By Shauna Leva
Hair is a badge that distinguishes you from others. It has always been that way. You may not even realize that your hair, like so many other elements about your appearance tells the world what group of people you belong to. You might think I’m just stereo-typing, but there is real history behind these assumptions! Whether you acknowledge it or not, hair–all hair, on your head, face, body and otherwise–leads others to make judgements about your personality, status, and even your character.
The majority of males in western civilization have short hair, colored either black, brown, blonde, red, or somewhere in between. The majority of western women have hair below the ears to about mid back, colored either black, brown, blonde, red, or somewhere in between. If someone has purple hair, what do you think that says about them? That they are youthful, spontaneous, adventurous? What about immature, or irresponsible? That person may be shy, quiet, and have conservative beliefs, but their purple hair is going to lead people to make different assumptions about them, whether they be positive or negative assumptions, hair gives the world a certain impression of its wearer.
Man is the only “hairless” or “naked” primate on the planet. Why is that? Well there are several different theories about how man lost his hair, as well as why we as a species have a preoccupation with hair, which I read about in the book “Hair: Sex, Society, Symbolism” by Wendy Cooper. Though the book was published in 1971, much of the information is still good and relevant today. One theory as to why man is relatively hairless, is that we needed to cool ourselves rapidly while hunting during the day. The faster, stronger, more toothy predators like tigers would hunt at night; not wanting to cross their paths, man opted to hunt during the day, and thus would have to sprint in the heat. In order to keep ourselves cooler, man shed his hair, and added more sweat glands to his body (13). This is also thought to be the reason why we have thick hair on our heads, because we need protection from the hot sun on our skyward facing craniums. Another theory is that with the invention of clothing, hair became redundant (8). Or perhaps fire made hair redundant. Either way, one must ask, which came first? Did we loose our hair because we learned how to keep ourselves warm, or was fire and clothing invented out of necessity because we were loosing our hair?
Loosing our hair was also good for our social lives. Without hair covering every inch of us, it was easier to recognize faces and distinguish bodies. However the eyebrows and lashes had to stay for protection against dust and dirt. Less hair was also advantageous, evolutionarily speaking, because it was easier to keep ourselves clean (8). With less hair, there was less opportunity for bugs, parasites, sticks and dirt and all sorts of other junk to get stuck to us and make us sick.
So man lost most of his hair. Why the obsession over it then? Well, first of all, what doesn’t man obsess over? Hair is yet another tool to man. It is incredibly pliable, it’s strong, can be shaped and colored and cut. It regenerates itself and because the growth of body hair coincides with puberty, it has been assigned great sexual, almost magical significance throughout history. As stated in the opening, hair distinguishes people. Did you know that besides the color of your skin, hair (it’s color, texture, and distribution) is the most important factor we use to determine someone’s race?
So why do different races of people have different hair? It all goes back to climate. People near the equator who spend a lot of time in the sun developed more melanin in their hair, just like in their skin for protection. People with lighter hair, such as blonde or red, come from climates that are far to the north and have to deal with much less sun. That’s why most fair-haired people also have fair skin; because their ancestors didn’t spend a lot of time in the sun. Of course today with the migration of people across continents being almost instant, millions of variations of hair and skin combinations have been created.
What we do with our hair says more about us than its texture and genetics does, because what we do with it is up to us. You can’t choose your parents, but with the help of scissors, chemicals, dyes, and heat, you can choose what you wear on your head.
Hair colors, just like hair styles, go in and out of fashion. Today, red-hair is coming back into fashion as something dramatic and rare, but centuries ago, the fact that red hair was a rarity led people to believe that redheads were untrustworthy. During the witch hunts of Europe, redheads were singled out because it was said that Judas, the apostle that betrayed Jesus was a redhead (76). But when Queen Elizabeth I took the thrown, red hair immediately became fashionable again because the queen herself was a redhead.
Here’s some interesting facts about hair; the average person has about 100,000 hairs on his or her head. But that number varies depending on the color of your hair! blondes have about 140,000 hairs, brunettes about 108,000, and redheads only possess on average 90,000 hairs (24). Hair, like your skin and nails, are an indicator of your overall health. The growth of hair slows down with illness or pregnancy, but actually grows extra fast to catch up after the sick have recovered (27). Your hair grows fastest between the ages of fifteen and thirty. After fifty, everyone’s hair growth starts to slow down, and the fastest growing hair of all belongs to females age sixteen to twenty-four. This hair can grow up to seven inches in one year (27). The rate of hair growth is also sensitive to the weather (hair grows faster in warm climates) and even sensitive to sex. You’ll be interested to know that a man’s beard grow fastest during periods where he is sexually active. If a man is isolated from women, his beard growth all but halts, and just being in the company of women again will make his hair start to grow more quickly (27).
Hair in men has long been a symbol of power and virility. In the ancient world, beards were a sign of strength; men would often offer their beards as sacrifices to the gods, in the hopes that the gods would share a little bit of power back (41). Sacrificing hair, also makes for a very convenient alternative to sacrificing the flesh, but with the same symbolism attached to it. In Hinduism, Buddhism, and Christianity, clergymen shave their faces and sometimes their heads to signify a life of celibacy. Shaving is also used as punishment in many cultures, again because it symbolizes a loss of power, virility, and individuality (46). Interestingly enough, there is absolutely no scientific connection between a full head of hair and one’s masculinity or sex life. Ironically, it is the over production of androgens, male hormones, which are a major contributing factor of male-pattern baldness (47).
In women, hair has been treated as both a symbol of promiscuity and of purity. There are several traditions around the world, especially in Africa, where a woman’s hair is cut just before marriage to signal the loss of her purity. “Concealment is often a substitute for cutting off the hair” as with nuns(who are married to Jesus), Arabs, and some elderly and old-fashioned Englishwomen (67).
Though the hair of men and women both have sexual significance, men seem to pay far much more attention to the hair of women, than women do to men. In a special study conducted for Cooper’s book, women showed a wide range of preferences for male hair, both on their face and body. Some thought body hair was sexy, some thought is was repulsive, but the majority of women did not really care (59). If you look back over the history of literature in the western world, you will see that very rarely do women write about a man’s hair. Whereas men seem to always have much stronger opinions. Again in that same special survey, there was a wide range of tolerance for body hair on women by men: some love it, more hate it, and some are in the middle, but all had an opinion (76).
Even if men have always preferred women to have natural, long flowing hair on their heads, (and they have, as explicitly stated in much literature) women throughout history have paid surprisingly little attention to this wish, and have opted to follow the current fashions (67). For me, this goes back to the idea that you can’t choose your hair, but you can choose what you do with it. Following fashion allows women to say something about themselves with their hair, and to identify with a group or a walk-of-life by conforming (or not conforming) to that group’s chosen hairstyle.
The hippies, for example, which were the counter culture at the time of Cooper’s book, would wear their hair in contrast to the rest of society: long, and unkept to underline their rebellion against the faceless, cropped-haired masses. Some women of the hippie movement shaved their heads, while their male counterparts kept they’re hair exceptionally long in order to show rebellion against traditional gender roles.
Hair can be used as a tool to make the wearer more beautiful; emphasizing the good features and hiding the bad, but in high fashion, beauty is almost never the first consideration. “Beauty has only been a secondary consideration and hair styles, for both men and women, have been ways of proclaiming status through novelty” (91). For example, in eighteenth century Europe, noblemen used ridiculous wigs (for their convenience) to distinguish themselves from the rest of the public. These wigs were massive, reaching to mid-back and held together with wire armatures, mesh, and huge curly tufts of white hair. A more modern example of beauty coming second would be the “Gaga hair bow.” Does it make you more beautiful to wear a disproportionate bow of hair on the top of your head? Probably not. Does it make you stand out as someone who is different, fearless, and in the fashion now? Some would say yes.
High fashion in hair is, and has always been about being new and more ridiculous than the last style. “As soon as it is commonplace, it is time for it to be superseded,” says Cooper (91). Styles are created by the wealthy, famous, and influential and trickle down to the rest of us in more affordable incarnations. But as soon as a hair style becomes too affordable, it is time for the fashionistas to find a new way of separating themselves from the pedestrian copycats.
Today fashion changes faster than ever before because of our over-active media, and because more people can afford to be stylish. Affordable home coloring kits, as well as effective styling products and appliances allow the average woman to do just about anything she wants with her hair. Over the decades there have been continuous pushes towards more and more unique and outrageous hair. From afro’s, to mo-hawks, to mullets, to the giant glam rock hair of the eighties, the blown-out curls of the nineties, and now the crazy colors and asymmetrical ‘scene’ and ‘emo’ cuts of the new millennium, there will always be a group of people looking for that next coiffure extreme. And as we have seen in decades past, those extremes quickly become affordable, commonplace, then hideously outdated.
Our hair is always changing. Most of us struggle to stay up to date: we want to be a part of that reasonable middle class majority with the reasonable and current hairstyle. Some of us are always looking forward, putting zebra stripes on our heads before it was cool. And then some of us couldn’t care less about what our hair looks like. But whether you tend to your hair or not, your hair is a badge which both distinguishes, and categorizes you.
Cooper, Wendy. Hair: Sex Society Symbolism. New York: Stein and Day, 1971.