The Symbolism of a Woman's Hair

| Friday, December 9, 2011
Today's Tune: Snoopy vs. The Red Baron

Thank you so much for the thoughtful responses on Wednesday's post, everyone! It's always nice to know we're not alone in our weirdness and eccentricity :)

Bouncing a little bit off of the photographs of myself I chose to post with that entry, I thought I'd talk a little bit about the symbolism of a woman's hair today.

I'm not sure how aware men are of the incredible amount of weight and symbolism that goes on with women's hair -- in fact, I'm not sure many WOMEN realize it, either -- but it's something deeply engrained in our culture and society. There are certain stigmas attached to a woman's hair color, style, length, and more. It's not uncommon for a woman to change her hair style/color after going through a major life change. This is no meaningless decision. Consciously or unconsciously, there are a lot of feelings and identity issues wrapped in our locks.

We've all heard blond jokes. Golden-haired people (particularly golden-haired women) are dumb, har har har. This has a lot to do with the symbolism behind golden hair being linked with youth and beauty, which are considered foils to experience and intelligence in Western culture. Brunettes are considered more mature, elegant, and sophisticated because dark hair is linked with those traits. On the flipside, it can also imply a person is boring or plain. Redheads are considered spitfires or sexually promiscuous because the color red is intimately tied to the symbolism of sexuality, passion, and anger.

Are any of those implications accurate? No. They're really not. A woman's personality is not reflected by whatever side of the genetic coin their hair happened to fall on. I'm an intelligent blond, SO SUCK IT. Okay, maturity might still be an issue. STILL SUCK IT. My point in bringing this symbolism up is to illustrate the physical cues we often subconsciously apply not only to people we come across in real life, but our literary characters, as well. There's a reason the mean cheerleader is often a blond. The brainy nerd-girl: a brunette. The girl who always likes to pick fights and that every boy falls in love with: a redhead.

And where do these Westernized symbols of personality-linked-with-hair-color leave many women of color? Nowhere. They are roundly ignored. Or worse, "minority" hair is used to represent something altogether more stereotypical and sinister. How often do we read about dark minority hair being kinky, greasy, lank, unmanageable, unkempt? This is its own bag of offensive BS.

What about hair style? People often make snap judgements about the way a woman chooses to wear her hair. Long hair is youthful, feminine, sexy, beautiful. Short hair can be assumed to mean anything from tomboyishness to seriousness to lesbianism, depending on the style. Wearing one's hair down is carefree and sexualized. Wearing hair up is uptight, professional, or "old." Alternative styles are supposedly representative of a certain lifestyle -- dreadlocks for bohemian/hippies/druggies, mohawks for punks, cornrows for thugs, etc.

Men share some of these style snap-judgements to an extent. There are some cultural connotations, such as the Jewish tradition of not cutting hair during a mourning period. But overall, there is a LOT more stigma placed on women's hair than on men's hair. Our very femaleness itself is often tied in knots of our hair.

I raise all these points so that we can look at the way we're portraying our female characters with a critical eye. It's not an inherently bad thing to use a character's hair to help define her personality - after all, as I've been saying, a woman's hair is often culturally and socially tied to her. That said, be mindful of whether you're using a certain hair style or color to "cheat" at developing a real personality. Is your character dumb because she's blond, or dumb because she isn't interested in learning? Is she girlish because her hair's long, or girlish because that's how she chooses to portray herself?

Try to avoid using the symbolism of a girl's hair to imply something about her sexual promiscuity, intelligence, or maturity. Be mindful of your own biases. While our hair is often intimately tied to our feelings of worth, beauty, or attitude, it is not solely representative of who we are. We are not our hair. Using physicality to represent personality is incredibly overdone, anyway. People look how they look and act how they act.

Do you find yourself caught in judging a woman's personality based on how she wears her hair? If you're a woman, do you feel a connection to your hair? Have you ever experienced someone making judgements about you based on your hair?



{ Phire } at: December 9, 2011 at 5:37 AM said...

I really enjoyed this post - approaching one of my pet causes ("social justice" writ large) from a unique standpoint.

I've got long, straight black hair, so as far as socialized stereotypes go, I'm pretty lucky in generally being characterized favourably because of it. A few weeks ago I was seriously toying with the idea of cutting it all off and getting a pixie cut with a major attitude. All of the female friends I consulted were completely in favour and egged me on. All of the male friends I consulted instinctively reacted with aversion and told me I'd look like a dyke. It was quite exasperating, really.

(I haven't gotten the hair cut yet, but only because it's winter, and it's cold.)

{ Yael } at: December 9, 2011 at 6:12 AM said...

The day I felt most powerful and beautiful as a woman was the day I shaved my head in college. (It was for a cancer fundraiser.)

{ vic caswell (aspiring-x) } at: December 9, 2011 at 6:27 AM said...

i was actually thinking about this just the other day. i have extremely curly, often frizzy hair, that is- pretty wild, actually. and i've grown annoyed at this decade-long trend of straighthair= beauty and cleanliness and good grooming, and curlyhair= dirty, ugly, messy-- as portrayed by the media. especially as a line between socio-economic classes.

and i wonder if it's a throwback to racial stereotypes.

because i think about my work environment and every woman who is a department head or works in administration is straight-haired- whether naturally or by intention. whereas, many of us who work in support services have curlier hair. and actually, the older generation of support services workers tend to perm their hair if it is not naturally curly.

and i never really noticed that until i stopped wearing my hair up all the time to try to maintain the wildness of it. and i don't know if there is any legitimacy to what i've been noticing, but i found it interesting... and kind of disturbing.

and i seriously hope this straightening of the hair thing is more of a long lived fad, but it kind of worries me at the subtle racism that underlies it.

but maybe i'm just being oversensitive.

{ Miss Cole } at: December 9, 2011 at 6:30 AM said...

I'm a redhead and actually did a post about the bullying I went through in school. I *still* get some ridiculous comments because I've got red hair, but I can assure you I don't live up to the stereotypes. Nope, not even the expectations of sexual prowess ;)

My own experiences lead me to avoid all hair-based characterisations.

{ Emy Shin } at: December 9, 2011 at 7:07 AM said...

I scrolled down to comment and noticed your comment description: "I like your hair. Let's be friends." -- which, given this post, is the most awesome thing ever!

As a woman, I definitely do feel a connection with my hair. I've always been a homely girl; I knew this, even when I was younger. My relatives would always comment on how my nose is too big, my lips too huge and downturn, etc. The only physical trait I've ever been complimented on is my hair, which is the typical East Asian hair: black and straight. For a while in my teens, my self-esteem depended so much on my hair that I refused to cut it.

So I totally agree with this post. How a person wears their hair should not be representative of who they are. Doing so for characters is just a lazy shortcut for characterization.

mercadofresca at: December 9, 2011 at 8:37 AM said...

I don't think it's oversensitive at all to see racial implications in the overwhelming preference for straight hair and how straight hair is analogous with professionalism/neatness/etc. WOC have been discussing their struggles with hair politics for ages. Hell, Malcolm X wrote a piece on the horrors of conking in his autobiography and that was nearly 50 years ago. It's definitely still a factor in day-to-day life and, of course, extremely poor and lazy characterization.

{ Steph Sinkhorn } at: December 9, 2011 at 8:47 AM said...

No, Vic, I think you're right on. I didn't touch on straight/curly in my post, but I completely agree with you that it has a disturbing tie to racism/classism. The assumption that curly hair comes from "bad breeding" or lack of funds to have it straightened. It's gross. I'm sorry you have to experience that. I've got naturally stick-straight hair, but one of my best friends is curly-haired and she notices similar reactions.

Judging people based on physicality is so ridiculous, but so persistent in our society. Ugh. To an extent, it's fair -- if a person doesn't present themselves well or is literally dirty because they don't clean themselves, that's another issue. But the snap judgements people make for superficial things that have no bearing on a person's work ethic or personality? So stupid. And so insidious.

Thank you all for the discussion and sharing your experiences! It's amazing how most women can relate to this hair-judgement.

{ Old Kitty } at: December 9, 2011 at 10:42 AM said...

What gets me is how BLACK - yes the colour black - hair - cos like no WAY can brunette be BLACK hair - is always missed out! LOL! Then again maybe it's best as people with black hair have a whole other range of stereotypes to content with without this one too! :-)

Maybe completely unrelated but there's also a worrying trend for people (male and female) with red/ginger hair are to be stigmatised and bullied because of their red/ginger hair. It's all very sad really!

Take care

{ Elissa Sussman } at: December 9, 2011 at 10:57 AM said...

Until I was in high school I had stick straight hair. Then puberty hit and it was "hello curls and wavy strands". I spent at least a hour every single night blow-drying and straightening my hair. Oy! What a waste of time.
What I find most frustrating is how our appearance is supposed to be a direct correlation to our personality. I remember taking quizzes in magazines that would determine what kind of girl you were (usually there were four choices: sporty, glamorous, casual, blah blah blah) followed by pages of clothes that suited your personality.
And our appearance is completely open to public discussion! Guys don't have to deal with that at all (unless they "care TOO much") but women are forced to agonize over every inch of their appearance and wonder what kind of message they are sending about themselves.
How exhausting. Bring me my sweatpants and hat!

{ cookie } at: December 9, 2011 at 1:20 PM said...

I read an article somewhere about a study done on men asking them what the first thing they noticed about a woman was. the trait/physical feature most answered was hair. Which is why my male MC has a slight hair obsession.

I have long hair. When I was in 5th grade I got a Beatles hair cut, and it traumatized me. I have never been able to go short since. I still freak out when the stylist cuts it too close to my shoulders. Maybe when I am older, I'll be able to go short. But not yet. My hair. *holds close*

{ cookie } at: December 9, 2011 at 1:27 PM said...

Vic, I noticed the opposite growing up. I also have wild curly hair, and spent nearly a decade straightening it, but I would constantly get scolded for doing so. My friends would give me the evil jealous eye (they all have straight hair). But they don't know how much work I have to go to to make my curls manageable, and not look like I stuck my hand in an electrical outlet.

I did get called mop head in high school though by one girl.

{ Connie Keller } at: December 9, 2011 at 1:29 PM said...

When I was young, curly was in. My hair is stick straight, so I did perms, curling irons, hot rollers, sponge rollers, etc. Then I realized it wasn't worth it. I grew my hair out and let it go stick straight and long. Now I can give it a brush and it's done.

Of course, now I have nightmares--that it's cut and permed. :)

{ TL Conway } at: December 10, 2011 at 12:40 AM said...

This post and comments are so interesting!

There's no way to say this without sounding arrogant, but here goes. I have great hair. It's long, CRAZY thick, naturally wavy, and more times than not I look at myself in the mirror before heading to work and think I look terrible (tired, washed out, etc), but at least my hair looks okay.

However, growing up as a dancer, I learned early on how to wrap it up in a bun, which I still do to this day. I had one friend tell me I looked "so severe" with my hair pulled back. Since then, I've tried to spend a bit more time instead of just tossing it back.

So no, I was never judged by my hair growing up because people were too busy judging me for other things. If you stand 6 feet tall at age 11, people don't notice your hair. They're too busy telling you to play basketball, which implies A) shorter women can't and B) if I didn't, it would--and I quote--"be a waste of perfectly good height."

{ Kari Marie } at: December 10, 2011 at 10:02 PM said...

Great post. Oddly enough, I haven't spent a lot of time working out the color of my heroine's hair. In my last book, I was halfway through before I learned what color her hair was (when her love interest made a comment about it).

{ Raven } at: December 11, 2011 at 12:19 PM said...

Great post!

I'm black and dark-skinned, which according to some people, means that I should have short hair. Growing up I have always had long hair and people would always doubt that it was mine. I cut my hair sometimes but other times I let it grow out, but I don't think in any way that I AM my hair because even if I were bald I would still be the same person.

{ Sheena Boekweg } at: December 13, 2011 at 8:18 AM said...

So true! I can't tell you how many conversations I have had with people about my hair. I don't start these conversations by the way... or maybe my hair starts it when I'm not paying attention.

Darn chatty hair.

The thing with living with naturally curly hair, is that people who don't have it think they understand what it's like. People say, "Oh yeah, I have curly hair too, I just spend ten minutes straightening it everyday, so I don't have to worry about it." If you can straiten your hair in ten minutes, you don't have curly hair. That's like someone saying, "Oh yeah, I get sad sometimes, so I know what it's like to have depression."

My curly hair defines me, and you know what... I like it.

Great post!

{ Becky Mahoney } at: December 16, 2011 at 6:26 AM said...

As a bookish, decidedly-non-spitfire redhead, I approve of this post.

Also, Phire, pixie cuts are so cute! I got a lot of resistance when I told my coworkers I was getting a bob, but once I came in with the cut, they were falling all over it. People have such odd prejudices about short hairstyles, but I think they look fantastic.

{ Rapunzel } at: February 15, 2012 at 11:05 AM said...

So this was an interesting article and the comments were interesting as well. Im indian with straight black hair. For the life of me, its so difficult to stay curly if I do decide to use a curling iron. Congrats to the persons with gorgeous curls and pretty hair colours.

Anyways, it is society's stereotype to say that your hair colour defines your attitude or personality. A person is not defined by hair and guys wouldnt be attracted to you if your personalities clashes but your hair is pretty.

{ Sarah Hipple } at: December 16, 2012 at 2:26 PM said...

I recently helped out at a Christmas party for underprivileged kids, painting faces (I promise this is going somewhere relevant). And one popular facepaint for girls (and one boy, who I really liked) was an angel. I would ask the kids what color dress they wanted and whether they wanted black or yellow hair on their angel.

All of them, whether they were black or white, chose yellow hair for their angel, and maybe I'm reading way too much into it, but I felt bad for the little black girls who believed their angels should have yellow hair.

{ Liripipe } at: March 10, 2013 at 7:22 PM said...

Ever since I hit puberty, I've been wrangling my naturally curly hair so that it looks its best. I've been dying my hair, at first from curiosity, but then it was because I thought red was brighter and prettier then my "mousy" brown (I like mice, though:). And I'm making plans to cut it into a pixie, which would also cut off all the dyed hair and the ringlets that people covet so much. A really short pixie. Lots of men have told me not to, and even when I told them how short, they still assumed I was going to get it maybe 5 inches or so. A boy haircut isn't conceivable for them. I find it funny, but disconcerting.

On another topic, i find that people care so much about what their hair means that sometimes they neglect its health, the same way someone would try extreme dieting to quick fix instead of exercising.

{ Isriien } at: March 14, 2013 at 11:35 AM said...

I have really long hair and I freak out about cutting it too short. It's about the only thing that I get compliments on, so why cut it, right? Besides, I just really like having long hair and I'm willing to go through the trouble of taking care of it (it's not curly but my hair gets tangled so easily). Having a good hair day does boost my confidence a little and I usually run my fingers through it when I'm nervous.

I do think that some hair prejudices apply to men too. I'm in high school and I notice tons of the boys in my classes are always flipping their hair or smoothing it so they obviously do care about it. And while short hair cuts for women have grown in popularity, longer hair cuts for men haven't. And I find shoulder-length hair on a guy really attractive so I do tend to notice how few grow their hair out.

{ Catherine Meyers } at: August 26, 2014 at 3:31 PM said...

Great post! I am thinking about hair. It's an odd thing not hair, but our cultural attitudes about hair generally. I whole heartily agree with your points. BS foolishness but still seems to pervasive. I think hair was considered strength, and perhaps still is in cultures, I am thinking of First Nations were many believe hair is a sacred thing.
But in Western culture, God forbid if you and have a beard and you are a woman! Off to do more research!

{ Patrcia Uche-Chiemeka } at: September 19, 2015 at 1:12 AM said...

but it's something deeply engrained in our culture and society. There are certain stigmas attached to a woman's hair color, style, length, and more. It's not uncommon for a woman to change her hair style/color after going through a major life change. This is no meaningless decision. malaysian hair extensions

{ gajismarts } at: February 21, 2016 at 6:56 PM said...

Thanks for great share about long hair. I want also long hair because every persons link that.
i have long hair - heres what i do

{ Lisa } at: March 24, 2016 at 9:39 AM said...

Europeans don't see have much of a stigma towards natural hair but Americans do. For instance, wavy hair for women indicates they are maneaters/whores, or sexually promiscuous women, here in North America since straight hair is valued more often even though Americans seem to use too much hair styling tools and products more often than Europeans as to why they have terrible hair.

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