Hair is one of the loudest expressions of individuality, and at the same time, a tool used to communicate our belonging to a group, something personal, yet very public – there for the whole world to see. According to beliefs of certain Native American tribes, in hair lies the source of power and wisdom.
This study argues that higher levels of testosterone cause men to lose more hair and faster too, so historically, long hair has been associated with the traditional concept of femininity. So much so that it was the spark-ignition that provoked the ongoing Mahsa Amini protests in September 2022. As a symbol of a broken silence that finally found its outlet, women all over the world cut their hair in solidarity and said: Enough.
I’m as free as my hair
From Milton’s Eve, to Rapunzel, long hair has had its fair share of magical powers attributed, it’s just that, its extraordinary length has probably rendered Rapunzel’s everyday tasks rather unfeasible. All she ever really could do was… sit around? Maybe that’s why she never left her tower, I don’t..?
Similarly as with long skirts (not to mention corsets), from a practical standpoint, long hair is somewhat of a nuisance, which is why women doing physically demanding jobs wore it up – in buns, braids, or found other ways to keep it away from the face.
However, this research argues that long, luscious hair in women attracts the opposite sex, because it is alleged proof of reproductive capability. The idea that a (mis)conception this common is premised on basic biology didn’t sit well with me, so I turned to sociological studies. In 1984, feminist Susan Brownmille wrote about how growing up with the idea of long hair being the ultimate proof of femininity made her long for it, but she never felt it quite fit her face shape, so she goes:
“I happen to look terrible when my hair is long. I know what some people think about short hair. They say short hair is mannish, dyky… So I keep my hair at a middling length and fret about its daily betrayal.”
It got me thinking: Are women generally reluctant to wear their hair short out of fear of not looking feminine enough by the social standards?
Off with their hairs!
I still remember with angst: me, at the age of 7, my mom taking me to the hairdresser who chops off my waist-length hair to a bob. After the initial trauma, I went on to wear my hair long for most of my life all through early adolescence up until I graduated from University.
And then it was me who had it cut to shoulder length. My boyfriend at the time protested, but it was a done deal. And the thing was, once I’ve experienced the miraculous world where it doesn’t take you an hour to wash, condition, dry and style your hair, the genie was out of the bottle.
Since then, I’ve been experimenting with hair length, until one day I went full Natalie Portman from Lèon: the Professional.
It might not have been my favorite look, but it was daring and I felt it had given me an opportunity to explore my edgier side. While I rocked this ear-length bob I got asked twice whether I was bisexual. The conclusion I drew? If you blatantly refute the logic of long-established femininity, you will automatically be deemed as not interested in getting male attention, when in fact you were trying out a new style and putting a bit too much trust in your quirky hairdresser.
Long hair: genderless?
A musical that premiered in 1968 opened the Pandora’s box on risqué subjects and took a simple, but telling name: Hair. According to this BBC article, going off to Vietnam meant you had to shave your head, so defying war as a whole for the Hippie movement meant wearing your hair long.
“Hair was the hippies’ flag,” theater writer Scott Miller said on the leitmotif of the piece, “their … symbol not only of rebellion but also of new possibilities, a symbol of the rejection of discrimination and restrictive gender roles.”
Even though the Hippie movement as we know it is no longer at its peak, their ideas still stand for anti-war sentiment and non-conformism to gender roles.
According to this study, nowadays long hair in men is more commonly associated with other subcultures such as metal music fans or those with ‘a rolling stone gathers no moss’ mentality, but it is slowly but steadily entering the world of the mainstream.
The prerogative of long hair still belongs mostly to females, and albeit it will likely stay the widespread symbol of femininity, fashion trends of the 21st century are all about abolishing the order and hopefully, wearing your hair however you like will soon mean only that.