I’ve been thinking a lot about hair lately. First, there was this comment from LouMac yesterday, in which she wrote (sarcastically, in a rant about “choice” feminism and the narrowness of straight women’s performance of gender) “Young white hetero women all have identical long straight hair because they choose it!” Since most of you readers are affiliated with college and university campuses, you probably recognize this as the dominant hair aesthetic, too.
I think there was a greater diversity of women’s hairstyles in Maoist China than there is among white college women today, but I have to admit that I went through my long-straight-hair phase too, in the early 1990s when I was poor and didn’t have money for luxuries like haircuts. (The long-straight style has the virtue of being inexpensive to maintain if one has “good” hair. African American women, some Jewish women, and others with curly or “bad” hair need at least regular blowouts, if not messy and dangerous hair-straightening perms too to achieve this look, so for some women it’s a very costly and time-consuming investment.)
Then back at Echidne, I found this link to something that she called Michelle Duggar’s “wifely tips for a happy marriage.” Follow the links back that she provides, and eventually you’ll get to this PDF, “Seven Basic Needs of a Husband,” which includes a lengthy (and on the surface, strangely detailed) discussion of a wife’s hair and how it plays a primary role in a wife’s dutiful submission that is the foundation of all happy marriages, according to this document. I’ve copied the document–with its strange quiz-like format as well as its odd typefaces, bolds, and use of ALL CAPS–as best I can here:
III. A HUSBAND NEEDS A WIFE WHO WILL CONTINUE TO DEVELOP INWARD AND OUTWARD BEAUTY
HOW CAN YOU BECOME MORE THE WIFE OF YOUR HUSBAND’S DREAMS?
A._________________________________ (I CORINTHIANS 11:10)*
- A woman’s hair “is given her for a covering” (I Corinthians 11:15).
- A woman’s hair is a basis for her spiritual protection (I Corinthians 11:10).*
- A woman’s hair is a glory to her (I Corinthians 11:15).
- A woman’s hair style must reflect her husband’s wishes (Ephesians 5:24).
Your hairstyle should show your –
a. Femininity vs. Masculinity
b. Contentment vs. Frustration
c. Neatness vs. Carelessness
d. Submission vs. Pride
e. Dilligence vs. Weariness
f. Softness vs. Hardness
g. Self-acceptance vs. Self-rejection
h. Obedience vs. Defiance
i. Patience vs. Impatience
j. Personal organization vs. Disorganization
k. Personal discipline vs. Inconsistency
- EXTRA TIME AND EFFORT = EXPRESSION OF REVERENCE.
- DISCOVER AND CONFORM TO YOUR HUSBAND’S REAL WISHES.
- ENCOURAGE HIM TO LEARN PRINCIPLES OF HAIR STYLING.
- EXPLAIN YOUR HAIRSTYLE TO OTHERS ON THE BASIS OF YOUR SUBMISSION TO YOUR AUTHORITY.
(I know that last bullet point doesn’t make sense–isn’t “your submission to your authority” no submission at all? Clearly the author means to suggest that “your authority” is your husband.)
The whole document is pretty much a laugh riot, but I think that this emphasis on hair is far from accidental or the quirk of one individual or sect. Hair–and women’s hair in particular–has been understood in symbolic terms in several different cultures throughout human history. I don’t know enough to suggest that hair is transhistorically symbolic and often linked to ideas about the divine, but I’m hoping the rest of you will contribute to the discussion in the comments below and to help test and/or prove this hypothesis.
So here’s what I think I know: Long hair in particular has been understood as a sign of sexual maturity and availability: remember Samson and Delilah? From at least the late medieval period up through the twentieth century, professed Catholic nuns cut their hair very short before taking their final vows because it presumably made them less sexually attractive and was a sign of their devotion to chastity and obedience. Monks were also tonsured–but I’m not sure what that was meant to symbolize exactly. (Please chime in if you know.) Similarly, Iroquois widows and widowers in mourning in the early contact period would cut off a hank of hair in order to render themselves less attractive and to suggest the fact that they were not available on the marriage market.
For men, the grooming (or absence of grooming) of their facial hair has been understood as something fraught with spiritual significance. I believe that all Abrahamic religions feature sects even now in which men are forbidden to trim their beards, as a sign of their spiritual submission as well as their age and authority within their families and communities. On the other hand, Native American men in the age of contact were shocked by the facial hair of European men–especially after they had been aboard ship for 8-12 weeks crossing the Atlantic Ocean–and thought that they resembled dogs. Native men had very little facial hair to begin with, and the accounts of early explorers noted their meticulous grooming as they plucked or shaved off their beards with clam shells. However, I don’t know if this grooming was connected at all to religious ideas, whereas the case of the Iroquois widows and widowers is clearly more closely connected to the rituals and etiquette when coping with connections to the after-world.
So although I too think the obsession with hairstyles as a sign of wifely obedience is pretty comical nowadays, I also understand that when we look at the history and politics of hair, this list of concerns has a history and a context in terms of one’s relationship to family, community, and the divine. Looked at from this perspective, especially in a Protestant Evangelical world in which everything symbolizes either headship and obedience, or defiance, it makes sense that a wife’s hairstyle could be read this way too.
For those of you with expertise about the history of hair around the world, please contribute to the comments below to fill us in on the symbolism of women’s and men’s hair in history, globally and transhistorically.
*As with most modern Protestant Evangelical readings of the bible on issues related to the kulturkampfen, this seems to me a rather belabored reading of this verse. My King James Version (most useful to me, as it’s closest to the Geneva Bible that English puritans used) says that I Corinthians 11:10 is “For this cause ought the woman to have power on her head because of the angels.” Hmmm. That sounds a little too uppity, doesn’t it? The New International Version translation has it “For this reason, and because of the angels, the woman ought to have a sign of authority on her head.” This verse is the conclusion of a conversation about head-coverings in worship, not just about hair in particular. To make this particular verse about hair, let alone an argument that “a woman’s hair is a basis for her spiritual protection,” seems quite silly.
Then again, I might be able to use the expression “because the angels!!!”
45 thoughts on “In which I explain my hairstyle to others on the basis of my submission to authority, or, let’s talk about hair and history.”
The best expression of the symbolic-religious-erotic meanings of hair in English literary history is the description of Adam and Even from Milton’s Paradise Lost:
His fair large front and eye sublime declared
Absolute rule; and hyacinthine locks
Round his parted forelock manly hung
Clustering, but not beneath his shoulders broad:
She as a veil down to the slender waist
Her unadorned golden tresses wore
Dishevelled, but in wanton ringlets waved
As the vine curls her tendrils, which implied
Subjection, but required with gentle say
And by her yielded, by him best received,
Yielded with coy submission, modest pride
And sweet reluctant amorous delay. (Milton, Paradise Lost, 4. 300-11)
The personal: During the brief period that I was on Match.com, I rejected out of hand anyone who contacted me who listed long hair as one of his “turn-ons” (a standard profile category, with standard options to check, one of which is long hair). Maybe that was excessive, but my hair is short, and my photo showed it to be short, and I’ve long had a knee-jerk negative reaction to dudely opining or rhapsodizing about long hair.
The historical: I’ve read a bit about the politics of hair in the Early Modern period, and as I recall hair was regarded as a secondary sex characteristic — even in an era where most men had what we would consider long hair, it was believed that, if men and women both let their hair grow, a woman’s would “naturally” grow longer than a man’s.
The puritans were particularly consumed by the question of the appropriate length of hair for men; hence Milton’s famous description of Adam and Eve, she with her long ringlets hanging past her waist “which implied subjection,” and he with his “hyacinthine locks” which “manly hung/Clustering, but not beneath his shoulders broad.” I’ve always loved that: his hair is long, but MANLY! Because it doesn’t go past his shoulders!
Ha! Someone beat me to it.
I find Duggar’s fixation at once ridiculous and fascinating.
I have at times grown my hair long, and because my spouse prefers it that way, he begins to grumble when I say I’m going to chop it off. But then I point out that kids with cancer need my lovely locks for wigs, and he can’t say shit. 🙂
“From at least the late medieval period up through the twentieth century, professed Catholic nuns cut their hair very short before taking their final vows because it presumably made them less sexually attractive and was a sign of their devotion to chastity and obedience.”
Similarly Orthodox Jews, at least the far-right stripe, compel married women to cover their hair with a wig or a scarf whenever they’re out of the house because female hair is categorically alluring: elderly women are not exempted. Gazing at wifely hair is a pleasure to be savored only by an owner. (The Hebrew word for husband, “baal,” means master. Not that “husband” as in husbandry is any better.)
There’s a passage in Exodus (I think)that tells men not to “shave the corners of your beard.” The context is mourning practices (do not ritually cut yourself in morning, nor shave), but Jews interpreted that to mean that the beard should remain intact. Later Hasidim in 18th century Poland decided that meant you should grow out long strands of hair on the side to show your observance of this commandment, hence the long curly peyes ( or “Jew curls” as my New York students call them). In both Judaism and Islam, women cover their hair upon marriage or menarche (varying upon region). Today Orthodox Jewish women either cover their hair with a scarf or a snood or shave it and where a wig (scheitl).
I’m told by Russian literature scholars that every time a woman in a Turgenev novel lets her hair down, that’s a sign of sexual arousal. Clearly hair is a very widespread symbol of sexuality, but I’d have a lot of trouble articulating exactly why.
ps — thanks for giving me a reason to avoid grading mid-terms by doing something scholarly!
Great stuff so far. What about hair traditions in East Asia? South Asia? Africa? Keep it coming!!!
Because the angels!!!
Monks shaved the tonsure to let their extra heat escape. It was supposed to help them control their sexuality/ maintain bodily self-discipline.
Interesting, Perpetua: the tonsure is also a link to teh sexxxay and to the divine. Plus, it made them MUCH less attractive, in my view.
p.s. The transcultural if not transhistorical reading of long hair as teh sexxay may also be linked to the notion that hairlessness is not just the fate of the very young, but of the very old. A lot of those old monks may have found that their male pattern baldness self-tonsured them, or perhaps it was a look meant to age and de-sexualize them as well as to help their manly heat escape?
Horrifyingly fascinating. My only contribution is from Margaret Atwood:
Referring to portraying women in madness: “The hair should of course be down, loosened female hair having long been a danger sign. When women let their hair down, it means either sexiness or craziness or death, the three by Victorian times having become virtually synonymous.” – Margaret Atwood, “Ophelia Has A Lot To Answer For”
Click to access ophelia.pdf
So it’s not just *long* hair, but long hair let down…
When it comes to American fundamentalist evangelicals – never underestimate the inherent S&M. Right there in the document you quote – the fact that it takes a lot of work and effort and time IS why long hair is teh sexxxeee. Some people say long hair doesn’t require these things, but most of them are lying and the rest don’t wear fundamentalist hairdos.
Having long hair – even if you’re not messing with its texture, as 95+% of those undergrads do – is like having to wash/dry/groom a medium-sized dog every 3 days. Even if you’re mostly wash and wear, it’s not nothing.
Great point anonymous, about the effort and teh sexxay. Perhaps these evangelicals are just more honest about what female grooming in particular is meant to symbolize? (That is, secular young women may just be in denial about what their hair choices mean, especially if it requires serious, expensive maintenance by themselves or by professionals.)
(But then, I’m lucky to have “good” hair that takes my cut perfectly. I don’t even own a hairbrush–I just smear some goop onto the top to emphasize my cute swirly cowlicks and run out the door.)
Regarding 1 Corinthians 11:10: I actually have a facsimile edition of the Geneva Bible, and here are the notes on that verse:
“power” is glossed as: “Some thing to cover her head in signe of subjection”
“Angels” has this note: “To whom thei also shew their dissolution, and not only to Christ.”
I’m not sure if we’re supposed to read “dissolution” as “dissipation,” (i.e., the angels can see the naughty stuff you’re up to!) or as a synonym for “submission” — but the OED doesn’t really support the latter reading
Thanks, Flavia: that’s helpful. It makes sense in terms of the whole paragraph, which is about who’s supposed to cover her head in worship and whose head coverage is a sign of his debasement. Both translations I have make the point that a woman having short hair is shameful, but in both translations it’s more about head coverage in general rather than haircuts in particular.
I’m glad to know hair can officially be “defiant.” I’m not sure what Michelle Duggar means by that, but my hair certainly seems to have a mind of its own that defies either my will or that of my husband (not that he has ever exercised or even expressed his will in relation to my hair!), particularly in the humid climate where I live. My hair is going to be curly and unruly no matter what. I’m really pleased to know I can therefore presumably tick off Christian fundamentalists with evidently no effort required on my part. Well, I probably mostly do that anyway.
Actually, at various times in my life I have deliberately expressed some form of defiance through my hair, most recently letting it grow to nearly waist length following my promotion to full professor, since I no longer felt compelled to look like a “proper” academic. But because it was a colossal pain to deal with (see the unruly and curly part combined with a hot and humid climate) I now have it much shorter once again.
And I think “because the angels” ought now to be my standard response whenever my colleagues or kids ask me why I have said no to something.
I could add that back in 1220 in Central Asia, the Khwarizmshah (ruler of Khorezm, just south of what we call the Aral Sea in Uzbekistan today) received a pair of envoys from Chingis Khan. The Khwarizmshah got angry and shaved off the envoys’ beards. Big mistake! Clearly Chingis Khan interpreted this as a form of castration, and spent the next three years trashing Central Asia and northeast Iran.
I can reply in two ways, one a little bit about one strand of “eastern” thought and one about my own unshorn head.
Buddhist monks and nuns shave their heads as a sign of their spiritual intention. It is part of the ordination vow to live the monastic life (to leave family life). Dogen Zenji, the founder of Soto Zen in Japan, said the way is simple: zazen (meditation), kesa (a robe to wear), shave the head. This is what Gautama Buddha did when he left family life on his path of realization. He shaved his head (as was common for seekers in India at that time) and put on a robe. He instructed the monks to shave the heads of those newly arrived to his assembly. Dogen said “when the Buddha’s teaching has already covered the body and mind, hair naturally falls from the head and a kesa clothes the body.” The monk/nun puts down the causes of suffering and picks up the dharma.
My own hair has not been professionally cut since I was in 6th grade (a very long time). After a strange medium length phase, I started asking my mother to sometimes tidy up the ends. Now, I episodically chop some off but it stays more or less as it has been since I graduated from college. I own and use a variety of little girl style barrettes and whatnot to keep it off my face. What’s not to love about sparkly purple and orange flowers? In the field I make a braid, tie on a bandana, and forget about it. Super easy after about a week (by then the awkward semi-oily stage is over).
There was a time when I had a Samson kind of complex about my hair but I think I would not mind shaving it now. A sign of spiritual progress, perhaps.
Perfect, Northern Barbarian: you’ve heard of the Defenestration of Prague, now dig the Debarbarization of Khan!
truffula: Tibetan Buddhist monks also shave their heads, don’t they?
Peter the Great (I suppose you could extract whatever double-meaning you wanted from that moniker) was said to have personally shorn the heads of the nobles he intended to subordinate, although that’s an old enough tale for any Russianists among us to confirm or refute. (It’s true enough to use casually in our “Western sieve” course–not to be confused with an actual Western Civilization course, but rather a mandamus cash cow for the putatively helpless eighteen year-olds who send in their admissions acceptance deposits).
It’s interesting. I opened this post in a classroom and thought to reply there from direct observation while proctoring a long midterm in W. sieve. It’s not my observation that long hair is that much the default mode for the young white college women in *our* classrooms the last decade, but that depends on what means long. Longish, I guess you’d say. Certainly one sees little out there in the rows that would make you think of phrases like “coif,” “cut,” or “do.” I presume that relates to Historiann’s point about haircut-as-luxury item. It also depends on your chronological baseline. Mine is the 1960s, where women especially at elite colleges were rumored to *iron* their hair, to make it straighter and presumably in the process somewhat longer. It was never clear what the underlying concept was, beyond what I guess you’d call the folksinger ethos. I must say, I’ve been admiring Hillary Clinton’s recent inclination to go long, which I assume has more to do with general cutting back against the cultural grain or flow than it does with looking “right” in the eyes of some local strongman when she hops off a chopper in Kandahar or Tashkent. But that’s just a guess.
There was also a long wrangle in the U.S. army early in the Jefferson administration over orders for officers to cut off their pigtailed hair at the back of their necks. It was tangled up in the whole Republican v. Federalist conflict, and led to some episodes of outright defiance and *very* high-level courts martial. So it definitely is always or often about power.
In Dark Ages and Medieval Europe, at least in the herbals and related works, hair is associated with animals. Sex is also associated with animals. Therefore, by another great leap over rationality, both sex and hairiness are part of our subhuman natures.
When trying to get closer to the angels (just because!) you curtail both. It’s kind of hard to really advertise your abstinence, but you can get an ugly haircut or shave for all to see. An added bonus is that the statement is loud enough to make that pesky abstinence superfluous. At least, that seems to be how it actually worked.
Great points, quixote. One book that deals with these concepts in an interesting fashion is Merry Wiesner Hanks’s The Marvelous Hairy Girls: The Gonzales Sisters and their World (Yale, 2009), which I read for fun a few years ago, just because. I should have included it somehow in this post.
(Here’s a blog post that features an interview with the author.)
And Indyanna makes me laugh with his “Western Sieve” course.
I’ll tell my daughter that she and her friends are disappointing that commenter with their long, straight hair. They should devote themselves to an expensive regime of regular cuts and perhaps perms? (The frugal, soon-to-be-paying-for-university part of me says “hell, no”.)
According to John Taylor, at least fifteen distinct styles of beard existed in 17th century England, including the swallowtail and the sugarloaf. Charles I preferred the style known as the stiletto.
And who can forget Beatrice’s commentary on facial hair and the prospect of marriage in Much Ado About Nothing?
“He that hath a beard is more than a youth, and he that hath no beard is less than a man: and he that is more than a youth is not for me, and he that is less than a man, I am not for him.”
For more on beards, see Will Fisher’s “The Renaissance Beard: Masculinity in Renaissance England” Renaissance Quarterly 54:1 (Spring 2001), 155-87.
Well, the little things I know about hair, include that medieval women covered their hair after marriage in the UK, and in Ireland for long after that. Think of all those wimples in medieval portraiture. And, this idea still had some resonance in the Victorian UK, where women wore their hair up after marriage, or after sexual maturity – so it was a right of passage in a way – and having your hair down in public was indecent.
Ritualised head-shaving as a form of control and punishment is very common in early modern Europe, especially for sexual ‘misbehaviour’. This was usually performed on women by other women. This also continues well into the 20thC, with women who had sexual relationships with Germans in WW2 France and so viewed as collaborators, having their heads shaved by the community (this was illegal and assault, but still happened). And, it also happened in 20thC Ireland to women who ‘collaborated’ [again read ‘had sexual relationships with’] non-Republicans, and it can be found more broadly in Ireland for other sexual misdemeanours before that. And, I have a lovely 18thC Scottish case of an upper-class mother who shaved her own daughter’s head when the daughter wanted to marry their gardener. The daughter then caused scandal by being seen in public with no hair, and so subverted the ritual humiliation by putting it back on to her mother/family.
For men’s hair – there is a lot on the manliness of beards at different historical moments (several books in fact) – notably in the 19thC, where the bigger the beard the more manly you were. But, I also know that in the post-French Revolution era, men who wore ponytails were viewed to be republican, and there was a lot of concern about this fashion in 1790s Ireland for that reason. Then of course there is the whole disciplining of men for having long hair in the 20thC public school system which continues until today, and also in the military. In fact, I remember somethin about discussions of 18thC military men’s hair having long hair as a fashion statement- but can’t remember the details off the top of my head.
Finally, I have really long hair- I can sit on it- and haven’t been near a hairdresser in over a decade, and while I occasionally trim the ends, I haven’t done this for about 3 years (just not got round to it). And, I don’t think it’s remotely difficult to manage. It takes about 4 minutes in total to wash and condition in the shower and I don’t wash it everyday. And then 30secs to brush it. And that’s it. I don’t use products; I rarely tie it up; I don’t usually brush it more than once a day; I don’t dry it other than with a towel when I jump out the shower. So, it might take me marginally longer to wash than someone with short hair, but we are hardly talking vast swathes of time. It does lead to the occasional creepy but meant to be complimentary comment by men, but no worse than I would imagine women get about other aspects of their appearance. And, I think it might contribute to me looking younger than I am, but who knows?
Tibetan Buddhist monks also shave their heads, don’t they?
Yes, this is what all Buddhist monks and nuns do. I’m sorry if that was not clear, I moved from the general to my specific knowledge. Buddhism is different from theistic religions in that its adherents don’t all believe the same, we practice the same.
Hawthorne knew a little bit about letting loose the hair = letting loose teh sexy and wildness in all kinds of ways. Here’s Hester in the forest with Arthur Dimmesdale, the father of her child, right after she hurls her scarlet letter right across the brook: “By another impulse, she took off the formal cap that confined her hair; and down it fell upon her shoulders, dark and rich, with at once a shadow and a light in its abundance, and imparting the charm of softness to her features. There played around her mouth, and beamed out of her eyes, a radiant and tender smile, that seemed gushing from the very heart of womanhood. A crimson flush was glowing on her cheek, that had been long so pale.” And he still won’t run away with her!
Mine’s long (and considerably grayer at the top than the bottom), an arrangement which, like several others above, I choose in part because I find it easiest and cheapest to maintain. My routine is much like Feminist Avatar’s, except that I put it up (partially because otherwise it tangles at the back of my neck, where coat collars and back packs tend to rub); one approach I use (twist and hold with barrette) takes 15 seconds, the other (in a bun, held with hairpins) 2-3 minutes.
When I taught in England the year after I graduated from college (late ’80s), I caught some flack for wearing my hair loose, rather than, as one colleague put it (in reference to her own hair, but I later realized she was commenting on mine), “up and dressed.” So that ethic didn’t entirely go out with the Victorian era. However, the issue may have been loose hair as well as hair that wasn’t up; even the students (all female) were expected to contain long hair in some way: ponytails, barrettes, etc. There was apparently some taboo against hair that was not in some way visibly restrained appearing in the classroom.
And yes, most of my white female students seem to go in for shoulder-length-or-longer hair these days. Also side parts, for some reason.
undine: What the f^(k was wrong with Dimmesdale? Has there ever been a less sexy male lead? If there has been, I haven’t heard of him.
That passage makes ME want to run off with Hester.
There has been a recent rash of Amish attacks on other Amish men, involving the forcible cutting off of beards (in Ohio; I presume interested parties can Google the news reports). And, of course, “feax-feng” (literally, ‘hair-seizing’ = hair-pulling, presumably) was a punishable crime in some early Anglo-Saxon law codes.
Though I am not entirely sure about the purpose of the tonsure, one of its effects in the early middle ages seems to have been to distinguish monastics and churchmen from warriors, who let their locks grow long.
In addition to denoting purity, hair on medieval women could also denote lasciviousness and penance; think Mary Magdalene before and after her conversion. Even as she goes from prostitute to hermit, she always as long hair, but it’s meaning changes. You can see the same thing in Lady Godiva’s hair: done up as a married woman, undone, when she is naked, a situation that could lead to her loss of reputation, but instead can be read as a sign of purity because she is successful in her ride and frees the town of Coventry from it oppressive overlord (her husband).
Also the Carolingians allegedly cut the hair of the Merovingian king when they deposed them.
There was a time in my late 20s, when my hair was a bit longer than Historiann’s current cut, when I described my style as academic female short. Archeologists, I am told by a colleague, either have very long hair or very short, because that is what is easier in the field. But when I was 14, I wanted to look like Olivia Hussey in the Zeffirelli Romeo & Juliet, so it was long.
I was about to make a less eloquent version of Katherine’s point – hair seems to be connected women’s availability to individual or multiple men, though exactly how varies.
Hair in literature, yay!
From Zitkala-Sa’s The Schooldays of an Indian Girl: “Late in the morning, my friend Judewin gave me a terrible warning. Judewin knew a few words of English, and she had overheard the paleface woman talk about cutting our long, heavy hair. Our mothers had taught us that only unskilled warriors who were captured had their hair shingled by the enemy. Among our people, short hair was worn by mourners, and shingled hair by cowards!”
Also this is making me think of “Bernice Bobs Her Hair” by Fitzgerald, which puts forth the idea that cutting hair = losing beau.
Orthodox Jewish women sometimes shave their heads and then wear wigs in various hairstyles as their hair coverings. I learned this growing up in a Reform Jewish household (during a story about a deceased relative) but in retrospect it is unclear whether this was a Lubavitcher practice, an elite Orthodox practice, or generalizable to Orthodox women in the US ca. 1920. A friend who taught at the Streisand Academy in LA in the 90s reported women there still doing it.
There is a growing movement in schools (and girls’ schools in particular) to have “natural hair weeks” primarily as a means for girls of color to express ethnic pride. However lots of frizzy haired white girls get caught up in subsequent controversies because they won’t participate. There is a lot of straightening going on out there.
Um, am being too sensitive or do I detect a bit of white girl historical myopia here? “Wha’? (blink blink, rub eyes) Can it be? How one wears one’s hair is political? Fascinating!”
Except that it might be the single most important aesthetic issue/choice/field of force among African American women evah (or at least for over 10 decades.) Lots of stuff to read (Hair Story; Hair Raising), groove to (india.arie) and watch on pomades, relaxers and fros. Chris Rock’s documentary Good Hair is totally interesting (though not exclusively for the reasons he might think.)
But I’m probably being too sensitive. It’s a side effect of Brazilian Keratin Treatment.
I just read the blog entry to my 10th grade girl class. Of the twelve girls in the class, 8 straighten their hair. 7 of the straighteners are white, one is African American. Of the non-straighteners, 3 are white (1 naturally straight, one with short hair very styled, one with naturally wavy hair, one african american with “good hair” ie: not an afro, but Beyonce tight curls that she wears long). We had quite the conversation before we turned to Poll taxes, litreacy tests, and grandfather clauses in the New South as mechanisms for patrolling the boundaries of whiteness.
@wha happened? Yeah, I was surprised that nobody chimed in with the literature on African American hair yet. I’d include Hair Matters in the bibliography of African-American women’s hair too. But I think some of this is tied to our own researches and personal experience thus far. To wit:
Among male uranium miners in New Mexico, long hair in the mines was an invitation to get “greased” (have industrial grease put in your hard hat at lunch when you weren’t looking) up until about 1973 whereupon such harassment stopped.
Wha’happened–I hope I’m not being too white-girl myopic. My goal here was precisely to explore and compare the historical connections between hair and identity, which I don’t think was apparent in the original post I linked to at Echidne. (I certainly make no claim that this is an original observation.) I tried to acknowledge that some women (in particular) have to go to expensive & toxic lengths (so to speak) to achieve a hairstyle that for white women seem “easy.”
I’m eager for more stories and insights from around the world as to the potentially universal and transhistorical significance of hair. Most people commenting so far are like me, experts on American and Western European history, but I’m interested in hearing about other corners of the globe.
Covering your hair upon marriage is a black South African thing, too (at least for Xhosa and Zulu women). Back in the day, it used to involve weaving your hair into a crown-type object, now it means a bandana (doek) or other scarf. It’s a big marker of identity politics (ie, self-portrayal as “traditional” v “modern”) for black South African women. And then shaving your head at the funeral of an important family member.
My students keep trying to convince me to write a history of religion in America via hair and fashion. When I teach gender in my American religions classes, I always point to both. This post convinces me that I should think about this more.
Two quick things about this post: first, I just did my “gendering” exercise with my students in which they get to critique my gender performance a la Judith Butler. Hands down, the first comments are always about my short hair, which they say signals rebellion, non-conformity and liberalism. My hair is only a bit longer than a pixie cut. Most of my female undergrads rock the long, straight hair. No submission to authority here from me at least.
Second, my toddler explains to me that I cannot be a princess with my short hair. I am okay with that. 🙂
Thanks, Sarabeth–that’s what I’m looking for. (Do they really still shave their heads in mourning?)
Kelly: how interesting that your long-haired students point to your hair as a sign of nonconformity/rebellion. I guess that’s a tacit admission from them that they’re conformist and non-rebellious?
Conformist, non-rebellious and MORE feminine. I think their critique of my hair “documents” my poor performance of white, heteronormative femininity, so I wonder if they see their hair as just conformity or a better practice of the feminine. Next time I do the exercise I think I might query more what their interpretations of me say about them as observers.
Just a brief comment about the hair style of (male) ecclesiastics – I remember reading somewhere that the tonsure of monks (the “ring” of hair) is intended to represent the crown of thorns that was put on Jesus Christ’s head at the crucifixion. I have no idea if this is true or not – someone with more knowledge can correct me.
Long straight hair is anything but effortless, even for women who aren’t African American or have thick “Jewish” curly hair. Many people have a wave in their hair and that “effortless” straight look among our students is accomplished by flat iron or blow drier. This aesthetic requires time and effort. The corollary to “long hair is more feminine” is that straight hair is more professional than curly, and a made-up face more professional than a makeup-less face. Which creates a dizzying hall of mirrors for women trying to negotiate gendered performances of professionalism that are caught up in multiple histories of how various styles are read. I.e. long loose hair as youthful and virginal…and likewise as a mark of heterosexual availability and interest; “up dos” as neat but also schooomarmish, uptight, old-fashioned; short hair cuts as alternately “frumpy” i.e. the “Mom” do and rebellious/nonconformist; chin to shoulder-length styled hair as a suitable adult professional look for a woman, the evolution of the college-girl long straight hair look.
IN my case…
When I went on the job market this year, I became extremely anxious about how my appearance performed “professional” within the somewhat ambiguous aesthetic standards of professionalism in academia. I didn’t want to devote 30 minutes to a blowout before my interviews, but I also wanted to read as “neat” and be careful about sexualizing my appearance. I feared that long unruly curls would read as both unkempt and flirtatious. So I wore my hair in a bun and then felt that I was coming across as a bit too buttoned up. My friends told me to chill out about it, but also empathized with my anxiety about my performance of gender relative to my performance of professionalism. I realized that my frustrations lay with uncertainty about how my gendered performance would be read in a culture in which there seem to be so many different ways of styling oneself…and yet a few key conformist “looks” that are privileged in certain environments.
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I have been fascinated by the symbolic dimensions of women’s hair, including my own, for as long as I can remember. At least one of my lovers seemed to get a thrill out of my cutting my curly, red blonde hair and keeping it mid length to shortish (above my shoulders…). I have recently ended a very tumultuous, but very close and at times “romantic” relationship with a rather handsome, very talented (though a little narcissistic) gay colleague…He told me I looked much better with short hair and began cutting it himself (I trusted him as he cuts his own hair very well), even though I told him I felt that long hair was more sexually attractive and that I wanted to meet a straight guy I could begin a relationship with.He cut it at least 3 times (and “touched it up” on at least 5 occasions) and even though people said he did a good job, it was obvious I was more sexually attractive with my long curls. I believe I was subconsciously reducing my sexual attractiveness and that he got a strange thrill out of helping me achieve this end. My strange, non sexual attachment to this homosexual was so strong that I didn’t feel the need to meet other men…I was also still grieving over the tragic death of my partner in 2011. I ended the relationship with this gay man last week as he had become emotionally abusive and publicly humiliated me in front of some important guests from overseas…He also hit me and called me derogatory names when I confronted him over his unacceptable behaviour. We are no longer on speaking terms and I have decided to grow my hair long again.
Female Native American writer Zitkala Sa writes about the forced cutting of her hair upon her arrival at a boarding school.
“Our mothers had taught us that only unskilled warriors who were captured had their hair shingled by the enemy. Among our people, short hair was worn by mourners, and shingled hair by cowards!”
“School Days of an Indian Girl.” The Atlantic monthly. / Volume 85, Issue 508, February 1900