The Dogma of Hair

I’m not ‘into’ hair, and can barely manage to straighten my own (when it’s not in default ponytail setting). Curling irons are beyond me. Heck, I don’t even blow dry my hair – it makes me sweaty and my hand gets all vibratey and I don’t like it. Plus I’m terrible at wielding the round brush.

But I do think about hair a lot, not from a style perspective, but from a social perspective. Hair symbolizes a lot of things. Here are my thoughts on the matter, and why, for such a non-styled person, hair is very important to me personally.

1. Hair and Femininity

I inherited a lot of ideas about male-female relations from my mother. This is wound in Christian lore and symbolism. My mother’s faith is very spiritual and tied to the earth; when I was growing up we lived on a small farm, and mom worked with animals, gardens, and children all day. There have been times she heard God talking to her just before a disaster, giving instructions so that she would notice something terrible happening. When there is an issue she needs to solve, mom is infamous for taking a few days and then the solution hits her like a bolt of lightning, and she says it is God giving her ideas.

She used to tell me about how in the older versions of the Bible, women were described as having long, beautiful hair, like angels. A woman’s hair was described as her vanity; this is why some religions insist that hair be covered up, not only to protect women from vanity, but men against lust for their beauty.

This is an excerpt of a poem I wrote a few years ago:

I remember
waiting for Mother to descent from the mountaintop
with a whisper of direction from some heartfelt guide,
but her face never shone with the purity of Encounter;
it seems Jesus wore the mask of holiness for us all,
and anymore you don’t have to be Moses to hear God,
or come barefoot before any awesome, burning bush,
but sit in the upper room with a dark comforter,
praying like any woman prays,
the back screen door of her mind swinging open into the universe.

They used to wear veils, the men who had seen God,
but women wore veils often, God in the offering of their work,
the constant rhythm of pleasure in care and love.

I don’t necessarily see a veil or hood as a symbol of oppression. I like to think that it implies women have a different connection to God than men.

She told me how she felt that when women got to be older, they cut their hair short, as a subconscious signal to men that they are no longer interested in romantic attachment (past child-bearing years).

This concept has stuck with me, and while I’m sure it’s not true in all cases, it is something I consider when I meet a person. Hair is tied to reproduction status, and health. If hair is long and well-kept, it indicates good health, and in this day and age, good financials, because fashionable, attractive hair is expensive.

When I cut my hair last year, perhaps it was a subconscious statement about my transition from girlhood to adulthood. I am a Manager now. As a leader, my sexuality must be diminished, so that I can stand as a figure of authority, not one of attraction. I was also in a period of mourning, but I’ll talk about that next.

As of right now, I’m growing my hair out again. Having short hair was fun, and I like how the style looks on me, but I don’t /feel/ like myself without long hair (or, as my friends call it, my ‘princess hair’, because it curls in natural ringlets). Biblically, hair is tied to power (think Sampson and Delilah). I feel more powerful when I have long hair, like I can be more creative, or more connected to myself.

This time around I guess I will have to learn how to use all the curling irons and stuff, so that  I can look professional while still maintaining long hair :-)

2. Hair and Mourning

It is well documented that in many cultures, women in mourning cut off their hair. This is also something I think about a lot, mostly analyzing whether I am naturally drawn towards cutting off my hair when sad, or whether it’s a symptom of knowing about cultural habits.

Cutting hair is a rebirth process. It gives you a new look. It discards who you were at the time the hair was grown. It’s a clean start. It is also an outward symbol of internal sadness and loss.

3. Hair and Strength

Despite how I love my long hair, I have always wished that I had the courage to shave my head. There is something empowering about a woman with a shaved head, and I wished that I had the courage and the head shape to pull it off. I imagine that it is freeing. When I think of women with shaved heads, I think of warriors. They are still female, but their femininity has been transformed into something else, something streamlined and sharp.

In modern times, shaved and bald women have come to mean something else: chemotherapy. Which I feel is another reflection of strength. Cancer is a very intimate battle. Cancer is not an outside force; instead the enemy comes from within. How do you fight a battle against your own body? To wage this war, to me, seems very personal, and socially we associate cancer victims with strength; the strength to go on, to fight back, to insist on living despite their illness.

And here we segue into balding and men. Balding for men is akin to women cutting their hair short when they are older. It’s a symbol of age (though men remain fertile their whole lives). Balding is also a sign of strength, to me. It’s the strength to face aging and mortality, to confront self-image and vanity.

I love everything about Chris. If he were to lose his hair I would be sad, because I love his hair, but I would also treasure the exposed skin, and our life together that it represents.

I guess I’m thinking about hair because I’m going to get mine done tomorrow. And while I don’t want to be one of those people who blogs/tweets about their hair, maybe from this post you can understand why I find it so interesting and personal.

Do you have any dogmatic ideas about hair and its symbolism?

9 thoughts on “The Dogma of Hair

  1. quirkywhit says:

    Wondering About Hair…

    I have never been obsessed with hair either, but as an African-American women it is very much a part of my life. We actually judge each other by our hair (not me, since I grew up in a predominately white town and therefore don’t quite understand the language of black hair…but I do understand a bit of it) and one of the worst things you can have is “nappy” hair. To have such hair and walk around is a travesty – that’s when braids, sewing in hair, and wigs come into play. Not to mention perming. My Lord, to be perm the heck out of our hair (in order to reach the white ideal of hair – ie, long and straight). Hair is this way of defining ourselves and our beauty in a world that doesn’t always have a place for African-Americans. Especially not as standards of any kind of beauty, it’s just…really amazing to look further into culture when it comes to hair. I actually wrote a research paper on it in college, one that focused on the historical aspect of African-American hair (what braids symbolized for women in African and then slaves in America) as well as with a focus in women’s culture.

    What your mom said about hair is a really beautiful way of looking at it and our connection as women with God. I’ve always seen us as having this special connection with Him because we are the ones that work in collaboration with Him to bring life into the world. I find that way of viewing it makes the idea of pregnancy not so terrifying, but as a work of art. (Which my best friend really got tired of while she was pregnant, believe me). Moreover, I like your view on the veil, while in school we kept reading about how this was some kind of sexism, but the further research I did showed that that wasn’t necessarily why women chose to hide their hair. It was this way of showing their strong connection to God and they didn’t need feminists coming in and trying to liberate them from it. Not everyone, but enough for me to realize that we are never really going to understand another culture while in the college setting.

    And there is so much strength in hair. I, personally, love the quiet dignity of women wearing their hair long and letting their gray show. I find aging with pride as something utterly beautiful, especially in the face of our culture’s obsession with youth. Also, I find that I tend to give my character’s long hair as a sign of their strength. It’s nice to know that I’m not alone with all of that. : ) And that there is at least one other person out in the world that I kind of know that sits down and thinks about these things as well. And before this becomes a serious essay I’m going to quit.

    Hope you love your new ‘do! : )

    • savannahjfoley says:

      Re: Wondering About Hair…

      Thank you for bringing up African American hair. I almost wrote about it and incorporated the ideas and pressures associated with it, but being that I’m very obviously white and have never dealt first-hand with those cultural issues, I decided not to approach it. I have heard multiple times, however, the same thing you say: African Americans feel pressured, by both external and internal culture, to have ‘white people’ hair. This was only something I became aware of recently, after moving to the South and working in a place that has a high percentage of female African American employees.

      It is interesting to note, however, that I have seen similar pressure on white girls with curly or frizzy hair. A girl I knew in my homestate of WA had inherited very beautiful dark brown corkscrew-like curls, and as a 16-year old she saved up $400 to have a very expensive, potentially harmful chemical process done using formaldehyde to permanently straighten her hair (even after our local hairdresser tried to talk her out of it). Two of my cousins inherited completely beautiful, true corkscrew blonde hair, and I saw in one of their prom pictures she had had her hair straightened. On one of the most important events in a young girls life (to most), she chose to wear her beautiful, unique hair straight. Because straight hair is the ‘most beautiful’, for some reason.

      Personally, when my hair was long I loved letting it dry natural because I would get long, twisted ringlets. But they were slightly frizzy, not contained like my cousin’s, and my mom and sister were always nagging at me to ‘do something’ with my hair. Now I wear it straight because if I don’t straighten it at this length it gets poofy and unmanageable.

      I would be very interested in reading that research paper; if you still have a copy perhaps you could email it to me? If you wanted?

      Personally I’ve never been into that ‘women are the bearers of life’ concept. I get where it comes from, and I get that childbirth is a very intimate and somewhat miraculous process (From one human comes another; totally weird), but women as divine vessels of life never did it for me :-) I guess I feel bad for the men, getting left out of it when they’re 50% of the reason it happened in the first place. I read recently that if men are present for the birth of their child they go through a chemical change simliar to what women go through during a birth, forming attachments to the child and geting chemically reprogrammed to care for them. Someone has to carry the kid after all… in sea horses, the male actually carries the pregnancy. Sometimes (this is gonna get weird, just pre-warning, lol), I imagine what alien races would look like, and how they would reproduce, and one of the possibilities is for a penis-like structure to enter a vagina-like structure, but instead of ejaculating, suck up the semen or eggs from the vagina-like-carrier, and gestate them inside the penis-like-carrier… who would also have to have some sort of birth canal I guess.

      And I totally forgot to bring aging into it…. I love it when women with dark hair let gray run through it naturally. I think it’s absolutely beautiful. Women who age well and wear their gray are stunning.

      • lalaith7 says:

        Re: Wondering About Hair…

        Having taken an animal reproduction class (which has ruined me for life RE: polite conversation) has actually diminished my view of the role a male plays in gestation/formation of offspring. (I have been known to tell a guy that if he were the last man on earth I’d break into a sperm bank, yeah it’s kind of harsh.) That being said I believe that men and fathers have an enormous role in raising children. If I think about all the ways my dad has influenced my life (He’s my parent who loves books, my mom loves sports, it’s pretty awesome!) it’s pretty amazing.

        Anyway that’s a totally random tangent! Sorry about that Savannah.

      • quirkywhit says:

        Re: Wondering About Hair…

        Unfortunately I lost that paper in the Epic Computer Crash of 2008. *groan* And yes, that is what I call it since the computer took a bunch of homework that was due shortly and about three years worth of writing along with it in it’s apparent suicide. I have no luck with computers – recently my laptop decided to die on me, taking two years of fairytale retelling attempts with it. -.- I try not to think about it.

        But thanks for being interested in the paper. :)

        Truth be told, I had never thought of the whole “divine vessels” of women until the sole male professor in my Women Studies classes brought it up. The way he spoke about women tag teaming creation with God made me look at it in a totally different life. It was completely obvious that he wished that he could be a part of that kind of creation and the awe in which he spoke of it made me re-evaluate how I’d always viewed childbearing. So I can certainly see why you’d feel bad for men, I certainly felt bad for him. He spoke of how he was such a major part of all of his children’s lives, especially in the beginning; getting up at night to feed and change them, holding them as much as possible, and so on because he didn’t want to completely miss out in the initial bonding process.

        And your idea of alien pregnancy made me smile. Honestly, it is always so wonderful to make contact with people who think about off-the-wall things so in-depth. I like your idea of it and I’ve always really loved seahorses for that reason. :)

        • quirkywhit says:

          Re: Wondering About Hair…

          Oh, and I forgot to comment of the whole straight hair thing. Grr. It makes me angry that curly hair is just not accepted, but as you can tell from my avatar, I have fallen into the whole “straight hair = beautiful hair” conundrum. Well, truth be told, I prefer to wear my hair in the weird straight/semi-kinky curls way that it is after getting the new growth under control, but I’ve been told that it’s unseemly that way. So I’ve got a straight iron (several) and hair so thick I absolutely detest straightening it. But for some reason in my family, not to do so is to make the rest of them look bad. My Lord, I don’t understand it but I don’t understand much when it comes to a lot of unspoken rules — I spend far too much time in my head and off in faraway lands to kept in touch with a lot of things.

          And it’s too bad that they lost their curls/actively went out to decimate their curls. Curls are beautiful and add character, especially in this culture where everything is just so straight and bland.

  2. tymcon says:

    That’s a really interesting article! I did think about hair in relation to culture but I just didn’t really go anywhere with it. I actually read somewhere that a lot of lesbians cut their hair short when coming out of the closet to appear more masculine. Which I think is crap. Society seems to want lesbians to be masculine and gay men to be feminine, in they same way they see a wife and a husband in a gay or lesbian marriage. As per usual I have no idea where I’m going with this.

    I kind of do think that a veil or hood is oppression. Since a lot of the time if people don’t fit this status quo then their will be repercussions. The least extreme is making men and women awkward in your presence, but the most extreme is honor killing. If people are being forced to change an aspect of their appearance to avoid repercussions then it is oppression. Wether it’s in secondary or society doesn’t really make a difference.

    Oh my god lol the bit about the Aliens was so funny. Although the male would need some form of numbing effect at the end as it would be rather painful. Although I just remembered the egg is only like once or two cells thick?

    • savannahjfoley says:

      I’m not really knowledgeable about lesbian culture and what it means spiritually to be a lesbian, so I couldn’t comment, but that is something I also thought about when I was writing this. I do think the stereotype of a lesbian is someone with short hair, but I don’t know how short hair in lesbian terms fits into the whole hair thing that we’re talking about. If there are any lesbians reading this thread, please chime in!

      I understand the veil or hood being seen as oppressing… the hardest part about it, I think, is that it’s so easy to lose track of the meaning behind symbols like that, and revert to states of ‘women sinful! If you show your hair you must die because you’re being wrong!’.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Great points! I read your responde to Quirky, too–and as a curly-haired person I totally feel that! It was never “cool” to have curly hair, and the only people who complimented my hair were old ladies. I love my hair now (though I occasionally wear it straight or pincurled just for something different). I’ve sometimes wondered if curly hair–real curls, not pincurls–were looked down on in America because the bearers of such hair were usually “less desirable” immigrants like Irish and Italians–not “WASPs”. No way of knowing, I guess!

    Historically speaking, most women had long hair but wore it up, mostly for hygeine purposes. (Everyone always makes a big deal of the modesty bit of the European/American practice of wearing a cap, but imagine rarely washing your hair–having it up and covered keeps it much cleaner and less tangled.) So only a woman’s husband would see her hair down, in its full glory so to speak. It was a part of her beauty that was private, just between them. I’ve always thought that idea was really endearing–though of course, in modern culture, hair is on display for everyone to see. Like most other things :)

    • savannahjfoley says:

      I like the idea of shared intimacy like that, but like you said earlier, covering up parts of the body leads to a mentality that that part is shameful, or that it’s some type of mortal sin to expose it. Like the puritans and ankles, lol.

      I was talking to my boyfriend about this article and comments, and he said that he had read an article that said that when cultures become/became exposed to white people for the first time, the most distinguishing characteristic of Caucasians, after their skin, is their hair. So it seems that the world strives to have Caucasian hair as a form of ultimate beauty. The funny part is, as we were discussing, that curly and wavy hair on Caucasians gets caught up in that, too. I like curly and wavy hair; I think straight can be very boring, so I think it’s unfortunate that this standard exists.

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