Akshaya Bhutkar

cw: reference to Holocaust

Hair is an extension of our identity. Just as a tree nurtures and spreads its roots around its home, hair grows, protects, and translates elements of our expression to the world. Whether it is for purely aesthetic or practical reasons, everyone chooses to groom and maintain their hair in a certain manner. Hair is a powerful symbol — an extension of our identity, attitudes, and beliefs. It’s a domain where we can express our individuality, conform to uniformity, or show involvement in a specific culture or lifestyle.

Hair, like other aspects of personal appearance and decoration, has always been subject to changing fashions. In the same way that perms were once the height of style 30 years ago, trends come and go, and often changes in popular hairstyles reflect a broader contextual. In the late 90s, Jennifer Anniston’s short bob was coined “The Rachel”, after her character in Friends, and the style was quickly duplicated by many. However, while trends in fashion are swept out with the change of a season, hair trends tend to move at a much slower rate, somewhat due to factors such as hair growth and maintaining healthy hair.

Hair health aside, personal identity is heavily linked to hair, and this is probably the most significant factor that slows hair trends. Hair is literally apart of our body, unlike clothes and shoes, which can be tried, tested, and discarded. It forms part of our physical attributes in the same way the colour of our eyes and the shape of our nose do. Though hair can be easily modified, unlike most other physical attributes, certain styles and cuts frame our face, and can become a fundamental part of who we are. Ultimately, any changes to our hair affect our sense of self.

Inasmuch as hair acts as a personal identifier, it is also inextricably linked to notions of gender, race, and religion. Choosing to cover our hair, or wear it in a particular way, can be linked to religious customs. Headscarves, turbans, and other head-coverings are linked to Islam and Sikhism. In Hinduism, a series of hair rituals are performed from birth to death, and long thick hair is associated with feminine beauty. Spiritual connections to hair are also held by cultural groups in Africa. For them, the head is the centre of control, communication, and identity — and thus, they believe hair to be a source of power.

Hair’s profound potential has also been recognised by radical political groups and throughout history many have used its power to make symbolic statements. In the 1960s, many African-Americans rejected the styling practices that sought to relax and straighten their hair in favour of more natural styles, such as the afro. It was a simple choice of hairstyle that also revealed their support for the Black Power and Civil Rights Movement. Today, Black women’s hair continues to be political, as an unattainable European standard of beauty prevails — based on oppressive structures and unrealistic ideas. All the while, Black hairstyles like cornrows and weaves continue to be adopted by non-Black individuals participating in violent and ignorant appropriation.

The removal of hair — deliberate or not — is just as powerful as its presence. Shaved heads being used as an intentional tool to weaken individual identity and inflict uniformity. US army recruits are routinely subject to crew cuts, and the loss of individuality is a core element of initial training. More violently, during the Holocaust the heads and bodies of individuals forced into concentration camps were shaved so as to further dehumanise them. Hair removal was also used as a punishment amongst women believed to be associated with ‘the enemy’ after WWII. Women being forced to have their head shaved also reflects the historical and ongoing gendering of hair.

Traditionally in Western society, men have short hair while women keep theirs long. When long hair is so commonly associated with femininity, the notion of a woman choosing to have short hair can be a political statement; a powerful woman deciding not to succumb to the patriarchy’s fear of scissors. The correlation between women with short hair and liberation first began with female communists and soldiers in China. They adopted a short bob cut just below the ears — a hairdo that was symbolic of women taking control of their own lives.

Expression of identity, belief, values, and lifestyle through hair is an act that everyone takes part in, to an extent far beyond fashion and styling. Even choosing not to have hair is a choice, and can be a statement in itself. Hair is powerful, meaningful, and symbolic. It stays with you all day, and all throughout your life — expressing, shielding, and supporting you. Hair is an integral part of who you are.