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"A vile, spiteful excuse for a woman who eats too much cabbage and has cheese straws for teeth."

They're some of the kind words being lobbed at British classicist and provocateur Mary Beard, who wears her hair long and grey. That sartorial choice (or non-choice) earned the intellectual a vicious backlash after she appeared on the BBC's popular televised debate program, Question Time.

"Why are women with long, naturally grey hair such targets of hateful criticism?" wondered The Guardian's Anouchka Grose, who is herself fully grey at age 42.

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There were some voices of support, both for Beard's intellect and appearance: "I confess to quite enjoying discussing Mary Beard's looks largely because I like them enormously," wrote a [female] Guardian reader. "I love her long tangled looking grey hair. Her appearance sticks a finger up at the idea we women (and increasingly men too) have to look very precisely groomed to get any respect."

But much of the landscape was disproportionately hateful. Grose, a psychologist, found that the word "witch" comes up frequently for older women going natural. "Is the idea somehow that, once women have ceased to be objects of desire, they turn against the world and spend the rest of their days wishing evil on a populace that bypasses them?" she asked. "Long hair is typically equated with unrestrained sexuality ... while grey hair is associated with being past it. ... This uncanny brew in a woman is clearly a bit much for some people."

Perhaps that's giving the trolls a little too much credit, but Grose argued that even stunners who go grey get the plebs' vitriol. She pointed to Yasmina Rossi, a 56-year-old model who wore her hair long, grey and curly for a Marks & Spencer television ad that earned her comments like "bag lady."

Same went for Kate Moss, who was spotted with a few ashen locks in 2010. The masses seized on the photos, goading Moss's hacks into damage control: The grey tuft was actually "greylights," or maybe the supermodel was dumping dry shampoo on too liberally?

Beyond very neatly shorn sexpots of a certain age – think Jamie Lee Curtis and Judi Dench – grey hair has generally not been kindly welcomed on women in the public eye. Not the case with Hollywood's silver foxes, from George Clooney to Richard Gere.

Beard, a classics professor at the University of Cambridge and a controversial commentator often featured in the British press, has received far worse commentary on her appearance, some of which she detailed in a profanity-loaded post on her blog. "First, the misogyny here is truly gobsmacking," she wrote. "It would be quite enough to put many women off appearing in public, contributing to political debate, especially as all of this comes up on Google."

The Telegraph's Cristina Odone lovingly described Beard's "grey hair, wild as a witch" but told her to grow a thicker skin: "Come on, Mary. Women in public arenas get a lot of flak – they always have. ... If she doesn't have the stomach for it, she should stick to lecturing undergraduates."

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