could go is one of those hair repair centres, suggested another of my colleagues the other day.

But then again, do I want to go to one, only to end up - like some politicians we know - with a 50-year-old face but 20-year-old hair?

Maybe the trick - as everyone says - is to accept the inevitable and age as gracefully as one can.

Someone like actor George Clooney, for instance, has worn his greying hair with great panache for a good part of his life now.

So can I, I find myself idly believing sometimes. So can I.

ignatius@sph.com.sg