I know a woman with four daughters. They all have thick lustrous hair down to their waists. Most days they braid it or hold it up in a bun with the biggest hairclips you can buy. Except on Sundays, when they all wear it loose.
“My husband likes to see me and the girls with our hair loose,” says the mother. “People at church think we wear our hair out all the time.”
Their hair defines their femininity like nothing else. It also expresses their belief in dressing to please the man of the house. This demonstrates some of the most significant cultural meanings attached to women’s hair: hair as performing femininity and hair designed to attract/please the male gaze.
Women have always invested a large portion of their emotional energy in their hair. They regularly alter its colour and length, often in accordance with their mood. They are devastated by hair loss, from alopecia or chemotherapy. They use it to flirt, make a political statement, to advertise or to obscure their gender. Some women cover it completely. Some even believe it determines or demonstrates personality type. It has no nerve endings and only serves to protect the scalp from cold or sunburn. But for women, it can seem to be one of the most important parts of their body.
There are many different aspects to the significance of women’s hair – it is a symbol of honour, which is most strongly demonstrated when a woman’s hair is shaved as a deliberate act of humiliation; it can form part of a woman’s ethnic identity; it has been imbued with religious significance; and on an individual level it is one of the most common forms of self-expression.
Women’s hair as honour/shame symbol
The concept of hair as a symbol of honour dates back to ancient times. So does the forced uncovering or removal of a woman’s hair as a punishment for wrongdoing. The Old Testament method (the Sotah ritual) for determining the guilt of a woman accused of adultery involved the priest uncovering her hair, then making her drink bitter water. If she was guilty, her womb would shrivel, thus condemning her to the greatest curse of that period for a woman – infertility. (Although this trial by water sounds harsh, it may well have been a clever way to protect women from overly jealous husbands.
This idea became entrenched in almost every culture, and has persisted throughout history. When Jewish women were herded into Nazi concentration camps, their heads and entire bodies were shaved. Ostensibly a measure for preventing lice, this was a deliberate humiliation. The guards would have known the religious significance of Orthodox women covering their hair, and shaving all the women’s heads contributed to the overall dehumanisation.
“…when you all of a sudden see you bald-headed, completely shaven, you look like monkeys. Everybody looks like a monkey” recalls Auschwitz survivor Hana Mueller Bruml.
The same deliberate public humiliation was meted out to French women accused of ‘collaboration horizontale’ with the occupying Nazis. After the end of the war, they were dragged out and marched along the streets, forced to kneel while their heads were shorn to the accompanying sounds of shouts and jeers from the spectators. No one bothered to find out if all of the women were in fact guilty. Some women who lived alone were forced to accommodate a German soldier, thus giving rise to suspicion. Some were destitute and decided a sexual liaison was the only way to feed their children. “Revenge on women represented a form of expiation for the frustrations and sense of impotence among males humiliated by their country’s occupation,” explains historian Antony Beevor.
Depending on the blade and the hand motions of the person doing the shaving, it doesn’t necessarily hurt. But when a part of a woman that she considers a symbol of womanhood and an essential part of her respectability, the anguish burns deep. Her hair is her own, and no one should be allowed to take it away.
Women’s hair as (post)colonial battleground
For African (and African-American) women, hair has been a symbol of both colonial oppression and modern liberation, perhaps even more so than for Europeans. In apartheid-era South Africa, the infamous ‘pencil test’ was used to determine the race of someone who was not obviously black. If your hair held the pencil in place, you were classified as coloured and your liberties and opportunities severely curtailed. Curiously, even after the new government removed the discriminatory policies, many black women felt social pressure to straighten their hair, to ‘assimilate into newly accessible elite institutions.’ As recently as 2016, students at a prestigious Pretoria school made headlines when they protested against a ban on natural black ‘Afro’ hair. The school claimed it wanted the students to look neat and tidy, but students felt the ban had unfortunate racist overtones, and implied straight hair was superior. Hair blogger Milisuthando Bongela says that ‘some women worry that they will be passed over for promotions and relationships if they keep their hair natural. That’s because there is still a stigma around natural hair. Its harshest critics consider it to be unkempt’
Jewish women, particularly those of Ashkenazi origin, have in recent years developed a growing sense of solidarity with black women in the natural hair movement. Having naturally curly hair, they have felt more emboldened to embrace their big hair instead of trying to pass as white. It has become a significant part of their ethnic identity.
Women’s hair as ‘crowning glory’ in religion
When a woman accused of adultery was brought to Jesus for judgement, he didn’t uncover her hair or send her to the priest for the Sotah ritual prescribed in the book of Numbers. He called her accusers hypocrites and extended grace to the unnamed woman. However the idea of a woman’s hair being a symbol of honour and femininity continued to be promoted. The Apostle Paul called long hair a woman’s pride and joy and instructed women to cover their hair when praying in public. The Jewish tradition, particularly the Orthodox tradition, prescribes head coverings for married women in public. Within Christianity a head covering is also a sign of conservatism and traditionalism, being common among the Mennonite and Exclusive Brethren communities. The Koran instructs Muslim women to ‘cover and be modest’.
But even when a woman’s hair is not considered to be a particular sexual temptation, it is seen as a spiritual symbol of femininity and important in maintaining visual distinctions between the sexes and emphasizing the gender binary.
The 2017 Equip conference for evangelical Christian women in Sydney caused some controversy when one speaker suggested that women glorify God by having long hair. She believed it might be more in line with God’s good design to have long hair because (according to her) it was a visible sign of the difference between men and women in which God delighted. This is not about women being modest, it is about women being feminine and using their hair to enhance their femininity. For an intelligent counter-argument, theologian Marg Mowczko wrote a response to the conference talk which puts the Bible’s discussion on women’s hair in its historical context.
Women’s hair as an expression of her identity
Women make significant financial and emotional investments in their hair, and many have close relationships with their hairdresser. A new hairstyle often signifies a change in relationship status, and is even supposed by some to signal an imminent announcement of pregnancy!
A woman’s feelings about her hair may be complex and multi-layered. They stem from her religious beliefs, cultural and ethnic background, and even her state of mind.
Many women see the ability to maintain control over their own hair as a very important type of empowerment. Women with big or unusual hair often have to fend off people who want to touch it without permission. A hairstyle often isn’t just keeping up with fashion or part of your outfit, it is part of who you are and how you want to present yourself to the world, whether you consent to perform your femininity or not. A woman who embraces her wild curly locks may also be saying that she refuses to confine herself to a smaller space. Whether a woman has short hair, long hair or no hair, she is making a powerful personal and political statement about her identity. Ideally, this statement is not imposed on her but entirely of her own choosing.