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!!!”