Visibility, Invisibility: Grey Hair Breaking Down the Wall

Karen Booth, the author, advocate for Seasoned Romance, and co-founder of the Seasoned Romance Facebook group has a new book coming out in February, and it is an important book. Have a look as the title and cover and you may understand why—if you are over the age of 40, you may, at last, feel seen.

Visibility and invisibility slot together with discussions about inclusion and diversity, which boil down to the need to be seen. In Karen’s upcoming seasoned romance, Gray Hair Don’t Care, visibility and invisibility hinge upon a full head of hair. For some women, grey hair is fraught with meaning that is usually not positive. In our society, many equate grey hair with with decline, particularly if you’re female. Women are told in subtle and not so subtle ways that grey hair signals the decline of not merely youth, but of desirability, of their worth as a human being.

Grey hair is a human being’s badge of successful living, a sure sign of age and ageing well. I say ‘ageing well’ because growing older, that is, not dying at a young age, is what humans seek. We search for ways we can exercise better to maintain our bodies, eat foods that may help us live longer. If you are female living longer, going grey, a perfectly natural aspect that comes with bypassing that early grave, is signposted as something ugly, as something shameful, as something to deny, cover up, to erase. I don’t know about you, but  I’m sick of that directive. While there is a growing backlash against covering one’s grey, the message that grey hair must be denied and dyed is powerful, deeply embedded in our culture, and it continues to, along with the plethora of anti-ageing products aimed at women, reinforce the notion that women and ageing do not go together. Sexism, ageism, and sexist, ageist practice is embedded in society and runs deep, so deep may people fail to notice it at all. This is why seeing a cover like Karen’s is so important. Many women will, at last, feel seen.

If you haven’t noticed how deep ageist practices go when it comes to women and grey hair, allow me to point out that you have most likely been indoctrinated to accept that a woman who has managed not to die and continues to live a long life is not a necessary depiction in advertising, on screen, or between the pages of a novel. Especially if she has grey or white hair. When an older ‘grey’ woman is represented it is in roles that cast her as secondary character, such as mother or grandmother, or, more often than not, as an ageist stereotype, such as cougar, lunatic, harpy, menopausal comic relief, or as sexless crone. Without realising, you have witnessed the regular ageist practice against women in advertising, film, and fiction, especially in romance fiction where older women are seldom seen, or not seen at all. You may not even notice that a male lead, the hero, is allowed to be the silver or grey fox, with distinguished grey temples, while a woman the same age, combined with the perceived ugliness of her grey hair, leads to devaluing and outright erasure.

Perhaps you are aware of this all because you are a woman who’s wondered why you no longer see other women like you in films, on TV, or in books. You may be a person of colour, or Muslim, or disabled, or fat and you want to see women who are like you, and you long to be represented. In this case, representation, visibility and invisibility comes down to the few hairs I’m splitting here, as you, if you read my pieces on ageism and romance fiction, would expect me to.

Karen and I share a few things. We are advocates for seasoned romance and women over the age of 40, and we have both written books that feature older women with grey or white hair as leads in romance fiction. The older female protagonist, or, as the genre prefers to call her, an older heroine, remains an anomaly in the genre. Still. I’ve been writing and studying older heroines in romance fiction for nearly two decades. Seven years ago, my second book, For Your Eyes Only, was published. It had taken me close to ten years to find a publisher who didn’t tell me I had to make my heroine younger. I was thrilled and so grateful that I had found an editor and a publishing house who were open to the idea of an older woman positioned as the heroine rather than as a secondary character or as a stereotype of a woman of a ‘certain age’. The silver foxy heroine in Karen’s Gray Hair Don’t Care is 47. The heroine in For Your Eyes Only is 50 and had white hair. Karen’s cover is gloriously representative of her heroine’s age. My cover is…well, as you can see, the victim of my publisher’s concern about my heroine’s advanced age. The cover model is 15 years younger and blonde rather than white-haired.

I should have fought harder for a different cover. I should have pushed and clawed for an image that conveyed that a white-haired, middle-aged woman was worthy of being a heroine on the cover, but there were a few things happening that prevented me from doing so. I was a new author, I had no clout, and, as I mentioned, my publisher was the only publisher willing to take a risk on a new author writing a heroine who sat outside the age norms of romance fiction.

Karen and I, as well as many other authors who have submitted books to romance fiction publishers, have faced the ageism and the ageist brick wall that exists within the industry. The brick wall often came—and still comes—in the form of statements such as, ‘we’re not sure how to market this book’ or ‘we don’t think there’s an audience for this book’ or ‘this book won’t sell unless you make the heroine younger’ or my favourite, ‘no one wants to read granny sex’. The way our culture has been conditioned to accept ageist practices as normal, feeds ongoing publishing concerns that putting a more ‘mature-aged’ woman on the cover would turn off readers, that a book featuring an image of woman with grey or white hair would not sell. Of course, any business would be apprehensive about a product that might not sell. No one wants to lose money. As I have said so many times before, film and fiction are actually losing out on making money by ignoring a specific population with money to spend. Being ignored as a consumer is one more form of invisibility.

Visibility and invisibility. Cover art comes and goes, from Fabio’s flowing tresses and drooping bodices to the current illustrated trend in romance fiction. If you didn’t know, many publishes use stock images to create cover designs, and this is where I admit I am not a huge fan of the illustrated cover. I’m also not a fan of a bare chest, the floating head shot over a country background, or the genre’s iconic clinch cover, yet it is obvious the illustrated cover solves issues that publishers find insurmountable, such as finding stock cover images to present curvy or fat heroines, disabled heroines, heroines of colour, heroines from non-western cultures, older heroines. It’s sad. It’s shameful in the way grey hair is not. It’s exasperating as hell. Things have changed a little in the last 2 years, but what’s out there is merely OK. It needs to be better. While silver foxy men are a cinch to find, peruse stock image companies for older women and you’ll find lots of attractive middle-aged women touching their faces. Search for mature couples and you’ll see lots of picnics.

As Karen notes in her cover reveal for Gray Hair, Don’t Care, rather than face the frustration of wrestling with the ingrained preconception romance fiction editors and CEOs have about grey-haired women, or trying to find a decent stock image, she decided to indie publish Gray Hair Don’t Care and commission a cover artist. That was one smart move. While Karen addresses, directly, the embedded ageist notions represented by a woman with grey hair, I went in a different direction when it came to choosing cover images for my indie releases, the In Service series about a middle-aged female butler and the spy who loves her. I decided to lean into the vector silhouette images one might find in spy fiction because of how incredibly difficult it is to find stock images of middle-aged women. I knew what I was up against. Then again, so did indie author Maggie Christensen. Publishers who adhere to the notion that a woman aged 40+ has no business being on a cover have their arses squarely kicked by Maggie, a Scotswoman living in Australia. When it comes to her seasoned romance covers and heroines, she knows her audience, writes fabulous romance fiction featuring women 40+, and Maggie puts those more grown-up women on her book covers, using the same style as romance novels featuring women in their 20s.

Maggie, like Karen, Natasha Moore, Maggie Wells, Kristen Ashley and I sell books and garner great reviews from readers who have sought out seasoned romance with more grown up heroines, older female leads, mature female protagonists whatever you want to call women over 40 who are the main characters.

What makes me most cranky about this ongoing struggle with sexist ageism is that publishers are ignoring readers. Readers responding to Karen’s cover reveal ought to be evidence enough that older women want to see themselves reflected in the books they read. Visibility and invisibility. There are two things at stake here: the inclusion and representation of women of all ages on book covers and between the pages, whatever colour their hair might be, and instead of publishers telling authors that books with grey-haired women on the cover won’t sell, perhaps it’s time to take note of how readers have been ignored for far too long. I say this because, at the online Romance Writers of Australia (RWAus) conference I attended last weekend, the same editor who once told me that no one wanted to read granny sex also stated that authors were the ones pushing for seasoned romance. I believe, wholeheartedly, that this editor is wrong. As an author and as a reader, I’d like to point out that readers are driving the call for older heroines, for seasoned romance. Readers make up the overwhelming majority of the 3K+ Seasoned Romance Facebook group, as well as the nearly 2K membership of Romance In Her Prime. It is readers who are searching for heroines who look like they do—women with greying or grey hair, crow’s feet, with lines on their faces, life experience and the baggage that comes with it. It comes down to visibility and invisibility, to representation and inclusion. It’s obvious that publisher demographic studies, like so much advertising market research, fails to include older people, especially older women in their investigations or even take them into account as consumers—unless it’s for cruises, funeral insurance, or osteoarthritis relief. In their endeavour to make money, companies seek out the next generation of consumers, dropping the consumers they may already have, which in this case are readers. Romance readers, the editor at last weekend’s RWAus conference said, read down, meaning they read about younger characters, but this is only so because there are so few books like Karen’s, like mine, that offer older readers, grey-haired or not, the visibility they crave.

My books with silver, white, & grey haired heroines are available here and here. Karen Booth’s Gray Hair Don’t Care is out in February 2021. It’s now available for preorder. It’s going to be huge, the book that breaks through and breaks down the wall for seasoned romance.

And it’ll be because of flowing grey hair.