I contend that hair represents power. Samson’s hair gave him superhuman strength. Medusa’s hair contributed to her power over men. Berenice’s hair, offered to Aphrodite, brought her husband home safely from war. Many Native American tribes believed that hair was a physical manifestation of thought.
From this perspective, the societal expectations for the way the hair on our heads should look rob us of some of our power. If we can’t take agency over our own hair, we do not have control over our thoughts, our loved ones, our enemies, or even the rest of our own bodies.
I’ve been chasing the Ultra Long Hair trend for about three years, trying to coax my hair to reach my waist. This goal of mine sprouted out of admiration for my older sister’s hair. She’s been setting the style stage for me my whole life, and I think her inspiration came more from Pinterest and general shift in public opinion than from a personal hair-role model. Our mother has had a pixie cut for our entire lives.
Setting aside the reality that my personal tastes have broken from society’s taste, I am now facing the undeniable fact that long curly hair is restrictive. Maintaining long hair requires buckets of time and energy. Combing, washing, conditioning, and styling can add up to over an hour per day. Hardly worth it to keep the mop on my head blowing in my face, getting stuck in bras and earrings alike, and causing soreness in my neck and arm after detangling or braiding. At a certain point, hair becomes so heavy that natural curls stretch to barely waves, and high ponytails and buns cause actual pain to the scalp. Disney never mentioned the false paradise of Rapunzel’s hair.
I do love my hair, though. I did a seventh grade project tracking the recessive curly hair gene through my family. I enjoy it, playing with it, braiding it, goofing around with humorous styles, but I’ve become weary. Just because I love my hair doesn’t mean I should let it grow until it hits the floor, splitting and catching on every tree branch and strip of Velcro along the way.
Of course, I have some challengers. If any woman mentions the idea of cutting her hair, someone within the vicinity will jump upon the opportunity to dissuade her, with increasing frequency and intensity directly proportional to the length of the hair in question. “Do not cut your hair!” “You’ll regret it!” “I wish I had hair that long!” “But your hair is so pretty!”
These commentators consistently ignore two basic facts. First, that a person’s hair has absolutely no effect on anyone else. If anything, one would think we would encourage each other to get rid of the dead protein chains hanging from our craniums, especially with the ready availability of hats that we enjoy in our society today. Second, these dissenters assume that beauty is the dominating factor to consider when choosing how to wear one’s hair, when the reality is that hair can make or break your lifestyle. Physically, hair occupies space on our bodies and time in our days. In terms of emotions and identities, hair can reflect who we are and what we feel fits us best. Even spirituality comes into play—which is part of the reason why cutting someone’s hair without their permission is considered both a hate crime and a form of assault.
I think that people get tangled up in other people’s hairdos partially because we want our loved ones to go out into the world with a fighting chance. If long hair is normal and accepted for women, if it could give any type of advantage in the job market or the dating market, than it is understandable for friends and loved ones to want that type of security for others. The main reason, though, is that we as humans are not good at handling change or deviance. For example, cropped hair for men is normal, so my older brother’s ponytail drives my parents a little crazy. To be fair, it’s not well kept. My brother doesn’t labor to keep his hair looking healthy the way my sister and I do—but he has a steady job and a steady girlfriend. He doesn’t have any first impressions to make in the near future that having long hair will affect negatively, so why do my parents and grandparents keep commenting about the way his hair looks, the low price of a basic cut, and the easy access to the clippers downstairs (“I could take care of that mop real quick for you”)? They just don’t like his hair.
More important than the mere dislike of my brother’s hair is the urge to try to fix it. If he wore an ugly t-shirt or a pair of dirty shoes to Thanksgiving, he might receive a comment or two from someone, but a negatively viewed haircut invites remarks from parents and grandparents alike, and these are received as insults. Hair choices are more personal than wardrobe choices both for the hair wearer and the critic. Hair is a part of the body, literally connected to arguably the most valuable part of that body. Furthermore, it’s not just that a critic doesn’t like the hairstyle, but that the hair wearer must be made to know that there is something unlikable about the decorations they put over their brain.
We code so much about people based on their hair: gender, sexuality, personality type, cleanliness, professionalism, and so on. We view people who follow the hair rules for their gender, occupation, and age, positively: clean, sexy, beautiful or handsome, tidy, natural. We view the abnormal predictably badly: dirty, undesirable, ugly, vain, fake, and so on. This is only the surface of the store we set in hair. Imagine it this way: if you cut your hair, or dyed it, or wore a wig that did not resemble your natural hair at all, would you speak or walk differently? Would anyone recognize you or see you differently?
Personally, I have made no drastic changes to my appearance in my adult life. I haven’t gotten any new piercings or rebelled against my parents’ wishes to get a tattoo, and I don’t do any kinds of illegal or nefarious activities on the weekend. When it comes to hair, though, I can take advantage of my agency in a way that will still probably be seen by my parents as rebellion but that is impermanent and painless. So, I donated all of my hair at a Relay for Life event in February 2016.
If I at first thought that it was worthwhile to have waist-length hair before I die, it follows that a shaved head must also be a valuable experience—at least once. Thankfully, I had a few other justifications under my belt to take home to Mom and Dad: I’d be raising funds for cancer research, and all of my hair would be made into a wig for someone who lost their hair while battling illness.
One may argue that giving a wig to women who do identify with their hair contradicts my point that the importance of hair is socially constructed. They can probably live and fight cancer and go about their daily business just as well without a wig. While I do believe that the significance of hair is entirely constructed by humans, it is important to acknowledge that just because it’s socially constructed doesn’t make it less impactful. Having a wig, free of charge, could do wonders for patients who are struggling. From lifting spirits to making them feel comfortable or like themselves again, that contribution can mean a great deal.
Furthermore, I also considered that an opportunity to acknowledge that I enjoy the luxury of growing long hair, cutting it upon my own free will. Then I could spend lots and lots of my free time just thinking about hair in general—choices that patients dealing with life-threatening conditions do not get to make.
That is the key to this hair struggle: that I am making the decision about what to do with my hair. Chemotherapy takes away patients’ hair agency, but most people don’t even realize they have that agency to begin with. The texture of your hair may be your father’s and the color may come from your mother, but your hair doesn’t belong to the people who helped you grow it or the people who have to look at it.
Hair should be an emblem of agency, a source of stone-cold confidence, yours to give or covet. You lean upon the temple walls to crush the Philistines not with a passive experience of your hair but active expression through it. Hair is the product of your mind; what’s on top of your head as rightly belongs to you as what’s inside your head.
Kaitlyn Shirey (She/Her/Hers) is 20 years old, and currently studying Creative Writing and Mathematics at Chatham University. She has previously been published in The Doctor T.J. Eckleburg Review.