I recently made the conversion from long hair to short, donating to Locks of Love. Several years back, I cut my hair into a pixie cut after almost ten years of never cutting it above my shoulders. I would not be alone if I were to say that I did it with some trepidation both times. When I cut it the first time, I was single and I noticed a very distinct difference in how men treated and reacted towards me (until I met my SO whom is far from shallow and supportive of my decision). One particular word stands out to women when they cut their hair short: “butch”. I had a friend who, while she was wearing a skirt, was called a boy because she had such short hair. Conversely, there is also a negative view of men who have long hair, often called or assumed to be “hippy freaks” (I have known several men with longer hair, all who looked dashing). Our culture has done a notorious job of conforming people to one particular hairstyle for both men and women: women must have long luscious locks and men must have a suave short haircut. There is, however, a rather long history to hairstyles and the symbolism behind them that I hope will encourage anyone to feel free to do whatever tickles your fancy with your hair.
Hair, like clothes, was often an accessory in ancient civilizations used to mark social status. In Egypt, youths would have a clean shaven head with a piece of hair called the “Lock of Youth”. It would remain this style until they came of age. For adults, the styles varied from long to short to clean shaven. Both men and women frequently wore wigs if hair was clean shaven to protect from the sun. Furthermore, as one site suggests, common women wore their own hair, but women of higher status would wear wigs made of both human and animal hair. These wigs were often dyed various colors such as: green, blond, gold and blue. Hairstyles were later used to distinguish between the Old and New Kingdoms: women from the Old Kingdoms wore their hair short while women from the New Kingdom wore their hair long.
Photo by Grafixar
As with the Egyptians, Greeks used hairstyles to delineate social status. In contrast, Greek women grew their hair long and often dyed is blonde as a way to signify purity, desirability, and divinity. Hairstyles varied between Athens and Sparta: women in Athens wore their hair in ringlets pulled back in a chignon while the women of Sparta preferred a ponytail. Due to their obsession with appeasing deities, the Greeks were one of the first civilizations to develop methods of lightening hair.
Moving on to the East, we see more influence of Egyptian culture. Have you ever watched a Bollywood film? I’m sure you would expect me to discuss how incredibly long and gorgeous Indian women’s locks were back then. Well, I must disappoint you. As with Egypt, during the Vedic period, Indians shaved their head leaving a single lock at the back or side of the head. This was used to depict a high social status, until later in history when it was reserved for monks only. Once the Vedic period ends, however, a Greek influence blanketed Indian hairstyles and the hair became longer and curlier.
In China, as in Greece, women grew their hair long; but, it was not for the same reason. Chinese women saw their hair as a family inheritance and thus refused to cut it. Girls and unmarried women were marked by their long, braided hair. Married women wore their hair tied up with a loose curl. In Japan, hair was similarly kept long, but it was not used to denote marital status. Instead, women often wore their hair back in a ponytail or bun decorated with various combs, flowers and ribbons. There is some speculation that cutting a woman’s hair to a shorter length began in Asia, possibly Japan, to signify banishment and rejection. Today, people often consider it a way to dismiss the past, to start anew.
In Africa, the hairstyles were as varied as the tribes. Some dyed their hair, others shaved their head, and yet others braided their hair into a cone. As with Egyptians, hair often symbolized status, age and even denoted tribes and faith. During 1600-1700s, during the enslavement of many Africans, Europeans shaved individual’s heads, removing a large part of their identity. There was a time in modern American history, due to white stereotypes, that African Americans began assimilating their hairstyles to white culture in order to be more readily accepted. Today, we see more beautiful diversity in African American hairstyles from fros to braids to cornrows. For many, again, it has become an essential part of identity as much as one’s name.
Last, we come back to America, but not with Euro-Americans. Native Americans varied in their hairstyles as much as Africans and not all were Pocahontas-like (a.k.a Disney version). Some tribes in the east shaved their head minus a section along the crown. Other tribes wore their hair long in braids. Some in the southwest braided their hair and then twisted it into a chongo. Hopi women who were unmarried wore distinct hairstyles known as squash blossom or butterfly whorls. Somewhat unique, some Native American tribes viewed hair as a symbol of spiritual health. If it was cut, then it would be the same as to physically damage that spirit. There were few times it was considered appropriate (depending on the tribe) to cut hair: during war, childhood and mourning. Similar to African history, with the introduction of Europeans, Native Americans lost a large part of their identity when children were forced to cut their hair when entering schools.
As you can see, hairstyles, like the people that wore them, come from a varied and remarkable history. If, like me, you have had anxiety about chopping all your hair off or doing something different, don’t let someone’s identity of that style limit you. As you can see above, hairstyles can have many different meanings. For me, cutting my hair was liberating in the sense that I moved away from what other people thought and it is a way for me to express my identity as a unique individual. Always remember to have fun and be yourself, it’s your hair and your identity!
- http://www.ukhairdressers.com/history%20of%20hair.asp (Ancient Civilizations)
- http://www.onislam.net/english/culture-and-entertainment/history/412849-ancient-egyptian-beauty-secrets.html (Egypt)
- http://historylink101.com/n/egypt_1/a-hair_styles.htm (Egypt)
- http://www.morbidoutlook.com/fashion/historical/2004_04_greekhair.html (Greece)
- http://thehistoryofthehairsworld.com/old_age_1.html (Ancient Civilizations)
- http://saidididntwantone.tumblr.com/post/15823933810/cutting-off-hair-in-ancient-asia-japan-china (Japan, China)
- http://www.aaregistry.org/historic_events/view/black-hair-care-and-culture-story (African American)
- http://understandingblackhair.com/our-history/ (Africa)
- http://www.native-languages.org/hair.htm (Native American)
- http://discussions.mnhs.org/10000books/q-why-do-indians-have-long-hair/ (Native American)
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