Hair Is The Most Powerful Body Language We’ve Mastered

Article by Hayley Morgan /
Vice /
March 05, 2018 /
Click here to view original /

“Hair is one of our most powerful symbols of personal and group identity. Powerful first because it is physiological (unlike clothes) and therefore extremely personal, and second because although personal it is also public rather than private,” Anthony Synnott, a Professor in Sociology and Anthropology at Concordia University, tells VICE. “It’s amazing in what it can do: it’s self-expression; a communication system; a protest form; an identity-signifier and a change agent.”

Braids are probably one of the oldest hairstyles on record and right now they centre in current conversations around equality and appropriation. We’ve been arguing about them for centuries. We’ve looked back 30,000 years to the Venus of Willendorf—a limestone sculpture of the female form found in Austria—and Ancient Egypt, where an image depicting braids was found at a burial site called Saqqara said to have originated during the first dynasty of the Pharoah Menes. Onwards and upwards, through art from the Bronze and Iron Ages we see every man and his dog posing with braided and plaited hair and beards: Sumerians, Ancient Egyptians, Ancient Greeks, Babylonians, Hattians, Israelites, Cilicians, Georgians, Armenians.

Beyond beauty, braids were a means of communicating. Are you married? Are you mourning? Are you looking for a date? Hair had the answer. And if you wanted to brag about your wealth and social status in a time without wifi and Instagram, you could spell that out with braids too. The act of braiding, as well, carries social importance—not just because the time it takes renders story-telling inevitable, but because of the tradition of bonding between generations that comes with passing down skills.

This research recalls Audre Lorde’s feelings associated with self-care (noting here that self-care is absolutely not limited to external treatments such as hairstyles, of course): “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”

Tending to oneself, and more specifically to ones hair, has roots in societal structures. We see this defiant public attitude represented in the 20s and 30s in Japan, where women did this thing called mimi-kakushi (it translates to “ear hiding”, and is literally that). Hair was pulled back over the ears and bunned at the nape of the neck. Soon, curls and permanent waves were also adopted. It was a pretty controversial style, since it represented Western influences that Japanese citizens were expected to firmly rebuke; the women who wore it were brave and cool.

Throughout history, hair has also been used to both reflect and subvert traditional gender expectations. The length of hair, alone, is an interesting part of its history at all different points in the timeline. Its length at one time, on one gender, can symbolise a respectable grandiose; it’s length at another time, on another gender, can symbolise complete rejection of social expectation. American sociologist Rose Weitz once proposed that the most widespread cultural rule about hair is that women’s hair must differ from men’s hair.

Dr Lauren Rosewarne, a senior lecturer in Melbourne University’s School of Social and Political Sciences, tells VICE, “Women are expected to devote extensive energies and financial resources into beauty labour, but for men to do so is considered vain, if not feminising.” She adds, “Men in our culture are expected to not want to be like women and part of this is to not overtly engage in the same beauty practices as them.”

We have the anecdotal protest story of Francis Russell, the 5th Duke of Bedford. Back in the Neoclassical days somewhere in the later part of the 18th century, men started cutting their hair short in solidarity with the Duke, who fashioned his hair in protest against a tax on hair powder. The story goes that he actually made his associates pay a fine if they were caught wearing their hair long and powdered.

In the ‘50s, conservative Western women were heading to the salon nearly every week to have their bouffants perfected. This alone reflects attitudes toward time and money post-war, but also sets a benchmark for the next generation to cast their rebellion. The younger, increasingly outspoken versions of these women soon adapted the look into the beehive—a more chaotic copy of the bouff that reflected their no-rules frame of mind. But, by the ‘60s, these young women had moved on from challenging their mothers by way of premeditated flyaways and started to take on gender norms with the pixie cut.

Flash to the ‘80s. In a decade of excess, even the most apathetic voter could be seen with Jheri curls, pomade-heavy slick backs, and Elvis-inspired waves. But it was England’s punk rebellion that ignored the gender binary almost completely. No matter your gender, it had to be up and out, shaved and spiked, and anything but your natural colour. One of the tallest mohawks to date clocks in at 3 feet and 8.6 inches, and took three cans of hairspray and a large bottle of gel to keep it upright. Perhaps the most macabre part of this story is the style’s origins in the stock market boom—when young people had the money to experiment with their hair more frequently than they experimented with their identities, which is not very punk when you think about it.

Using punk attitude as a segue to talk about blonde hair, Debbie Harry had a fair crack at stripping it of its impotence and ridicule. She took cat calls hurled at her from truckers and shoved them right back. As she stood in front of her bandmates, eye to eye with a scene that largely gave its space and attention to men, she called her group Blondie and sung about life-ruining tabloids and sex workers having relationships with police. And she did it while spanning multiple genres more than successfully.

Funnily enough, the origin story of blonde hair involves genetic mutation, which sounds arguably less sexy than the platinum descriptor itself. And, to negate any blonde stereotypes, the mutation is only skin deep. A study led by Stanford University a few years ago found that blonde hair is the result of a teensy genetic mutation—a single letter change from an A to G, which is minuscule when you think about the 3 billion letters in the book of human DNA.

“This is a great biological example of how traits can be controlled, and what a superficial difference blond hair colour really is,” David Kingsley, a professor of developmental biology who led the research, told National Geographic. So, for example, Marilyn Monroe’s affliction of ‘dumb blonde’ via her public character is not only unjust given her wit and cunningness, but it’s also very unscientific.

Hair’s message is in constant flux and its potential is historically boundless. And that’s just hair on the head—you can get deep on lasers and merkins in your own time because that’s a whole other story.