About 10 years ago, my mother fell up the stairs, head first into the corner of our front door. She was holding our newly adopted puppy, Fergie, bringing her in from outside. When she tripped, she shielded Fergie from peril, and in doing so, busted her scalp wide open.
She didn’t cry once. Amidst this gruesome scene of blood, there were no tears.
However, when the surgeon told her they were going to have to shave her head, she sobbed.
Hair is a big part of who we, as humans, are. We use our hair to express who we are, who we want to be, our personalities, and our stories. We are attached to our hair - research shows that 1 in 5 women have cried during a haircut. We are indebted to our hair - surveys indicate that the average woman spends roughly $408 in a year on haircuts alone (that doesn’t even include shampoo and other hair care products!).
So the question is, why is hair so important to us? And does our hair shape who we are?
There are two leading psychological theories about why the appearance of our hair is so important to us. From an evolutionary standpoint, hair is often an indicator to men about the health and fertility of a woman. (Ew.) From this perspective, it’s all about attracting a heterosexual mate; a ritual passed along to us through the DNA of ancestors who had a lot of good hair days.
Another psychological viewpoint suggests that the development of our identity is intertwined with the maturing of our hair. During puberty, our hair color and texture changes. The time in which we find ourselves with our more “permanent” hair aligns with the stage we are at in life where we begin to solidify our values and character traits.
Studies of anthropology reveal that hair has been used to express cultural tradition and biological heritage through symbolic styling for millennia. Smear Magazine connects this history to a modern phenomenon:
“It is extremely common for women in today’s world to chop off their locks following a heartbreak, needing to rid themselves of the past. This mirrors the Native American tradition of tribes cutting their hair in order to mourn deep wounds caused by trauma.”
From a hairstylist’s perspective, hair is art, and thus a form of creative self-expression. Hairstylist Laurent Philippon suggests that hair allows us to express our identity because it’s “the one part of our body that we can change whenever we want, without causing any permanent damage.”
Amongst all this research, one common theme rings true: the quality that allows hair to be so tied to our identity is its visibility.
And because of this, we can use our hair to communicate with the world around us, like body language. A breakup haircut says “I’m moving on. No turning back.” A new cut and color can be a fresh start. But with that power also comes the possibility for miscommunication. This is especially the case for those of us dealing with hair loss.
While hair is often thought of as something we all have complete control over, hair loss significantly limits the freedom associated with this form of self-expression. When you lose your hair, it can feel like losing your identity.
When the visible part of your personality is removed, you may feel the need to dull your disposition in accordance.
You don’t have to.
When I was younger, probably between the ages of around 10 to 12, I used to look in the mirror and evaluate my appearance. Every time, I’d come to the same conclusion: my hair was my favorite part of my body. Back then, my hair was long, thick, wavy, an in-between color of blondish brown. It defined me.
I look into the mirror sometimes and think of her, this girl who has seemingly lost the one thing that was most important to her: hair.
I’ve thought of her while staring into a mirror that reflected bleach blonde hair, a brown pixie cut, in hats, in scarves, in makeshift buns, extensions, and wigs. I’ve gone through so many transitions and hair transformations, I’ve had to reevaluate my identity more times than I can count.
Here’s the million dollar nugget of knowledge I’ve learned from this: my identity never changed, and it is never going to change just because I change my hair.
With every different look I’ve had, its become more clear to me that hair actually isn’t who we are. We cannot let our hair, or lack thereof, define us.
I recently watched a really inspiring YouTube video by a nurse named Alyssa Gray. In April she moved to NYC to work in a COVID-19 ICU, and a month into her job, she decided she was sick of washing her hair after every shift. So, she shaved her head. It’s that simple: her hair had become inconvenient for the situation that she was in, so she made the decision to get rid of it.
Before I watched that video, I couldn’t imagine making that kind of a decision. I feel so bound to my hair, or what’s left of it. I’ve even felt bound to my “signature look” when wearing fake hair.
There’s this purple wig I wanted for a long time, but I kept scrolling past it on Amazon, because I didn’t feel like it was “me.” I thought to myself, Can I even buy a purple wig? Would that be an accurate reflection of who I am? Then I realized, it didn’t matter. I bought the wig, and I’ve been having so much fun wearing it and celebrating the fact that I can do whatever I want with my hair…especially in quarantine!
Part of the beauty of hair is that it is temporary. People should feel empowered to do whatever they want with their hair, to take advantage of its fleeting nature.
Alyssa’s decision wasn’t about her identity, it was about functionality and liberation. She gained freedom and flexibility in her everyday life by not having hair.
So no, hair does not shape who we are. Hair is not rooted in our identity. But we can have fun with hair, be it real or fake. It’s not that hair makes us, but rather, we make of hair what we want or need it to be.