An obsession with hair

One of the less obvious but nonetheless prevalent effects of the coronavirus crisis has been, and still is in some countries, the absence of hairdressers.

A young woman has her hair done by a roadside hairdresser in Johannesburg on June 6 (photo credit: REUTERS/ SIPHIWE SIBEKO)
A young woman has her hair done by a roadside hairdresser in Johannesburg on June 6
(photo credit: REUTERS/ SIPHIWE SIBEKO)

One of the less obvious but nonetheless prevalent effects of the coronavirus crisis has been, and still is in some countries, the absence of hairdressers. For the hairdressers themselves, in common with other small, independent businesses, the effects have been disastrous. For their would-be clients, it was something of a nightmare. “What am I going to do about my hair?” was a question raised in a million communications. Hairdressers lobbied the government to permit them to reopen, saying that their treatments were essential. In fact, the coronavirus hair question may well become a chapter in the telling of the part hair has played in history.
I myself am hair obsessive. Everywhere I go I notice people’s hair. I sit in the theater carrying out a visual survey of the hair of the women in front of me, always concluding that what covers my own head is at best, unsatisfactory. My only consolation is that I am not alone. A lifetime of visits to the hairdresser is proof enough of that, backed up by stories from the scriptures, no less, religious prohibitions, films set in beauty parlors, plus a whole musical encouraging us if we have hair, to flaunt it.
These are words which would fall on deaf ears when it comes to those married ladies who, for reasons of religion, belief or tradition, choose to cover their hair. I am told that the thinking behind the practice revolves around the assumption that a woman’s hair is her crowning glory, the symbol of her beauty and thus, a temptation to the opposite sex, or at least to the few members of it still unaware of the #MeToo hashtag. The glamorous wigs, which are sometimes employed to cover the offending hair, lend unintentional irony to the tradition.
Hair as a symbol of strength no doubt owes its origins to the story of Samson, a man born with such strength that he could kill a lion with his bare hands; that is until he was betrayed by Delilah, his Philistine wife. A head full of hair, the longer the better, has in its time, been the symbol of masculine virility, the loss of it seemingly taking strength and machismo with it. It took a minor revolution, spearheaded by famous footballers, to demonstrate that no hair at all could be a sign of male strength and beauty. There was no longer any need for a man to disguise his baldness, no necessity to grow a pony tail to distract the eye from what was not growing on top, no need for comb-overs; just shave it all off to be a la mode.
This is not to say that the loss of hair is a matter to be taken lightly either by men or by women, perhaps especially by women. If a good head of hair is a traditional sign of strength in a man, for a woman it is an essential part of her identity. Losing it, whether her hair lent her beauty or not, affects her confidence and her ability to face the world. Whether what she was blessed with was shining, voluminous waves or fine, straight locks, when parts of it disappear, it changes not only her appearance, but her character. In other words, hair loss can be traumatic, particularly for a woman in this image conscious age.
The beautiful heroine with plentiful hair is a part of folklore. Take, for instance, the story of Rapunzel, the child stolen by a sorceress and imprisoned for life in a tower to which the only access was Rapunzel’s own long golden hair. “Rapunzel, Rapunzel let down your hair,” the witch would cry so that she could climb up to bring sustenance to her captive. And that was how a handsome prince was able to reach and fall in love with Rapunzel, though that was by no means the end of the story.
The cinema has made ample use of stories involving hair. Bad Hair Day, Killer Hair, The Stylist, and more, but probably the best known is Shampoo, in which Warren Beatty plays a promiscuous hairdresser in New York. Despite his numerous affairs with clients, he is unable to make any meaningful connections. Since the film begins on the day after Richard Nixon was elected president, it was assumed to be a satire on American society at the time.
Then we come to arguably the best example of all – Hair, the musical which shook up New York before moving to London in September 1968 and breaking every taboo keeping British theater in bondage. It was the ultimate symbol of the Swinging Sixties, one of the most thrilling decades to be a young person in the UK. With its message of love, peace and sexual freedom, all delivered by a youthful cast, it presented a challenge to censorship from which the London theater never recovered. As to nudity, displayed in the show behind a gauze curtain, it was considered so shocking that members of the audience left in disgust. Even some of the psychedelic posters, suggestive of drug induced states, were felt by the authorities to be beyond the pale. The show was nevertheless a huge success and songs such as “The Age of Aquarius” live on to remind us of the beginning of a new age of enlightenment.
Thus, hair has clearly played its own role in history, often causing pleasure and sometimes quite the opposite. It represents beauty, strength and freedom. Everyone wants hair and there are plenty of experts around to deal with it. Supermarkets have whole aisles devoted to products to wash, condition, color, de-frizz and regenerate your hair. Salons with names like “Hair Today” or “Hair Dot Com” are there to assist and transform. All of it was sadly missing when a worldwide virus kept us at home. n
The writer is an author, former journalist and former head of the British Desk at the Jerusalem Foundation