Women, hair and anarchists

With hairdressers in the UK currently closed for lockdown again, we republish Anna Cermakova's 2017 post on the important role of hair. 

How often do you think about your hair? Every morning looking at yourself in the mirror and thinking is this going to be a ‘good/bad hair’ day? How often do you change the colour of your hair? How often do you substantially change the length or style of your hair? When is the time right for such a change? I have personally been quite unadventurous with my hair for most of my life and never really worried until it started to grow grey… I have always had long or longish hair and never even considered having a really short ‘boy’ haircut; not that I don’t like short hair but it never even occurred to me to try and have a short haircut — so established is the custom for many women to have their hair long. One of John Tenniel’s illustrations of Alice in Wonderland (1865), which is part of the ‘visual’ of the GLARE project I am working on, triggered a comment from a colleague: “love the Alice picture (very different from Disney princess — but still big eyes and long hair!”)so I set off for a little fascinating journey to explore hair, its length and other issues. And as I have learned on this journey, “[e]ven if you think your hair is meaningless, it still sends a message to every observer” (Lowe 2016: 12).

It has not always been so, but in Western culture, from a certain point in time, it has become customary for men to wear short hair and for women to wear long, but controlled, hair. This is often traced back to St. Paul’s writing to the Corinthians (1 Cor. 11: 14-15), where he says that a woman’s long hair is her pride. Throughout history, hair styles have varied a lot, often carrying cultural and/or religious significance. As Scott Lowe in his wonderful little book on Hair says: “It seems likely that while hair styling always has meaning, that meaning is not fixed or universal — it changes with time, place, and social group — and in secular settings it can mutate practically overnight” (Lowe 2016: 11). For women though, it has nearly always and everywhere been the case to have their hair long. Today, for many, long hair still seems to be the utmost expression of femininity. Recently, my attention caught an article in The Times (24.10.2017) about Hannah Gadsby, an award winning stand-up comedian, who is diagnosed with ADHD and Asperger’s syndrome and due to her illness cannot grow her hair long — “because it annoys me, not because I don’t want to be feminine”, she comments with a regret. Susan Brownmiller in her book on Femininity says: “I harbour a deep desire to wear my hair long because like all the women I know, I grew up believing that long hair is irrefutably feminine” (my emphasis) (Brownmiller 1986: 34). Many of us, however, may see this ‘irrefutable femininity’ loaded with other symbolism as well, an entry on ‘long hair’ in the online feminist theory dictionary for example describes ‘long hair’ as “a pervasive Western (patriarchal) norm”.

“From time immemorial, hair has been used to make a visual statement, for the body’s most versatile raw material can be cut, plucked, shaved, curled, straightened, braided, greased, bleached, tinted, dyed and decorated with precious ornaments” (Brownmiller 1986: 36); however, considerations of hair do not belong only to the domain of fashion. Historically, hair rituals have often had sexual associations (Leach 1958) and cutting or shaving one’s hair has been associated with mourning or magic performing rituals (Hallpike 1969: 257-258). And it makes sense, except for a few notable exceptions (Scott Lowe mentions Bruce Willis) for most of us, “[h]ead shaving can make one genderless” as it “removes one of our most potent sources of vanity and attractiveness” (Lowe 2016: 53, 54).

But the ‘hair debate’ is also political — cutting one’s hair is generally associated with social control (Hallpike 1969, Lowe 2016). “Long hair can be trouble, at least for the guardians of social and religious orthodoxy. Libertines and rebels, outlaws and antinomians all favor long, loose hair. It’s bad for the status quo, and it’s often bad for business” (Lowe 2016: 70). Hallpike delimits the social groups in Western society that wear long hair, these are: “intellectuals, juvenile rebels against society and women” — this trio reminds me of the famous George Lakoff’s title of the book Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things (1987). According to Hallpike, long hair is “a symbol of being in some way outside society, of having less to do with it, or of being less amenable to social control than the average citizen” (Hallpike 1969: 261). This citation is taken out of context and does not extend to women in Hallpike’s text, but it still means the ‘average citizen’ equals ‘male citizen’. So there is the ‘average citizen’ and all the other citizens deviating from the ‘average’.

Synnott (1987) in his study of hair views our world in binary oppositions: opposite sexes have opposite hair; head hair and body hair are opposite; opposite ideologies have opposite hair. Hair is “not only a sex symbol” but also “an ideological symbol”. It can express “[o]pposition to conventional sex roles, to conventional definitions of femininity and to the conventional norms for women” (Synott 1987: 394). Looking at our history and religions, hair is often the vehicle that constructs the difference. It has “the power to indicate allies and foes, potential sex partners and possible rivals, our group versus the others” (Lowe 2016: 36), and as Lowe says “[s]ocieties actively employ hair to manufacture the ‘Other’” (ibid.).

Hair embodies a very powerful symbolism (both for men and women), Synott mentions a bizarre legal case (reported in Montreal Gazette on 25.9.1984) of a secretary in New York, whose long hair was shaved off by a jealous wife and as a compensation for this loss, she was awarded $117,500. This was in the 1980’s but if we go back to the 1920’s, women not only stopped wearing a corset, started wearing short skirts and trousers but also, proudly, “demonstrated their newfound emancipation by bobbing their hair” (Brownmiller 1986: 40). All of these female emancipation demonstrations were met with much hostility from many men (e.g. women were not allowed to wear trousers in the U.S. Senate until 1993!).
Photo by Suhyeon Choi on Unsplash
Today, hair trends seem to be rapidly changing (long hair is still dominant for women — look around yourself!)  and the hair industry is enormous and ever growing. For 2018, the global hair care market was estimated to be worth about 87.73 billion U.S. dollars with a rising proportion of services directed at men. There is also another significant trend in the hair industry, i.e. the changing business of black hair. Based on market research, Afro-Caribbean women actually spend more than other ethnicities caring for their hair and also have specific needs – as revealed by the documentary Good Hair (2009, by Chris Rock) pointing particularly to the use of relaxers and harmful chemicals they contain and ethical issues related to the sources of the widely used extensions. Black hair seems to be a doubly sensitive issue as the recent twitter #dtmh (standing for ‘don’t touch my hair’) shows.

The other marked colour of hair is, of course, grey. But that has to do with another topic… it is some consolation to know that grey hair does not worry only me, it was a source of worry already in ancient Rome. Romans went to great lengths to cover their grey hair with various dyes. Talking about hair colour and the Romans, there is another interesting fact related to the blond hair colour. In Rome, prostitutes were required by law to bleach their hair or to wear blond wigs. So it seems likely that the link between blond hair and sexually promiscuous behaviour to ‘blonds having more fun’ dates back to ancient Rome (Lowe 2016: 106).

Mythology, the Bible and literature is full of stories of hair having magical or supernatural powers. Hair as a metaphor representing various forms of the patriarchal exploitation of female bodies is also present in the recent novel Norma by the Finnish-Estonian author Sofi Oksanen. The main female character, Norma, has supernatural hair, sensitive to the slightest changes in her mood and the moods of those around her. Against the background of a dark family drama, Oksanen reveals the world of the exploitation of women’s bodies and the extremes to which people will go for the sake of beauty. The theme of female vanity and long hair going hand in hand is also present in a much older text, a short story for children Melisande by Edith Nesbit (from Nine Unlikely Tales, 1901). Here — as expected in a fairy tale, though carrying a title ‘unlikely’ — the princess with too long hair has to be rescued by a clever prince.

In fact, in contemporary children’s fiction (based on the data in the Oxford Children’s Corpus (OCC)), the adjective long with hair is less frequent than some of the colour adjectives (black, dark, red), but it is twice as frequent than curly and seven times more frequent than short hair. Hair as part of the character description is a bit more frequent with female characters but evaluative adjectives like lovely and beautiful occur with both girls’ and boys’ hair. Overall, even though hair is not mentioned particularly frequently, one of the main, socially regulating, take away messages, in terms of hair length, is that boys may have had long hair in the past but it is no longer the case and the girls are expected to have long hair. The following is a random selection of quotations (emphasis is mine) from children’s books in the British National Corpus (BNC) and OCC:

If I didn't have long hair, everyone would think I was a boy.

He had very long hair at the time and a beard, Lewis remembered, and looked as they all did like some kind of weird prophet.

We should think long hair silly for boys now, but it was the fashion then.

Sometimes it was his hair that displeased them. Boys were not supposed to have long hair. Worse than this, if you were Orphanage scum, boy or girl, you were supposed to have your head shaved.

With a vicious stroke, the trader knocked her to the ground, then caught and held her by her long hair.

She sat down in front of her looking-glass, and brushed at her lovely heavy blonde hair. “I was so fed up this evening, so miserable, before you came, that I was going to cut off all my long hair just to annoy that cross woman.”

Maybe Kat and I had done the reverse: assumed the person in the pink fluffy jacket was a woman, just because she had long hair.

Her long hair was in braids and her blue eyes were tearful.

Hair also plays an important role in the recently published, wonderful book, which won the Waterstone’s children’s book prize in 2017: The Girl of Ink and Stars by Kiran Millwood Hargrave. The main character of the book, Isabella, needs to set off for a dangerous rescue journey — she needs to save her island, her father and her best friend. To qualify to join the rescue party, she needs to look like a boy. She cuts her hair. Unexpectedly, she meets her lost friend Pablo:

I waited until the door closed, then turned quickly to Pablo. ‘Is Da all right?’
‘Why have you cut your hair?’
‘To come here.’
He sniffed. ‘Looks all right.’
‘I don’t care how it looks. How’s Da?’
His face was inscrutable. ‘Why are you here?’
‘How is he?’

Long hair, whether we like it or not, seems to be ‘now and here’ still the norm for women and girls and short hair for men and boys (norm not as externally defined but given by the majority). Deviation from the norm, and women with short hair are even today perceived as deviating, may occasionally be met with direct hostility. When we, women, cut our hair, does that change our lives? Coco Chanel, who freed women from corsets, showed their ankles and taught them to wear trousers, famously said “A woman who cuts her hair is about to change her life”. Is ‘cutting our hair’ a statement that we want to play the boys’ game and there is no other way in as in Isabella’s case, or is that a sign of emancipation – saying we want to play our own game? What are we telling the world when we wear short/long hair? Because hair always tells a story…

Anna Cermakova is a Marie Curie Sklodowska Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Birmingham. Together with Prof. Michaela Mahlberg she works on GLARE project, Exploring Gender in Children’s Literature from a Cognitive Corpus Stylistic Perspective, the project runs from September 2017 to August 2019.

Brownmiller, S. (1986) Feminitity.  London: Paladin Books.
Hallpike, C. (1969) Social Hair. Man, 4(2), 256-264
Lakoff, G. (1987)  Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Leach, E. (1958). Magical Hair. The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, 88(2), 147-164.
Lowe, S. (2016). Hair. London: Bloomsbury
Synnott, A. (1987). Shame and Glory: A Sociology of Hair. The British Journal of Sociology, 38(3), 381-413.


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