Considering the millions spent globally on haircare each year, hair clearly means something to all of us. But history shows that the world’s obsession with it is even more deep- rooted than you may think.
It’s easy to forget how much we associate a person’s identity with their hair… until they suddenly cut it all off and you’re like “OMG, who is this person?!” Consider how much noise was made when Miley Cyrus chopped off her locks in favour of an edgy undercut, or how popular “The Rachel” hairdo was, thanks to Jennifer Aniston and Friends, and you’ll get a sense of how passionate we can get about hair.
So what’s with the obsession? New York-based psychologist Vivian Diller suggests that part of it has to do with our self-esteem and confidence. “Hair can be altered through cutting, colouring and highlighting, but controlled through straightening, curling and styling,” she wrote in an article for The Huffington Post in 2012. “Styled, well-kept hair gives us the appearance of being wellmanaged and it can contribute to feeling that way internally. Some say a manicure or pedicure creates a similar sense of feeling in control.” Mia Farrow in The Great Gatsy showed us how great fingerwaves could look. Marie Antoinette
It also gives the impression of health… and wealth, though culturally, it depends on where (and when) you’re from. In 18th century France, wigs tended to be literally OTT – they were often very tall, and came in a variety of pastel shades. The height and elaborateness of the wigs continued to grow until the French Revolution cut them off . After that, there was a return to a less ostentatious way of life and wigs were out.
In 18th century France, the higher and more elaborate the hair, fancier you were.
in The Great
us how great
her short bob.
The long and short of it
In the West, the advent of short hair on women signalled a more carefree social order on the rise. Just look at the flapper girls of the ’20s, as well as the swinging ’60s with the iconic Twiggyinspired pixie cut. As Vogue summed it up in a 1988 story, “When a woman cuts her hair, she creates fresh erogenous zones and effects. Sexy yet sweet, the haircut is somewhat of a paradox: childishly demure, yet calculating, quirky, and [elegant].”
Hairstyles were even used as a political weapon. In post-World War II France, women who were caught collaborating with the Germans were forced to shave their heads as punishment.
We can even see this expressed in pop culture – in Game of Thrones, for example, Cersei’s head is shaved to pay for her crimes.
While short hair on women is socially accepted today, when Cara Delevingne shaved her head for an upcoming movie role, it sent social media into a frenzy. This prompted her to respond with a scathing post on Instagram: “It’s exhausting to be told what beauty should look like. I am tired of society defining beauty for us. Strip away the clothes, wipe off the make-up, cut off the hair.”
The thing is, we still tend to associate beauty with classically “feminine” traits, such as long, flowing hair. What’s more, a study from the University of South Brittany in 2015 suggested that, “Men may perceive women with long hair as young and healthy, with high fertility potential, which could lead them to interact more readily with her.”
There are also certain stereotypes that people associate with particular types of hair, like the idea that blondes have more fun or that brunettes are more intelligent. Whatever their roots, the fact that such stereotypes exist once again points to the central role of hair in how people are perceived.
"Men may perceive women with long hair as young and healthy, with high fertility potential, which could lead them to interact more readily with her.”
So why do we lop it off for life changes?
A change in hairstyle can drastically alter our appearance, which is why we’re inclined to restyle our hair to communicate big life changes. Birthdays, breakups and new jobs are all grounds to start afresh, and so many of us choose to signal this to the world by cutting our hair. It makes sense that we would make changes on the outside with the intention of making ourselves feel better inside – fake it ’til you make it, right?
Beware of impulsive behaviour in times of crises, though – if you’ve had long hair for ages and are considering a pixie cut, start with a bob before working towards shorter styles. In 2013, Alexa Chung had this to say in Stylist magazine about breakups: “My advice if you’ve just suffered heartbreak or you’ve broken up with someone is to not touch your hair. It’s the first thing women do, but you’re not in a fit state to make decisions that are long-term. You’ll have to spend the next four years growing it out. Don’t have a fringe cut. Don’t bleach it. Don’t do anything because you’ll live to regret it.”
Whoever said Blondes aren’t as smart was seriously disturbed.” - Reese Witherspoon as Elle Woods in Legally Blonde.
Using hair status and something to denote loyalty was Game of inspiration from social clearly Thrones took history.
*left to right* Sansa Stark, Cersei Lannister, Cara Delevigne had no qualms shaving off her hair.
your hair when
life throws you
Supermodel Irene Kim is a chameleon when it comes to her hair.
Park Shin Hye likes to keep things subtle with her hair dye choices.
Song Hye Kyo leads the K-Beauty trend
with waves in a natural brown shade.
A hairy future
Hair is such a personal thing to change, but at the same time, history shows that the hairstyle you choose can mean very different things. Your favourite celebrities, a TV show or even the era in which you live can affect why you decide to cut your hair or dye it (and that’s true whether you’re following a trend or rebelling against it).
Take bleaching, for example. The belief that “blondes have more fun” has been around for ages, with Europeans in the past going so far as to use bleach derived from horse urine and pigeon droppings to get that platinum look. In our own culture, though, it used to be only ah bengs who bleached their hair (and their look wasn’t exactly something everyone aspired to!).
But today, going for that platinum look won’t make people think you’re a gangster, and thanks largely in part to the K-Beauty wave and technology, there are a lot more healthier options for dyeing your hair and protecting it. While the trend might be to go for more natural browns and highlights now, you only have to look to the likes of Irene Kim and Fernanda Ly to see that colour is great for expressing yourself. It’s now easier than ever to get the hairstyle you want too, thanks to the advances in technology.
At the end of the day, what’s important is how that style makes you feel. A Yale University study found that bad hair days can make a person’s self-esteem go awry, making them feel less smart, less capable and more embarrassed. Clearly it’s important to feel comfortable in your own skin, so do whatever it takes to achieve it!
Images 123RF.com, TPG/Click Photos Text Claire Soong Additional Reporting Karen Fong.