Last week, a woman who used to be my neighbour complimented me on my look, saying that I looked younger with the longer hair. I smiled and thanked her. It got me thinking about the times in the last three or four years that I’ve been asked why I didn’t cut my hair to a more sensible length. At 49, it seems that below shoulder length hair is a bit too young for me, although my hair is healthy and looks nice because I do highlights every three months to keep it looking good.
Why are people so interested in the length of women’s hair? Why does what I do to my hair cause any reaction at all? I am not famous nor a trendsetter. I am, however, going counter to what many women my age in my area are doing by not only not cutting my hair to a more ‘manageable’ length but by questioning why they consider that it is the right thing to do to cut your hair when you’re a certain age and/ or a mother.
Cristen Conger, a journalist whose expertise lies in women and gender, tells us that men’s hair length has fluctuated throughout history depending on who is in power and other social/political factors while women’s hair length has generally been long. Men’s hair length has been a sign of wealth and power, sometimes long hair being a sign of wealth and sometimes short hair being a sign of wealth; honestly it depends on who is in power.
The fact that male hair length has fluctuated in the past probably contributes to the fact that men with longer hair do not experience such drastic disapproval when they have longer hair. Things started to change in 1795, when the general trend for male hair length started getting shorter. This change was due to taxes on wig powder and men going off to war frequently (short hair means less lice).
Women, on the other hand, have historically had long hair until the early 20th century. Why is this? Cogner tells us the simple answer is sex. Long hair on females is seen as a signal of a woman’s youth, general health, and reproductive potential. On top of that, there are religious and cultural forces at work here. Take a look at this quote in the Bible:
1 Corinthians 11:5-6, “But every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head—it is the same as having her head shaved. 6 For if a woman does not cover her head, she might as well have her hair cut off; but if it is a disgrace for a woman to have her hair cut off or her head shaved, then she should cover her head.”
1 Corinthians 11:14-15: “Does not the very nature of things …that if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For long hair is given to her as a covering.
Short hair on women became popular with the flappers in the 1920’s, who prided themselves on being liberated, countercultural, and forward thinking. Since then, women cutting their hair short has been seen as a political statement, as a sign of freedom and liberation, and as a sign of feminism. It was a sign of rebeliousness. Cutting your hair is a sign of a change looming. It can be a sought after development or it can be something that you do to fit in a specific group. Many women cut their hair to signal a major shift in their lives: the end of a relationship, the end of a specific cycle, which in turn bring new beginnings.
I’ve encountered, nevertheless, that it is also closely related in many instances to motherhood which is biologically the most womanly function of the female body. It would appear that once you have become a mother, your femaleness should be curtailed and submitted to your function as a mother. It is a process of defeminisation, understood as the removal of certain female characteristics to prevent an aspect of female development from manifesting. In this way it would be a means of downplaying female traits. In short, once a mother, society demands that you forgo at least certain aspects of your identity in favour of others which are deemed more important. Once you’re a mother, your sexuality should diminish at least outwardly because you have already reaped the greatest reward it offers your gender: childbearing. Thus, women cut their hair to signify that they are not available or on display for any purpose or intent other than raising their children. In cutting their ‘feathers’, they cut their most important outward signifier of femininity, the one that they can change at will with little hassle and no danger to their health. All this is only done for apparently practical reasons. The seriousness of motherhood is in command.
This is the modern Western version of women covering their hair in public which is still practised in many Eastern cultures. In many cultures, often for religious reasons, women’s hair is covered while in public, and in some, such as Haredi Judaism or European Orthodox communities, women’s hair is shaved or cut very short, and covered with wigs. Only since the end of World War I have women begun to wear their hair short and in fairly natural styles.
In certain circumstances like the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), the winners of each battle raped, beat and shaved the head of the women of their enemies as a way of shaming them and their families, especially the men. Hair was apparently a weapon to use against the women, as was the almost ritual raping, but it seemed never to be about the women, who were relegated to mere instruments of retaliation.
Another thing closely related is age. Women ‘of a certain age’ are considered past their prime physically so at some subliminal level they are expected to disengage from their sexuality and their femaleness, as the primary mission of femaleness is producing offspring. People can rant and rave, deny it, but this is still very much an issue in society nowadays. There’s even a growing ‘cult to the child’ in which both men and women praise the glories of parenthood and look suspiciously at those who do not think, as they do, that childbearing and rearing are the height of self realization.
As I see it, women are encouraged to hide their woman-ity, the full power of their feminine strength, their wisdom. If you make your hair more manageable, you will seem more competent to others. The only reason for long, wavy hair is vanity, and that is not what ‘good women’ promote. Good women do not seek attention for themselves. They keep neat hair, well groomed, because a disheveled woman is frowned upon by many, but just that. No sign of coquettishness.
Throughout history, people have worn their hair in a wide variety of styles, largely determined by the fashions of the culture they live in. Hairstyles are markers and signifiers of social class, age, marital status, racial identification, political beliefs and attitudes about gender.
Why is it that women’s hair leads back to men and society and even children but not to women themselves? Why is it that even an external, easily changeable physical trait is linked to what others think, believe, want or expect?
I’ve been the busy mom trying to juggle her family with her own life and mostly failing to find time for herself. After a few years, you end up forgetting what you’d like or if you’d like something different and you just settle for comfort even if you feel unsure about it because the demands your life makes just don’t give you time to consider too many options, if any.
I know where it leads: a limbo where you are only a mother, that person who does everything for everyone but herself. It reaches a point where you forget your essence, your femininity. In fact, you even consider it a setback in some aspects.
That’s why I decided to remind myself that I was worthy and womanly by letting my hair grow. I proclaim my identity as a woman who is not afraid of being truly a woman, in every aspect. It is a privilege not everyone can attain, for as Simone de Beauvoir said, ‘You are not born a woman, you become one.’