Heralding in the new year provides a great opportunity both for reflection and to think about what you would like to achieve over the coming months. Little did I know that for me this might include ditching the hair dye until I met Julie Kneafsey, aka The Fiftyist, whose Instagram account boasts almost 80,000 followers. She sat opposite me in a café, with bright, glossy silver locks – ‘don’t call it grey hair,’ she says, ‘grey is such a drab word’ – looking radiant and the picture of health. But it’s been quite the journey to get to this point as I was to find out.

Let’s start with Julie’s arrival in Somerset. In 2001, aged just 34, she was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent chemotherapy and radiotherapy. Her father, who lived in Somerset, was due to visit Julie and her family, but as she wasn’t feeling great, they decided to travel down to see him instead.

‘It was all very last minute. We drove past this particular house in South Somerset that my husband and I had always loved, saying that if it was ever on the market we had to go for it. And there it was, with a “for sale” sign. It was meant to be.’ They bought the house, their daughter started at a local school and so began a fresh start for Julie.

Great British Life: Julie's aim is to live life to the fullest Photo Julie KneafseyJulie's aim is to live life to the fullest Photo Julie Kneafsey

Recovering from cancer, and with a lifelong passion for reading and words, Julie embarked on an English degree in her forties, whilst still working in education. On turning fifty, she set up an Instagram account as a creative outlet. ‘I called it The Fiftyist – there were a lot of ‘ists’ around at that time: minimalist, maximalist. I wanted to document my fifties and hopefully be an expert by the end of the decade!’

The first posts were images of holidays and food, but there was a gear change in 2018 when, after 21 years of dyeing her hair, she decided enough was enough. ‘I had discovered my first grey hair in my early twenties but it was a negative comment made to me when I was thirty that set me on the dyeing path. I have always had a bad reaction to the hair dye - I must be allergic to it - and I would dread appointments to the hairdressers, but I still continued. Looking back, it seems ridiculous, and I could kick myself, but I felt pressured.’

Having made the decision to stop the hair dye, Julie looked round to see who else was doing it and discovered regular women with grey hair who looked great. ‘I also came across the Silver Sisters,’ she says. ‘They are an international group of amazing supportive women on Instagram, with a similar mindset and coming from the same place. They are still friends today.’

It took two years to grow out her blonde hair, which she documented on her social channels. ‘‘I can’t underestimate how big an issue it was for me - I’d always identified myself by my hair. But going through the journey, you find yourself along the way. It felt like I was shedding society expectations: here I am with my silver hair which has been denigrated for hundreds of years. It is not acceptable to men, to society or the beauty industry, but I’m going to embrace it anyway.’

Her story posts started to jump from 50 likes to hundreds. ‘I think you become a little bit sassy. I just wish I’d done it years ago. It’s a relief to not have to conform anymore. I feel the most authentic version of me that I’ve ever been.’

This coincided with a particularly difficult time in Julie’s life. ‘Since my cancer treatment in 2001, my hormones had been all over the place and I went into early menopause in 2013. I was quite fit, but I began having heart palpitations, anxiety problems and brain fog. I felt I was gradually failing. By 2020 I was in a really bad way and having to take time off work.’

Recognising that it was probably menopause, Julie undertook background research on hormone replacement therapy (HRT) and cancer, before agreeing to take HRT. Within two weeks her energy levels were up, her mood lifted and she was buzzing. It felt like the perfect time to do something different and have some fun, and in February 2021 she left her job. ‘I wanted to spend time on myself, to be more creative, concentrate on the book I was writing and throw myself into The Fiftyist.’

Great British Life: Julie campaigns for pro-age and clean beauty, Photo Julie KneafseyJulie campaigns for pro-age and clean beauty, Photo Julie Kneafsey

Just a month later, she was given another devastating diagnosis of breast cancer, completely unrelated to the first one. ‘It was like someone had pulled the rug from under my feet. But unlike the first-time round, which I kept to myself, this time I talked about it on social media, with a view that if it encouraged just one person to go and get a mammogram, then some good would have come from it.’

Julie has a history of breast cancer in her family, but she has undergone tests which have so far ruled out that either of the cancers were genetic, leading her to believe that something else must have triggered it - and so began her interest in clean beauty.

‘I’ve always been interested in how to better my diet in order to feel healthy, but I now began to look at what we put on our bodies as well as into them. The more research I did, the more I uncovered. There are levels of chemicals that are safe in products up to a certain percentage. But the big issue is “chemical load”: if I use four products with that chemical, which I’m likely to do because they are in everything, then I’m overloading my body every single day.’ This goes hand in hand with no longer dyeing her hair. ‘It’s nasty stuff. You are putting up to 5000 chemicals on your head, and lots are endocrine disruptors.’ (ie. chemicals that mimic or interfere with the body’s hormones).

The more she posted on social media, the higher her profile became. She now writes for Tangled Silver magazine, blog posts for websites and is regularly approached by brands for content creation. But she is stringent about who she works with, ensuring that they are ethical companies and using ingredients that are not harmful to people or the environment.

Julie is also working on a book in which she will share her findings. ‘I’m not trying to scare anyone, but if you don’t know about it, you can’t make the choice. I’m not a scientist, but the crazy thing is, I shouldn’t have to be. I shouldn’t have to look up all these things to check something is safe for me to use. It’s all documented in my book, about my journey with my hair, cancer and all the things I’ve discovered along the way. It’s funny, sciencey and hopefully uplifting.’

Whilst we await its publication, what would Julie suggest as a new mindset for 2024? ‘Imagine yourself in ten years’ time, looking back at yourself today. What would you tell yourself to do? Having faced mortality twice, I’d tell myself to get fitter and maximise my health and potential to make the next thirty years on this earth as special as I can. I want to live life to the fullest, in the strongest, fun, caring and most helpful way possible.’