A snippet of the history of hair.
I’ve been thinking about hair recently. There’s a little story to behind every hairstyle I find, and it made me think about the social history of hair. Consider the Afro hairstyle for example; it used to be a marker of status and identity (maybe because it requires a lot of care?) in pre-colonial African societies and turned into an important symbol for black pride during the sixties in the US. The history of the Afro as a whole is really interesting and is something I think everyone should know something about.
Head-shaving as a punishment also has a place in the history of the Afro. Cutting or shaving off someone’s hair is interesting because while it seems like a odd punishment it makes a lot of sense when you think about what hair symbolized. When the slave ships came to Africa, the people who were taken as slaves had their hair shaved off as a way of dehumanize them (and avoid head lice). Head-shaving as a punishment (mainly for women) goes all the way back the bible:
Any man who prays or prophesies with something on his head disgraces his head, but any woman who prays or prophesies with her head unveiled disgraces her head–it is one and the same thing as having her head shaved. For if a woman will not veil herself, then she should cut off her hair; but if it is disgraceful for a woman to have her hair cut off or to be shaved, she should wear a veil. (NRSV,1 Corinthians 11:3-10)
It’s not a big surprise that head-shaving was a common punishment for women who were accused of committing adultery during the dark ages. In the previous season of American Horror Story, one of the characters got her hair cut off as a punishment for supposedly being a necrophiliac. I think photos of the public head-shaving of women during and after WW2 are one of the most telling depictions of hair as a symbol of social status and identity. That’s not even mentioning the incredibly fucked up logic behind shaving a woman’s head just because she stood accused of having relations or even just worked with Nazis.
Something worth noting is that while some male “collaborators” had their head shaved, it was mostly women standing accused and punished by head-shaving. Shaving off a woman’s hair is undoubtedly different from shaving off a man’s head, which ties back to the bible quote posted above.
A woman’s hair was seen as a symbol of her femininity and beauty. Just think about the media reactions when Britney Spears shaved off her hair during her public breakdown. The famous bob cut, for example, isn’t just any hairstyle, but goes back a century to Irene Castle, whose short bob cut (and reactions that followed) played a role in the change in norms and attitudes against women in the 1920ies. Women were supposed to have long hair and men short; something that also caused a controversy when it became a fashion fad for men to grow out their hair. You would think that we would have moved on from that notion today, but just ask a few short-haired women about whether they have faced any prejudice due to their short hair and I’m sure most of them would say yes. A lot of (dumb) people still associate short hair on women with homosexuality, hatred of men and a lack of femininity. You would think people would know better in this day and age!
I’ve just mentioned a couple of hair related history snippets, but of course there is a whole lot more to be found for those that are interested. Dreads, the controversy of wearing veils, the business behind buying hair extensions made from Indian hair and different tribes that never cut their hair are all fascinating. If there was a book that just dealt with the history of hair, I would most likely buy it. If there isn’t, dibs on writing it.
Have a lovely evening, everyone!
Some links/sources if you want to read more: