INTIMATIONS of mortality have always arrived early for those of us who work from home. Before Covid turned the nation’s kitchens into satellites of the office, answering the door during business hours was a sure way of being asked if I was retired.

Once the plumber or meter reader had left, I would wonder why I was paying a fortune for a salon colourist. Nobody, clearly, was in any doubt that I had reached the age at which I ought to be putting my feet up and flicking through a Saga cruise brochure.

Thanks to the constant erosion of my self-image, by the time lockdown made the decision for me and I allowed myself to go grey, not a scrap of vanity was left. Since I was already viewed as but a step away from shoes that fasten with velcro, what was the point of trying to disguise the ravages of time? As a result, these days nobody asks if I’m still working; they simply assume I’ve hung up my boots.

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I was not alone in allowing nature to run its course while hairdressers were shuttered. Along with countless others who grew tired of unsightly roots or indelible dye stains on the bathroom floor, one of Canada’s most prominent journalists, Lisa LaFlamme of CTV National News, did likewise.

During the pandemic she let in the grey and looked as magnificent with a silver mane as when she had been a brunette. As she said in an interview with the New York Times last week, “The most comments I ever received were not for months in Baghdad or Afghanistan, or any story, but when I let my hair go grey – bar none. And I will say this, 98 per cent positive, except a couple of men and a woman…”

Her new look, however, was not popular with everyone.

After LaFlamme’s contract was abruptly terminated last summer, it triggered debate about ageism and sexism. The Globe & Mail reported that a “senior CTV official” said they had witnessed LaFlamme’s boss asking who had approved this decision.

Around the same time there were allegedly disagreements between him and LaFlamme over news coverage and resources. In response to the furore, the network’s owner, Bell Media, claimed her departure was a “business decision”, as it wanted to take the programme “in a different direction”. It refuted the idea that “age, gender or grey hair” played any part.

It was the end of a long and stellar career at CTV, and the 58-year-old LaFlamme, who only months earlier had won a national award as best news anchor, described herself as “blindsided” and “crushed”.

Was she a victim of sexism and ageism, or did her exit reflect other issues? Either way, the outcry suggests a public nerve had been touched. LaFlamme told the New York Times that the support she has since received from viewers “has been mind-blowing”.

Don’t be fooled by talk of grey and silver being the new blonde; they might look great on twenty- and thirtysomethings, but for those of us who can remember the three-day week, they are simply shorthand for John Donne’s tolling bell.

Things could be worse, I suppose. “There’s only one cure for grey hair,” wrote PG Wodehouse. “It was invented by a Frenchman. It is called the guillotine.”

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As anyone who embraces vintage hair quickly learns, it is a confident and in some cases probably rash move to throw off the pretence of being younger than one’s years. Since Cleopatra, the expectation has been for us artfully to mask our age, no matter the cost in time or money. Failure to do so is marked down as “letting ourselves go”, from which some employers take their cue to do just that.

Despite huge advances in equality, outdated attitudes remain entrenched. There’s no escaping the harsh reality that older women continued to be viewed as if through the wrong end of a telescope. Once past a certain age you become all but invisible.

This has its advantages, as Miss Marple would attest. Some of us also prefer not to attract attention, and find being blatantly overlooked amusing as well as a relief. But it is a serious form of prejudice all the same. Wrinkles, sagging skin, steely hair are a reminder, at some atavistic level, that our purpose is primarily to bear children; once those days are past, what earthly use are we other than to help raise the grandkids and keep soup bubbling on the stove?

From our mid-fifties onwards, unless we work hard to defy gravity and DNA, we are expected to fade into the background and make way for the young. For those in the limelight, the problem is magnified. The painful truth that men can look more distinguished and authoritative as they turn silver merely adds to women’s raging at the dying of the light.

I can’t think of any British TV presenter who has gone grey like LaFlamme, although men with snowy hair – David Dimbleby and David Attenborough to name only two – are still regarded as assets well into their eighties and nineties. As are those who’re hairless. And assets they undoubtedly are; not for a moment would I denigrate their age or appearance.

The pity is, however, that despite rare exceptions, the same appreciation of experience and wisdom is not extended to the female of the televisual species. No matter if you have covered every major news story in the past three decades or hosted a long-running primetime show. In that unforgiving world turning 60 is a terrifying thought. Those approaching this benchmark must live in daily dread of a summons to a bald boss’s office, knowing they are living on borrowed time.

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Is it possible to challenge the status quo, let alone begin to change it? I have my doubts. Individual acts of defiance are one thing, sparking a revolution something else entirely. Diehard attitudes towards older women are so deeply rooted it would require bulldozers to shift them. So what can we do?

On all sides we are assailed by the message that our expiry date approaches. Whether it’s in a job application, where we must airbrush our CVs, or at the chemist’s, where hair dyes outnumber shampoos, the clock is ticking louder with every year.

Age does not become us, we are constantly told, but it’s possible to pretend not to have heard.