Hair has a power that few things compete with. Clothes are subjective, and within the last few years, every fashion rule is long thrown to the wolves. Go ahead, playboy, wear that animal print top with a cape and red patent leather kicks. No one will care. You get a lousy pompadour, and it’s curtains for your Saturday night “flex.”
We’ve all had to talk someone off the ledge over cutting their bangs. Sometimes, the bangs work out, and other times, Kelly is rocking that ball cap. We’ve even got a term when our hair sucks, a “bad hair day,” and it’s widely accepted because we’ve all been there. All of the three major western religions of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism have rules on women’s hair, and if you’ve read the Old Testament, one of the parts they conveniently skip over is about men keeping long hair too. (Weird how they let that one and the shellfish thing skate, but the flimsy case against the gay’s sticks?)
Hair can change someone’s sex appeal from kinda cute to stop, drop, and roll fine. Ladies, while somehow the mullet is making a comeback (gross), when’s the last time you saw a dude with spikes and wanted to taste that man’s bubblegum? You didn’t. We’ve set a standard with hair that’s an extension of what we feel is our personal “brand” or representative look. Style dictates appearance, but some well-worn work clothes inform that you work hard, that you earned those stains or holes. Americans
appreciate hustle, but not bothering to run a comb through the rat’s nest on your head and let it be all messy before you left the house? People assume your crib looks straight out of Hoarders and you don’t wash.
Throughout our fables, Samson has his locks, while Rapunzel lets down her hair for her prince, and Medusa rocked a garden of vicious snakes. We’re born into these statements even as they’re perceived as innocuous children’s stories. But they set a psychological tone because, for some, they don’t see themselves but instead something completely different. In many cultures around the world, having a hair cut or not cut holds different meanings. In South Asian mythology, women with unbraided hair are seen as “wild.” Not everyone’s fairy tales are the same.
How we see the culture at large defines beauty. It’s critical to acknowledge our differences; that beauty comes in many shapes and sizes from long, kinky, wavy, curly, or short.
Beauty is a moving target. Look at early Chinese migration during the building of the railroads. Chinese men’s hair was seen as a spectacle with its long braid in the back and the subject of cartoons in newspapers. We chopped off the traditionally long hair of the Native American boys when we made them attend our schools. And still today, there are constant conversations within the black community of what hair signifies within the context of American culture and ultimately how classic beauty is seen. In the age of the Black Panthers, members grew afros while the hippies let their hair grow as long as possible. We’ve seen cultural shifts based on what acceptance looks like over the decades, but these defining practices still hold weight, no matter how much you decide to spend at the salon.
Men either embrace baldness by shaving their heads or pull out every trick in the book to combat genetics at play. There’s a Seinfeld episode dedicated to George killing a man’s confidence because he shows him the “classic horse pattern.” In turn, that man loses vitality and Elaine. And then there’s the cadre of issues regarding thinning hair in a woman’s life, which can dismantle self-esteem thanks to societal pressures of perceived normalcy. Then there’s the genetic outlier of alopecia where someone can be born with no hair on their body whatsoever, which many who have this genetic trait wear wigs to keep up with the jones.
Down here in Texas, there’s a saying, “Bigger the hair, the closer to God.” And many women take that proclamation as gospel. On the other hand, if a woman shaves her head, that’s seen as a radical statement, but when we see someone visibly going through chemotherapy, we share grief.
How much do we spend on haircuts? A lot. Your average man spends around $400-500 annually, and for women, that number is significantly higher. When I was married, my ex-wife would buy special shampoo to maintain the brightness of her blonde hair, and that shampoo was as much as our light bill.
There’s the cut, the color, the style – do blondes have more fun? Can you go darker for the summer? What does it mean to “go natural,” does adding highlights tamper with the idea of challenging normative color, that you’re low maintenance? What about embracing grays? Why is it sexy when a man goes gray, but for many women, they’d rather take a dip in boiling oil than ever let on there’s a few silver wisps? Sure, there are trends of coloring your hair platinum, but those layers aren’t the same as the Real McCoy. Former First Lady Barbara Bush wore her hair white and short, admitting she saw it as a statement of confidence.
You might live and die by platinum blonde Marilyn Monroe locks, while your best friend could want his hair long and straight circa Marilyn Manson of the mid-1990s. We tie so much of ourselves to how our hair signifies us as an outward visual. Walk into the average goth club, and there’s a lot of Manic Panic jars sold, while back home, there’s a few brightly stained bathroom sinks. At the same time, you roll over to the nightclub, and many of those folks are willing to spend serious cash to make sure every eyebrow and follicle is on point. It’s all rooted in perception.
The barbershop, the salon, these are places met with reverence. These rooms are where secrets are spilled, because even the act of hair care is taken as a communion with the person you’re entrusting to showcase your best self.
There are psychological rabbit holes present the more you think about hair’s impact. It’s not just some part of you that you lop off at the local SuperCuts, but is something many of us have points of view about that are uncomfortable or celebrated. Still, no matter the stance, what we can say is that hair is far more of a personal, social, and political vehicle than we give it credit for on the surface.