The symbolic meaning of hair, as a prominent feature of human appearance, has played a significant role in the expression of identity, status, and beliefs across cultures and epochs.
In current times it is an expressive medium that each of us shapes to silently communicate our attitudes toward self and others. What do you want your hair to say? Heading out on the town with bed-head might display a carefree indifference to others’ judgments. A carefully quaffed style on prom night might say, “I’m a mature adult now.” Tracing hair’s influence helps us understand underlying psychological patterns that inform our understanding of this powerful symbol.
The significance of hair across time may initially seem irrelevant, yet it can tell us much about ancient values that still influence our self-presentation. Most of us have hair, a remarkably malleable medium, unlike our fingers or feet. It constantly grows so it can be shaped and reshaped over a life span. These universals suggest that hair is also an archetype.
Hair cutting often plays a part in rites of passage. Do a YouTube search on ‘babies first haircut’ and watch how intense the experience can be for both the child and parents. The natural and untouched first locks carry qualities of original innocence, and submitting them to a first cut symbolizes the beginning of many accommodations to the prevailing culture. Because we naturally feel identified with our hair, its voluntary removal can act as a sacrifice. Monks and nuns, in specific orders, shave their heads as a sign of submitting their instincts to religious restraints and returning to an original purity.
Since hair mysteriously grows from our skin, it has often been viewed as an extension of our body, like a limb. It is invested with a kind of primal magic that we feel when we rediscover a lock of our baby’s hair in a keepsake. Literally and figurately, it is an artifact of who they were at a specific moment in time. It defies decay and remains relatively intact on ancient mummies and in Victorian lockets. It is as if part of the body lives on even when separated from it.
Throughout history, hair has functioned as a symbol of rebellion and resistance against social norms. The countercultural movements of the 1960s and 1970s, for instance, saw the rise of long hair and facial hair as a sign of nonconformity and protest against the establishment. Refusing to cut our hair and letting it grow wild and free can coincide with casting off sexual restraints and returning to refreshing natural instincts. Hair continues to serve as a potent symbol of self-expression and defiance in contemporary society, as evidenced by the popularity of alternative hairstyles such as punk, goth, and emo subcultures.
Body hair carries many projections and may be seen as virtuous or demonic depending on the spirit of the times. Our hairy humble brethren, animals, often covered in hair, were once revered as divine and later demonized as dangerous by virtue of their unrestrained impulses. Distancing ourselves from animality through shaving, hiding, or plucking hair ebbed and flowed. In the early 20th century, lack of body hair was associated with feminine beauty, higher moral character, and substantial beards, a sign of masculine virility. The controversial association of hair with sexuality is ingrained in the oppressive tradition of veiling or covering women’s hair in various religious contexts. The practice of covering hair is rooted in the belief that a woman’s hair possesses an alluring power and is concealed to maintain modesty and honor.
In many cultures, hair carries spiritual potency. Sampson, the dread adversary of the Philistines, confessed, “No razor has ever been used on my head…because I have been a Nazirite dedicated to God from my mother’s womb. If my head were shaved, my strength would leave me, and I would become as weak as any other man.” His hair seemed to connect him to God, and its removal left him a prisoner. Heracles helps a friend defend their city with a single Gorgon’s hair, and the ancient Greek philosopher Apollodorus describes mythic characters killed by plucking out a single life-sustaining hair. Sikhism prohibits cutting hair because it is a natural gift from God and wrapping it in a turban is a sign of virtue.
Hair has long served as a marker of identity and social status, with different hairstyles and adornments reflecting one’s rank, tribe, or occupation. In ancient Egypt and Rome, elaborate wigs were a sign of wealth and social standing. Feudal Japan reserved the chonmage, or topknot hairstyle, for samurai, signifying their warrior caste. In medieval times letting hair flow down one’s body, like Rapunzel, signaled women were available for marriage. That fairy tale highlights the symbolism of hair as a means of seduction and sexual awakening. The heroine’s hair serves as a bridge between her tower-bound existence and the outside world, ultimately leading to her union with the prince.
In cinema, hair often functions as a visual shorthand for a character’s identity, growth, or transformation. In My Fair Lady, as Eliza Dolittle integrates high culture, her mop of locks eventually become a queenly work of art topped with a tiara. In “Les Misérables,” Jean Valjean undergoes a dramatic change in appearance, including cutting his hair and beard, to symbolize his transition from convict to a redeemed man of virtue. This transformation echoes the theme of rebirth, in which the shedding of hair signifies the casting off of one’s old self and the emergence of a new identity.
From the political outrage displayed in colorful punk rock spiked hair, to a baby’s soft curling locks, from the painstaking intricate braids and coils of Mesopotamian royalty’s hair to our grandmother’s beehive hairdos, hair continues to fascinate us. It is called to speak for us at first sight and has served as a canvas for expression and communication, reflecting the diverse beliefs, values, and identities of those who wear it.
~ Joseph R. Lee
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