Is Our Identity Tied Up In Our Hair?
Ever cried at a haircut? One Restless writer investigates how important our hair really is
I’ve had the same hairstyle since I was 17, and I turned 25 this month. It would be foolish of me to say anything other than I have been very consistent with my chosen hairstyle. You may recall in July, if you were in Europe, that we had a heatwave with the mercury rising to a cosy 38.1°C. Amid this sweat inducing weather, I had a scheduled haircut. I was hot, bothered and generally irritable; which lead to me agreeing to get three inches cut.
I will be honest, it felt amazing, but as the lengths fell to the floor, I couldn’t help but feel a tiny bit sick. You see my hair is my safety net, my first defence, if you will. I attribute a large amount of my character and sense of self to the tresses on my head. If I woke up tomorrow and for some reason had lost all my hair, I would feel stricken with loss. My hair is a huge part of my identity.
In a recent conversation with fellow Restless writer Beth Ashley, I realized just how much my hair meant to me. As a queer non-binary person, my visible identity does a huge amount of talking on my behalf. In essence, my outward appearance should be the stage directions to my personality. Yet, until I had a change, I never really realized just how much my hair meant to me.
Looking at the pile of faded ends, did I see myself, or the idea of what it means to be me? Visual identity is a big part of all our lives, but when you sit and think about it, you begin to question why things are this way.
To understand why our hair means so much to us, it is a good idea to look through time. Early history shows us that hair has long been seen as a status symbol. The richest Egyptians, would themselves have shaved heads but would spend a literal fortune on sourcing hair for wigs. The more money you had, the bigger, more exotic your hairpiece would be. Fancy!
Unmarried women in the middle ages and into the Tudor period, were expected to show their hair as a symbol of their pure status as virgins. Married women would cover their hair with a hood and veil. This covering was for modesty, their hair was now no longer needed to snag a man. In essence, the visibility of hair showed your eligibility for reproduction, thus hair was not for women at all.
Heading into the Georgian period, hair is all about pomp and circumstance. If Arianna Grande turned up to a dance with her sleek pony, she would be a social outcast. Anything goes, the bigger the better; fruit, feathers, horsehair, wax, powder, padding and perfume. As long as it caused a stir, your hair was a winner.
Fast forward to the 20th century, and hair becomes a way to express your sentiment towards society. Whether you were a flapper of the 20s, subverting gender roles, had a fresh bob in the 60s to show your modernity or a punk in the 80s flipping off the government. In living history, hair has become a huge part of what we stand for.
In western society, longer hair is often attributed to the feminine end of the gender scale, and vice versa for short hair. For the longest time growing up, I urged my hair to grow, coveting the luscious locks of Lucius Malfoy in the Harry Potter film franchise. This sounds ridiculous, but I wanted my shoulders to feel the weight of my lengths.
I didn’t realize then that I was craving a break from stereotypes and the binary norm. Now, as I sit here writing this at 25, I have crafted a hairstyle, with the help of my stylist of 10 years, that I feel expresses my stance on this world; individuality. The fear I felt when I saw those 3 inches fall to the floor is very similar to thinking you’ve lost your keys, a sickening jolt of terror.
We are all individual, and the parts of our outward appearance that we can control allow us to tell the world who we are, and what we stand for. In a world of growing unrest, and political turbulence, to stand proud with an appearance that sits anywhere out of the norm, is an act of defiance. It is more than defiant, it is brave.
Is our identity tied up in our hair?
I am not the only one who holds their hair dear to them, for Ellie Conner Phillips, EIC of 5.18 Magazine, her natural redhead status has always been her joy.
“It has always been something that made me feel special – the only redhead in the family for a generation or two. All my life I’ve loved my hair, felt it was part of my identity. The colour was always mine, even when everyone around me believed it was dyed – largely due to it’s changing colour over the seasons. I’ve also felt pressure from my family telling me to never dye it, for fear of ruining it. I’d become so accustomed to the rhetoric I adopted it as fact until I realised that a) I could not be ruined even if my hair was, and b) life wasn’t about what lasts – nothing lasts. So, at my last haircut, I went for bright orange accents to enhance my natural colour – and I love it. If anything I feel more of a redhead than I did before. I guess what I’m trying to say is redhead is a state of mind. There are parts of your identity that seem visual, or physical, but are just part of you and won’t leave even if they physically change.”
For trans-non-binary artist Tao Gadd, their hair is an ever-changing emotion. “For something that is so immediately noticeable, hair is an intricately personal form of expression. It’s something that gives us control over how we are perceived by others, making it a very powerful tool. In my life, hair has been used to say fuck it or fuck you. Right now, I’m living my teddy boy fantasy but I’ve been feeling the urge to change things up. I’m torn between saying fuck it and shaving it all off again, or saying fuck you to society and growing it out.”
It is quite obvious to a whole new generation that there is space in society for variations, for unique thought processes and new viewpoints. Growing up I had no one I could look up to, no role models that would inform my identity. I couldn’t relate, thus I existed in a state of confusion, where did I belong, who was I? For people like myself that have now well and truly found their stride, we can be the role models for future generations.
The only way we can ever expect to evolve into a stronger species, is if we allow and celebrate change and diversity. Thus my reticence to lose some of my visual identity via scissors was well founded. We need more people to assert their unique nature, wherever and however they chose to show it.We need to see so much more diversity, whether its in the media, in CEOs, or the government. By celebrating, promoting and living the concept that being exactly who you are, we can reduce hate crimes, create a stronger community in our society, and exist in a more peaceful world. So you see, our hair really does matter.
Yet, even if I had no hair at all, I would still have my identity, I don’t think I could ever lose it, I would still be me. So who knows, maybe a hair cut is on the horizon.