‘I have been dyeing my hair since I was 18. Going grey was so liberating’

Billboard beauty means nothing to Estonian-born Irena Tammik, who has made Cork her home. Tired of living up to conventional beauty standards, the artist and mother of two made the decision three years ago to stop dyeing her hair


“It was so liberating. My grey hair is genetic – my mother went grey at 25 and my daughter is 13 and she’s starting to get silver streaks too. I love knowing I can help others to think differently and embrace their natural beauty, especially my kids. It’s amazing to have the knowledge and the courage to be vulnerable. My daughter loves my grey hair and has told me she’s never going to dye hers. She loves that it makes her different.”

What does beauty mean to you?

Harmony. Everything that’s harmonious is beautiful. It doesn’t always have to be visual, but a well-balanced person is always beautiful. It doesn’t matter what someone looks like if they’re confident. There’s a fine line between being confident and loving yourself and being egocentric or self-centred, but if you have healthy self-love, it means you are confident and beautiful because that means you are also at peace with yourself and you can be nice to others. That’s beauty to me.

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When have you felt your most confident or most beautiful?

Now. The last five years were a struggle for me. I went up two dress sizes and it doesn’t matter what I do or don’t eat, my weight didn’t change. I had to make peace with myself. At the end of the day, when you’re on your own looking into a mirror, you have to love yourself. Three years ago, I decided I was sick of dying my hair, which I had been doing since I was 18. Every so often I have doubts, but I remind myself that other people’s opinions don’t matter any more.

Has having children impacted your views on beauty?

Yes, I think so. My daughter is genetically round, while my son looks like a spaghetti; he’s tall and skinny and it doesn’t matter what he eats. I tell them both that as long as they don’t abuse their health, they can look any way they want. Recently we were comparing beauty standards in the 17th century to now, and the differences are astounding. Explaining these things to my children has helped me to make peace with my own looks. Hearing my daughter tell me she never wants to dye her hair now that I’ve let mine go natural was just great. My son thinks Irish girls wear too much make-up, but I tell him that everyone has to do different things. He spends a lot of time in Spain and in Estonia so I try to show him that people define beauty in different ways. Who are we to judge them? He bites his nails and they might look at him and find that disgusting!

Photography by Barry McCall

How do beauty standards differ in Estonia?

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In Estonia, they are more natural. You rarely see lash or hair extensions. We come from the post-Soviet era where you had to wear wellingtons and drive tractors because you had to help build the Soviet state. I remember my mother wearing lipstick once. They didn’t have anything. They had a blue paste for eyeshadow, but we didn’t think about it.

Do you believe beauty is ageless?

Totally. Often, I see elderly people – men and women – who are so much more beautiful than anyone at 18 because the warmth, care and understanding of themselves and everyone around them makes them beautiful.

Where do you find your confidence?

Within myself. I think a lot. I do a lot of self-reflection and have figured things out for myself over the years. I explain things to myself so that I can understand the world better. When I have a question or am not happy about something, I’ll analyse it and find the answer.

At what point did your perception of yourself change?

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I was going through a rough patch and went to a therapist to try to figure things out about five years ago. I realised I can’t put my other people’s opinions ahead of my self-worth; I had to look after myself first because you can’t pour from an empty well. I’m so glad I did. It has been a slow process, but it was a blessing in disguise going through such turmoil to get to where I am now.

Do you feel stronger for ageing?

Yes, I do. I think life is getting better. It’s about the confidence I have now and knowing I can actually help others, especially my kids. It’s amazing to have the knowledge and the courage to be vulnerable. You don’t have to be this tough, sexy woman all the time.

Do you think the media perpetuates the myth that ageing is all downhill?

Yes. Grey hair is a big thing. Men are seen as sexy silver foxes, but women are seen as old. I realise I look older, but I am 43, so I am allowed to look older than 25. It took me a long time to accept my grey hair, but knowing my daughter thinks it's beautiful makes it worth it.


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As leading advocates for real beauty with a rich history diversifying the images of women portrayed in commercial media, Dove’s latest campaign is an empowering call to shatter unrealistic beauty standards. IMAGE recruited a group of women from different walks of life as part of Dove's project #ShowUs which is doing the important work of filling the gaps between how beauty has been depicted for generations. With the goal of true inclusivity in mind, we can finally begin to expand society’s definition of beauty.

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