Hair has to be one of the most fascinating aspects of the human body. It defines us in multiple ways layers and even across species. We have strange rules, rituals, fears and hang ups based on where it grows, doesn’t grow, colour and length. My Mum is a hairdresser, and so was her mum but I broke that chain and to be quite honest the world is a safer place for me not having taken up the trade.
I would work in the salon after schools sweeping the floors and doing the perming rollers for her. She would listen to customers talk through personal difficulties, while deftly snipping away. The regulars were like family, many of them watched me grow up. When she branched out to waxing and tinting it dawned on me just how hair defined our sense of self.
Every permutation of human identity can be defined in some way by hair. This is by no means and exhaustive list but serves as a bit of a provocation to notice. Aside from ethnicity where biology (genetics) plays a big part in the ways hair grows we have:
Babies – sometimes born with lots of hair or no hair.
Puberty – Hair appearing in interesting new places, to be celebrated or removed depending on what gender you are identifying with.
Adult hood – hoping hair will stay in places it should be and not migrate to places it shouldn’t be.
Late Adulthood – hoping hair doesn’t do a vanishing act on head and trying desperately to keep its original colour.
Golden Years – giving up the fight and embracing the grey – or back to no hair – full cycle.
Women – femininity defined by length of hair, intelligence – colour of hair.
Men – masculinity defined by facial hair and body hair – to some degree, perhaps more so 20 years ago.
Length of hair for women and the removal of hair from body parts. Men – how groomed their hair is – no matter where it is on their bodies (if they have it on their bodies).
Religion Just a couple of interesting examples to demonstrate intriguing relationship to hair.
Sikh – nature knows best, hair is a gift and if it isn’t a hindrance shouldn’t be tampered with.
Brethren – if a woman doesn’t cover her head she should have her hair cut off. Seeing as it is ‘shameful’ for a woman to have her hair shaved or short – keeping it long and covered is the usual outcome.
Hindu – hair on new born babies is associated with past lives so is shaved off. There is also a belief that shaving stimulates proper brain growth and the ‘tuft’ at the crown of the head protects memory.
There are some other interesting expressions of diversity running parallel such as ‘sub-cultures’ of belonging. For example relating to music (punk spikes, reggae dreadlocks) ‘hippie’ locks, the ‘mullet'(think ‘MacGyver’ or the 80’s in general). Skin colour, age, gender and ethnicity might be our most common default starting points for locating someone socially but I would argue hair features just as strongly. If your hair seems to contradict any of the above criteria it can put a bit of a spanner in the label works. Bring it on! I’d love to see more people in their 80’s or 90’s sporting silvery dreadlocks.
Most of us have played games growing up pretending to be someone else. Escaping ourselves is fun and if we want a ‘quick change’ wigs often work effectively to propel us into an alter ego. But radically tampering with your own ‘do’ can come with some unforeseen social fall-out and I’ve had some close encounters with this phenomenon.
I remember my brother shaving all his hair off at university. When you see cartoons of people getting such a fright they get airborne – that was me when I saw him sitting on my couch. I got dreadlocks and really do think that was the better choice given we were studying in Dunedin. Much warmer having a wooly locks when it is a toasty 3 degrees celcius in your flat. We both encountered a change in perception from others. I got lots of attention from other ‘dreadlocked’ folk of all walks of life – people who probably would never stop and talk to me. My bro – well – sadly for him the ‘skin head’ look came with connotations of ‘white power’ hate groups. When he went into shops women would go out the back and get the manager to serve him. Needless to say he was happy when his hair started growing back. Then there are pranks such as shaving peoples eyebrows off. It’s not a lot but boy does it change how a person looks.
Going down the rabbit hole now, hair possibly has a ‘supernatural’ and spiritual connection to life. As science pushes further into the realms of the invisible and explores subtle fields of energy our understanding of what is real and what defines our world grow and evolve. So what about the possibility that hair could be a form of ‘antennae’ that taps into these unseen forces? Think its the realm of science fiction – Avatar? Well, maybe truth is indeed stranger than fiction:
In short, during the Vietnam War the US Government went looking for ‘talented scouts’ and went to the Native Indian community. Once recruited they would be given a standard military ‘buzz cut’ (bye bye long locks) and hey presto – no more ‘6th sense.
All of us have a relationship with this fibrous structural protein that is captured by multiple meanings from the functional to the fashionable and even the freaky. But there is one place hair should never be, and that is in your food. Just one tiny hair and that’s it – meal ruined.
That’s about the long and short of it, although it’s not always that cut and dried.