Hair and Hairstyles

In humans hair grows thickest mainly on the head-with the development of body hair on the genitals, underarms, and face (for males) signifying sexual maturity. The reason for hair growing mainly on the head may very well have to do with the evolution of our upright posture on the hot savannahs of Africa as hair protects and insulates the head (and brain) from the sun. Our relative bodily hairlessness helped keep us cool in the heat of the noonday African sun though goose-bumps are a visible vestige of our evolutionary hairiness. Goose-bumps make the hair stand on end and, when we were fully furry, would have provided us with an insulating layer of air beneath the fur.

On average there are over one hundred thousand strands of hair on a young adult. Blondes average about 140,000 strands, brunettes average 108,000 and redheads average 90,000. Hair grows at a rate of about 150mm a year and each individual hair lasts for two to six years before it falls out, the follicle has a rest for a while, while another takes its place. Hair grows quickest in young adult women aged between sixteen and twenty-four (who are often then at the height of their possible reproductive capacity).

The quality and appearance of hair is influenced by overall health and diet as would be expected. Anorexics who starve themselves often have very fine, brittle hair deficient in various minerals. Hair conveys information about a person and their state of health-analysis of the hair can also tell what drugs they have taken. Long hair obviously suggests at least a recent history of good health.

Hair and hairstyles have a complex meaning and long history. The famous Ice-Age statuettes known as the Venus of Willendorf and of Brassempouy show clear evidence of stylised hair and these may be 30,000 years old. These statuettes reveal a complex social organization and tell us that at least some women in the society took care about how their hair looked. This tells us that these prehistoric people had a concept of beauty or attractiveness. Considerable labour went into the hairstyle and the woman could not have done it all herself. There are also small clay figurines from Butmir in Bosnia illustrating short, neatly combed hair and these are up to 7.000 years old. Take a look at COSMETICS, STYLES & BEAUTY CONCEPTS IN IRAN by Massoume Price. This is an interesting historical overview of cosmetics and beauty concepts in the ancient Middle East with particular reference to Persia (Iran). The article has some very good photos of ancient statues revealing hairstyles from 3000 BC.

The Ancient Egyptians took considerable time over their appearance and beauty and cleanliness were very important to them. In their graves we find combs and hairpins. They thought thick hair was best and used hair extensions and wigs made of real hair or sheep’s wool. They even dyed their hair and wigs a variety of colours with blues, greens, blondes and gold colours being among the preferred colours though black wigs hued by indigo were the favorite. Wealthy Egyptians had personal barbers who would come to their homes. They also used cosmetics and body oils.

Hair extensions are increasing in popularity today though an article in The Times on February 12, 2004 was rather disquieting. Elle McPherson, Victoria ‘Posh Spice’ Beckham and Kylie Minogue have all helped to popularise the fashion for hair extensions. Hair salons are charging up to £2000 (nearly $4000) for long hair extensions to women who don’t want to have to wait while their hair grows. But where is this hair coming from? According to The Times some of it may very well be coming from female Russian prisoners whose hair is being forcibly cut off and sold by unscrupulous warders as a lucrative business on the side. As Lyudmila Alpern, who is a deputy director for the Moscow Centre for Prison Reform, was quoted, “If you go into a detention centre with long, beautiful hair, there is little chance you’ll come out with it intact.” Previously the hair from hair extensions came from Asia as Chinese and Japanese hair is both soft and strong but a major British importer of hair, Trendco, acknowledged that much more hair is coming from Russian and Tibetan sources. The Times reports that some manufacturers of artificial hair extensions are decrying the practice as immoral.

Some cultures consider women’s long hair to be so sexually provocative that it (and they, sometimes,) have to be covered up. (Poor men-just like children who can’t control their impulses). Tightly-controlled hair which has been rolled, curled, and sprayed suggests a controlled woman-meaning, especially, one who controls her sexuality or perhaps one whose sexuality is controlled. But women can style their hair in such a way as to convey many different emotions. Take Margaret Thatcher for instance. Her hair could be described as a combative helmet. There is nothing sexy about it. Nothing that invites anyone to run their fingers through it. It doesn’t suggest a woman who is controlled by others but suggests a woman who forcefully controls others. The Iron Lady of British politics looks as if her hair well suits her character. A Farrah Fawcett or Dolly Parton look just would not do.

Other cultures consider hairstyles to be a sign of control and civilisation. For instance, among the Temne of Africa it can take hours or days to fashion a hairstyle. The fine rows of the hairstyle are a symbolic representation of the cultivation of the land and thus indicate civilisation. These hairstyles are termed ‘cornrows.’ The adornment and grooming of the hair, the tidying of it, indicates a distancing from the immediately natural as do ideas of cleanliness. It is a civilizing process and making it clear that hair is not animal fur. This idea about hair has links with psychotherapeutic treatment in that hair in the patient’s dreams often symbolizes thoughts so that the grooming of hair has the meaning of the tidying and ordering of thought processes-that is, the psychotherapeutic process. This idea of the grooming of hair as civilizing is interesting when juxtaposed with the observations of Bernal Diaz, a conquistador, who was with Cortes. He describes the high priests of the Aztecs who bloodily sacrificed so many, as having long, uncombed hair which was matted with blood. Their place of sacrifice was blood-spattered and, according to Diaz, stank worse than any slaughterhouse in Spain. The lack of grooming of the priests may have unconsciously symbolized their identification with nature in its most savage aspects.

Among the Polynesians of the Pacific, the first time a boy’s hair is cut is one way in which his coming of age is marked. It may also be a way in which he is now differentiated from women. Hair is thought to contain the mana or power and so the cutting of hair is a risky business. To mark this special occasion the women of the Cook Islands drape tivaevae, specially decorated quilts, about the room. These tivaevae may be given as gifts to mark special occasions such as this haircutting ceremony.

The “natural history” of hair repeats the cycle of nature-civilization-return to nature. Hair grows and dies. If it is not groomed it returns to its natural state-much like an abandoned city reclaimed by the jungle. The typical image of the wild man is not someone who grooms their hair but has let it revert to its natural, unkempt state.

As nearly everyone knows the most popular colour of hair for women in the US is blonde-there are apparently nearly 500 different shades of blonde hair-colouring. The popularity of blonde hair is not merely the influence of Western advertising. Ancient Egyptian, Greek, and Roman women, who were not naturally fair-skinned, all wore blonde wigs though those of the Egyptians were made of gold. Both the super-model Naomi Campbell and Tina Turner have worn blonde wigs.

Do blondes have more fun? Well, they are supposed to-the more fun having the ambiguous meaning of fun with and fun for males. The popular stereotype is that blondes are not very bright and are submissive (to men). Though, this stereotype is capable of being transformed ironically. Madonna, one of the most famous blondes of our times, might be described as sexy but who would describe her as submissive or dumb?

Very little has been said about male baldness here. The majority of men over fifty are affected by male pattern baldness (androgenetic alopecia) and, apparently, over 60% of men with extensive baldness report that they have experienced negative social responses because of it. Women with baldness suffer even more. The most popular cosmetic surgery for men is hair transplant and restoration. Generally speaking, most men don’t like it though about 30% of men start to lose their hair by the time they are 30. It seems to have be associated with loss of strength and potency in people’s minds. Think of Samson and Delilah and how he lost his strength once shorn of his locks. The truth is rather different-eunuchs castrated before puberty never go bald (though this is a drastic remedy which most bald men are pleased did not retrospectively take place) and men often go bald due to an excess of testosterone the male hormone associated with both male sexuality and aggression.

A real bad hair day figures prominently in the Inuit myth of Sedna, the Sea-woman, who is the custodian of seals, whales and narwhals. If humans have violated the souls of the animals Sedna’s hair is dirtied and the animals remain entangled in her dirty hair until a shaman descends to her home at the bottom of the sea. The shaman has to comb Sedna’s hair to set free the animals so that they can be hunted otherwise the people may starve.

Having a bad hair day?


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