Good Hair, Bad Hair – Part 2: Hair and Shame

Hair is both body and adornment. It’s natural presence makes it part of us, but in styling we treat it as equivalent to fashion. Hair is styled so that it has the same expressive potential as clothes (and even unstyled hair makes a statement). Some translations of the Bible describe hair as a “natural garment”[4]. Ruth Barcan observes that hair exists in a “borderline category between flesh and clothing”, and argues that it is this difficulty of classification that makes us feel uneasy about hairy bodies[5]. Barcan’s research shows that many women do not consider themselves fully naked until they have removed all of their unwanted hair.

Matthias Grunewald Resurrection 1515

Matthias Grunewald’s ‘The Resurrection’ (1515) shows that hair-free female bodies were the ideal long before Brazilian waxing.

The German word for pubic hair – schamhaar – translates into English as ‘shame-hair’[6], implying either that this hair is used to hide shameful body parts, or that the hair itself is shameful. This notion that pubic hair is considered shameful has been fostered by the laws of numerous countries, including Australia and Japan. Until 1982, Australian naturist magazines were obliged to airbrush pubic hair from their photographs. Until the 1990s, Japan’s obscenity laws banned the depiction of pubic hair with the unexpected side-effect of making the women in adult manga comics look like pre-pubescent girls [7].

When dealing with hair, there are contradictory rules for different parts of the body. Shaved underarms and long luxurious hair on the head conform to contemporary ideals of beauty and civility, but hairy underarms and a shaved head imply rebellious tendencies. Koppelman proposes that a shaved female head may be perceived as rebellious or threatening because female baldness is usually a sign of illness, or, historically, punishment[8]. From the thirteenth to sixteenth century, head shaving was one of many punishments for adultery[9]. At the end of WW2, French women had their heads shaved in punishment for conspiring with Nazis. More recently, a Japanese pop star who had spent a night with her boyfriend instead of rehearsing with the band, appeared on YouTube having shaved her head as an act of contrition. In her home country, criminals routinely have their heads shaved upon entering prison[10].

A French woman has her head shaved in punishment for collaborating with Germans, 1944. Image courtesy: Remembering History

A French woman has her head shaved in punishment for collaborating with Germans, 1944. Image courtesy: Remembering History

Advertisements highlight the constant battle that we seem to have with our hair. We seem afraid of an inability to control it. Bad hair days, or unwanted stubble, are a beauty nightmare. Whether it is styled or removed, there is an expectation that all hair is subject to some sort of control. Uncontrolled hair  – grown when it should be shaved, tangled when it should be tamed – is the biggest hair taboo.

[4] See Barcan, Ruth, Nudity: A Cultural Anatomy, (Oxford: Berg, 2004),74.
[5] Ibid. 30.
[6] Ibid. 26.
[7] Schodt, Frederik L., Dreamland Japan: Writings on Modern Manga, (Stone Bridge Press, 1996), 54-55.
[8] Koppelman, as cited in Doan, 9.
[9] Virgili, Fabrice, Shorn Women: Gender and Punishment in Liberation France, (Oxford: Berg, 2002), 182.
[10] human Rights Watch, ‘Prison Conditions in Japan’, 12.

French conspirator:

Good Hair, Bad Hair

Our love/hate relationship with hair is dependent on whether it is still attached.

Last week, I had my hair cut. While I was in the chair, I overheard the two trainees squabbling over whose turn it was to sweep the floor. It seems they felt that this job was beneath them. These women are so fond of hair that they have devoted their careers to handling it, and yet when hair is lying on the floor, detached from the head, it becomes so repulsive that they avoid it at all costs.

Hair is “both revered and reviled”[1]. In some contexts we adore it. It is fondled, envied and worshiped. In others, it provokes a feeling of revulsion. “We find it a source of shame or a case of filth… discarding it with disgust as it collects in the bottom of our sinks or bathroom drains”[2]. As soon as hair is removed from the body, it is classified alongside other bodily waste. It is classified alongside blood, urine or nail clippings, and is considered similarly unhygienic.

This perception that hair can be unhygienic extends to hair that is still attached to our bodies. Whenever it is unkempt, or sprouting from the wrong body part, it can make us feel uneasy. A hairy body seems to imply regression to a savage, animalistic state – like the Wild Man who lives in the forest [3]. In contrast, shaved or tamed hair implies intellectual advancement and civilization.

Image courtesy "Mizter H"

Image courtesy “Mizter H”

If hair trimming are considered human waste, comparable to nail clippings, it is curious that they recover their desirability when woven into wigs. Wigs and extensions made of human hair are significantly more expensive than synthetic alternatives. In some cases, a full head of someone else’s hair can be more desirable than your own. So it seems that recovered hair is cleansed of the distasteful connotations. Once it has been filtered through the creative process of wig-making, detached hair seems to regain its status as a thing of beauty.

If it is reclassified, hair is a valuable commodity. Scarcity of hair donors (particularly natural blondes) keeps the price elevated. Hair buyers flock to the poorer regions of Russia and the Ukraine to pay cash-in-hand to women who are willing to shave their heads[4]. In the West too, women have been known to sell their hair to wigmakers in times of economic hardship. With a recent boom in the popularity of extensions, thieves have been incentivized to steal hair from salons[5].

Hair detached post-mortem can have symbolic value. Braids feature in commemorative jewelry and other memento mori of the Victorian era. If there is a connection with celebrity, the hair of the dead is a historical curiosity. A single hair from John Dillinger’s death mask was sold at auction last year. Similar auctions have featured locks from George Washington and Horatio Nelson [6]

In all of these cases, the value of hair is directly affected by context. Every object “passes through different cultural contexts which may modify or even transform what it means”[7]. As with many other objects, recontextualisation of hair can diminish or increase its value, and alter our perceptions. Just as Duchamp was able elevate a urinal to the status of art by placing it in a gallery, waste hair that is gathered up from the hairdresser’s floor can be reclassified as a beauty product.

[1] Doan, Sean-Patrick, ‘After Shave: the Historical, Cultural, and Social Implications of the Shaved Body,’ (2011), 2.
[2] Park, Gloria Toyun, ‘Shave,’ Frontiers, Vol. 17, No. 2 (1996), 101.
[3] Dickason, cited in Doan, 6.
[4] Kramer, Andrew, ‘For Russia’s Poor, Blond Hair Is Snippet of Gold,’ The New York Times [online], (November 21, 2010).
[4] Williams, Timothy, ’Costly Hairstyle Is a Beauty Trend That Draws Thieves’ Notice,’ The New York Times [online], May 16, 2011.
[6] Khan, Eve, ‘Historical Hair Locks Selling at Auctions,’ The New York Times [online], (December 13 2012).
[7] Rose, Gillian, Visual Methodologies, 2nd ed., (London: Sage, 2007), 223.