A Hairy History of Self-Expression

Kayla Lien, Editor-In-Chief

Hair, while a trivial topic to many, has deeper significance than most realize. How one expresses themselves through their outward appearance directly impacts and portrays their social, financial, and personal success. Such a situation is evident in non-European cultures as well. 

For example, hair braiding techniques originated over 5000 years ago in 3500 B.C.E Africa. It started with the Himba people of Namibia, and was a unique and personalized identifier that could show the person’s tribe, wealth, age, marital status, religion, and power. Across South America during slavery times, escape maps were braided into enslaved Africans’ hair. It was and continues to be, a social art. The elders braided their children’s hair, and through close observation, the children would catch on and pass on the skill through generations. Out of Africa came cornrows and box braids, from Greece and Europe halo braids and the crown braid, Native Americans are credited with pigtail braids, China with the staircase braid, and the Caribbean with modern cornrows. Rather than being just a style or fashion, for African-Americans with natural hair textures, braids are a form of protective styling that keeps hair from damage due to humidity and heat. 

The Black Student Union here at East is a thriving group where one can learn about a more Afrocentric history and culture. For them, hair is a central piece of identity and has a huge impact. Many remarked that they grew up not knowing what to do with it and felt that their options were limited compared to their peers. Many are accustomed to salons in which one who doesn’t understand black hair has attempted to straighten, perm, relax, or cut their hair. Needless to say, it’s ineffective and ends up costing more than they had planned. Microaggressions are a daily hurdle, what with people making snide remarks or touching their hair without consent.

Hair is a form of rebellion for many. It’s a way of expression in a very Eurocentric worldview that has a tendency to overlook the Southern hemisphere. It’s individualistic and is not the same for everyone, as every person has different curl patterns and types of hair. 

Deviance in appearance as a personal rebellion has even pervaded farther Eastern countries, such as Asia and Mongolia. When one thinks of someone who is Asian, the prominent archetypal vision that pops into one’s imagination is someone with thick, black hair, yet this image is rapidly changing. For Asian-American women, bleaching their hair is a form of societal rebellion. Blonde Asians are everywhere you look on social media, and it’s a final explosion after years of build-up. On the rare occasion when Asians are depicted in the movies or other mainstream media, there’s only two roles they can occupy. Most often, Asian women are portrayed as docile, soft-spoken, slender and fragile minor characters. But when there needs to be a distinction that this particular one is “cool” or “interesting,” it seems the only available option is dying a bright neon strip into their hair. Take Yukio from Deadpool 2, her only notable traits was her purple bangs and relationship with Teenage Negasonic Warhead. 

So, Asian-American women are starting to take control of their image and are bleaching their hair en mass. It’s a “cool-girl” symbol, a way to stand out in a society that likes to group them together. Nevertheless, there is still a backlash from more conservative Asian parents. Changing one’s hair color goes directly against many of their long-held views of what a good daughter looks like. “Americanization” is scorned both overseas and in minority-majority communities. 

While hair being a form of self-expression is deeply ingrained into different ethnicities and races, the subject is especially profound in other social cultures. In the mid-1970s, the music genre “punk rock,” widely called simply “punk,” began to arise in the United States, United Kingdom, and Australia. From that arose punk ideologies and fashion, visual art, literature, dance, and film. Punk arose as a rejection of the hippie-movement that was strong at the time while still holding onto disdain for the mainstream. While hippies adopted long hairstyles as opposed to clean-cut, punks opted for short, choppy styles. These styles have evolved over the years, as almost everything does, and can have different distinctions such as “scene,” “emo,” or “goth,” yet there are important identifying factors that separate them. 

Another social culture, the LGBTQIA+ community, relies on hair to distinguish themselves. Much of queer identity revolves around exploration and that certainly includes trying out different hairstyles. There exists a certain rite of passage for queer people, with girls and female-aligned folks, especially. Cutting off your hair, dying it, or both, is a significant, often liberating experience for many, opening a doorway to self-discovery and reinvention. Getting a “gay haircut” tends to code people as one sexuality or another, which is alright in accepting communities. Yet, it can also be a damaging stereotype. 

Femme lesbians, or lesbians who dress traditionally more feminine and generally have longer hair, run into the haircut precedent daily. Between coming out on a daily basis, not looking “gay enough,” and community-accepted stereotypes, femmes are often overlooked and underrepresented in modern media, unfortunately. 

Across the world, the move towards not shaving is becoming a large phenomenon. Women are putting down their shaving cream and not worrying about society’s expectations. This new generation of women and female-aligned people are increasingly protesting against anit-feminist policies, such as the Pink Tax, the tax applied to many women’s personal care products. Companies such as razor brand “Billie” have embraced, even sparked this change. Billie’s primary message is that “Shaving is a choice, not an expectation.” 

Body hair was never an issue until the rise of consumerism and the modern media, helped along with misogyny. Shaving became a social requirement for femininity and shames those who refuse to comply. But now, due to ever-evolving gender roles and the fluidity in clothing choices, not shaving is less stigmatized. It’s come to represent autonomy and independence from what is considered to be traditional beauty standards. What qualifies as “feminine” is changing, embracing beauty less constricted by society.

Hair was and will always have social significance and is ever-changing and adapting to meet society’s needs. It’s an important form of self-expression for those whose voices are often-silenced. It tends to act as a way of discovery and identity and is extremely vital for many cultures and people, as it can designate social status and basic factors of a person. It’s safe to say that different hairstyles will continue to arise and fall, as any fad does, and change society as it goes.