My Hair, My Identity, My Security, My Protection: The Veiled and Unveiled Symbolism of Hair and Image

By: Rhonda Nemri

Since the day we are born, we either have a full head of hair, slightly full, or barely any hair. Ultimately we have hair. Our hair is symbolic to us. Virgin or pure hair, meaning never been touched by hair dye or chemicals infused to either make your hair flat, wavy or curly, is what makes your hair labeled as natural. “In simple terms, the average speed of hair growth is roughly 1.25 centimeters or 0.5 inches per month, being about 15 centimeters or 6 inches per year” (“How To Make Your Hair Grow Faster”).  Our hair is a valuable part of our body that we hold on to, whether we are male or female. Men are known to have receding hair lines, go completely bald, or have grey hair when they age. It is quite possible that men and woman can get grey hair at a young age due to genetic or stress levels. Women also lose their hair definitely during stress, use of products, pregnancy, or illness. It is not likely to see a woman going bald in comparison to a man, but it definitely occurs.

In order to fit the image that the top hair product corporations portray, you must purchase items such as relaxers, shampoo, conditioner, organic serum that nurtures the hair to bring back its natural oils, hair gel and mousse, hair growing kits, so on and so forth. There are many items to choose from and different brands that all promise you the same things: soft, unfrizzy, less splitends, and volume. But it is up to the customer to decide what brand fits them best. Advertisements on television, in magazines, and billboards portray the very images of how to sell their products using the very obvious advertisement technique; models. Advertisements make you feel like there is something wrong with your hair so that you can purchase your own hair regimen to improve the texture, softness, and shine, the same way as the model with perfect hair. Hardly you see women who have short hair advertising shampoo, hair spray, mousse, or gel. It is always women hair models (usually celebrities) with long, beautiful hair, in which their hair is most likely video edited to look natural and healthy. These very images that we see in ads, are the very images that affect are ways of thinking when it comes to how we should have our hair, and how we should take care of it in order to look beautiful. Which brings me to discuss the importance of hair and its symbols in culture and religion.

Cultural and Religious Symbols of Hair

The reason why I chose to write about this is because I see my hair as something very valuable, secure, and my protection. I see hair as something that is beautiful, but something that is symbolic for many reasons in society. From when we are young, we are familiar with what makes a man and what makes a woman. However, as a child you don’t really understand or grasp the full concept of the physical and biological factors of what makes a man and a woman; children just notice hair being a key factor. Boys have short hair, girls have long hair. In many cultures hair is very valuable, and we can definitely see the symbolism of hair through different cultures and religions. In Christianity, Islam, Hindu and, Buddhism both women and men cover their hair; however, it is much more likely to see a women covering her hair for religious, or cultural purposes.  In both Westernized and modern days the hijab/veil is quite familiar, and is used to cover a woman’s hair. In Christianity we see this with nuns who show their purity and commitment to God by abstaining from modernized clothing, and covering their hair and body.  Hair is also a symbolic treasure when a child gets baptized in the catholic or orthodox church. “After confirming the child, the priest cuts three locks of hair from his (or HER) head. This is an expression of gratitude for receiving God’s blessings in baptism and confirmation. Having nothing to give in return, the gift of his (or HER) hair is a symbol of strength like Samson) is a promise to serve God with all his strength” (“Baptism in the Greek Orthodox Church”).  Through Islamic traditions the hijab is seen in a different light, however does represent some similarities. According to Lane, the meanings of the word hijab are: “a thing that prevents, hinders, debars, or precludes; a thing that veils, conceals, hides, covers, or protects, because it prevents seeing, or beholding”. “The hijab also means a partition, a bar, a barrier, or an obstacle. In the Qur’an, the word hijab appears seven times, in five instances as hijab (noun) and twice as hijaban (noun). Neither hijab nor hijaban is used in the Qur’an in reference to what Muslims (and non-Muslims) today call the hijab, that is, a Muslim women’s dress code. In most cases, the Qur’an uses the word hijab in a metaphysical sense, meaning illusion or referring to the illusory aspect of creation” (Ruby 55).

Of course in different religions and cultures, the veil/hijab has its own connotation to some.  People view the hijab or veil as something that covers the woman’s hair in order to remove the male gaze. Perhaps it is to also remove one’s ability from seeing one of the most purest component of a woman or girl; her hair. However, I do have my questions and opinions about one’s idea of purity and sacredness to God is through a piece of fabric that covers the head of a woman or girl from the outside world. I believe that every woman should be able to choose who she is, and how she wants to be. Whether covering her hair or not. The controversial issues of oppression behind the covering of one’s hair are often portrayed through scholarly works, media, and books. I do not know what it is like to cover my hair, because I never tried it, but I often question why one chooses to cover something that is so beautiful, and have to feel they have to hide something in hopes of removing the chances of a man viewing you as a sexual object or gaze at you. I tend to believe with or without the veil the male gaze is quite present, and probably won’t go away. Some women, whether Islamic, Christian, Hindu, etc., have their own purposes of choosing to wear the veil for either religious purposes or their own personal choices. It could be their own protection and valuable entity that grants them piece, purity, and a closer connection to their identity and God. However, this is not why I am writing this piece. I am writing this to highlight what my hair means to me, how it is part of my identity, and what it means to others/society.

My Hair, My Identity, My Security, My Protection

I tend to look through old pictures of me and family members when we were children, and I noticed that I went through many phases with hair styles. I had very long hair that reached the bottom of my back, shoulder length hair, and even hair to my ears; the very famous bowl haircut. Although I didn’t understand that my hair was part of my identity, therefore if someone cut my hair really short, I didn’t care. I remember at a young age, probably 5 or 6, my cousin who is a year older than me was going to the salon to cut her hair very short; what I like to call the “boy haircut”; short and very easy to manage. I wanted to come along with her to the salon, and while I was there, I decided I wanted the same exact haircut. I don’t remember the exact reasons; however, I did know I wanted to be like her. When you are around the same people constantly at a young age and play with them, you tend to want to pursue and obtain the same things that they have to feel complete or significant. I don’t think I really understood what it meant to have short or long hair, I just wanted short hair.

After that part of my life, my hair was whatever my mother wanted my hair to look like, or if I needed a quick trim. Either bangs, short, medium, or long hair; this is what I had. I did at times have a say in what I wanted, but when I got to high school, I started experimenting with my own hair. I felt I needed to look a certain way, and hold this image that I tend to see other girls in my high school have. I never accepted my hair the way it was. I always dyed it lighter than what it naturally is, got a perm my junior year of high school, and somehow accidentally managed to dye my hair the color reddish/orange by my senior graduation. The girls I went to high school with had always dyed their hair or had curly hair. While in high school I believe whether boy or girl, we tend to go through the many phases when trying to fit in. I tried to be my own person especially through my personality and character traits. However, it was always about hair and image that I always tried to change to fit societal expectations. My hair however, was long in high school. I remember getting asked a question by a classmate, “Is your hair real?” I was taken aback by this question, and thought to myself, “Now why in the hell would my hair be fake?” I was naïve to even think that it was possible for women to add extensions or wear a wig. I just generally thought my long hair was easy to obtain. Of course that arrogance was soon diminished and I realized that hair is something important to one, because so many women try to add in hair that isn’t theirs to feel some security and fitting to what society expects from women.

As I mentioned, my hair after high school was always long. It was my shield, my protections, and my security. I remember in my first year of college I went to get a haircut, and it went all wrong. She cut most of it off. It went from my lower back to my shoulders. I didn’t quite understand why she did this to me, because I never asked for a short haircut, just a trim. As I ran my fingers through what I thought would be long wavy hair, it was gone. I cried for days trying to find ways to cover myself, and explain to people this wasn’t what I wanted, so that they don’t think this is how I wanted to look.

In present day, my hair is long and has its natural brown hair color. I get it trimmed every 6-8 weeks or whenever I have time to go get it cut. I usually maintain my hair certain ways. I don’t usually use a straightener or blow dryer unless I need to. I tend to let it air dry, and it has a little natural wave. I get numerous compliments on it a lot, or asked if it is real. I’ve even gotten offers to cut it all off and sell it. Some people tell me to never cut it, some tell me I should be in hair commercials, and others tell me to cut about 5-6 inches off. I appreciate the compliments, and try to be humble about it. I am known as the “girl with the beautiful long hair.” However, what really puzzles me is that people see my hair as who I only am. They believe my hair is a part of me and only me. If I were to shave off my hair, then I am no longer the person they seen before, If I cut it to shoulder length then I am still looked at differently, and if I kept it long, then this is the most accepting look for me. I tend to get people who tell me to chop it all off, and get a new style. However, as much as I do want to chop it all off and donate it; I can’t seem to mentally get myself to do it. It has become a part of my identity that I can’t seem to let go. It is my protection when I cry, it is my protection if I break out, and it is my protection from others to not ridicule me for having short hair. My dream is to cut it short without someone judging me for it being short. I tend to believe that without my hair, it is what makes my face look the way it is. Society tends to believe that hair is what makes beauty and that if you have a beautiful or well-structured face; then this is when short hair fits properly on you.  This comes to my question of the veil or hijab that one must think about. If a woman has a beautiful face (or what your own definition of what beautiful is), yet covers her hair, isn’t she still attracting the other sex? I often believe that the hijab is becoming part of our socially constructed society, and a fashion statement for some. One can appreciate the beauty of the preciously woven fabric that a woman puts on her head, however if she takes the time to properly place a beautiful piece on her head, then that contradicts what the hijab is stating. With these last few statements I am not demeaning the hijab/veils purpose, I am simply questioning why cover something so natural and beautiful with something so fashionable and beautiful? This then should go back to my statement of feeling some identity or connection with God, which is fine, however it is still amusing and very interesting to see how societal norms have pushed women to be and act a certain way to fit in the expectations of what a woman should look like, whether covered or uncovered.

The process of self-objectification is something that women tend to go through when trying to feel and obtain the image that society is expecting from women. “Self-objectification may be conceived of as one consequence of dominant sexist ideologies that justify and preserve the social status quo by gaining the compliance of women, despite the fact that gender inequality inflicts significant costs upon girls and women as individuals and as a group” (as seen in Calogero and Jost 224). Women will somehow feel they have to conform to societal roles and what each gender characteristic should entail. Since girls or woman should have medium to long hair, then this makes her a true woman. Anything shorter or comparable to what a man’s hair length should be, she is not seen purely as woman, she is seen as woman wanting to be masculine, because of her choice in hair length. I still struggle when trying to make the decision to cut my hair shorter than what it is. It will definitely be my choice if I want it short, medium, or long. It is part of my identity because I have made it part of my identity. I envy those women who do cut their hair short. I am sure it is an experience that is life changing for some, and it could be an empowering moment for them. This is something I am not sure why women do it, though, I want to do it because I want to be known for something else more than my hair, and perhaps a new look for me. I want to feel that whatever decision I made with my hair is because I want it, and not what society wants.

Women in the Middle Eastern culture (including myself) are often known for their dark, wavy, and thick hair. It is an attribute that should stick with them. One of the main desires for a man is for his wife to have beautiful hair. A woman’s soft, long locks bring a sense of security for both men and woman. It is fulfilling to have something wave from side to side and get blown in the wind to resemble the soft seductiveness of her persona. Trying to fit into something you are just not quite for is a hard thing to do. The statement I often hear is “why fit in, when you can stand out.” Which has some truth to it. As women, we need to find ourselves not condoning the patriarchal ways of what a woman should be. Though image is one of the most important aspects of our lives, and I am one to admit that I do have insecurities, however, I do realize that the insecurities I have are through the self-surveillance that I have about myself. Though each day I become more and more authentic, I believe women can be too, if they allow themselves. I don’t claim I know everything, but I can claim that these ideas and opinions that I pointed out do occur. There is also more to understand about the hijab/veils and religious values that I have not covered in here.  My hair is me, but not only me, it is my identity, but not my full identity, it is my security, not my insecurity. I do appreciate beautiful hair, whether long, short, medium, buzzed, curly, wavy, covered, and uncovered. I will continue to appreciate the compliments given to me about my hair, and think of it as something that is partially who I am. We all have something beautiful about us that we must appreciate. Appreciate it because you do, not because someone else appreciates it. Until then, I will continue to walk through the aisles of cosmetics stores looking at comparisons of shampoo, and continue to ponder the idea of cutting my hair short in the future.

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References

Baptism in the Greek Orthodox Church. Webhttp://www.kimisis.org/Orthodoxy/Baptism.html

Calogero, Rachel, M., and Jost, John, T. Self-subjugation Among Women: Exposure to Sexist Ideology, Self-objectification, and the Protective Function of the Need to Avoid Closure. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. (2011) : 100.2, 211-228.

How to Make Your Hair Grow Faster. Web. http://www.howtomakeyourhairgrowfast.net/how-fast-does-hair-grow.html

Ruby, Tabassum , F. Listening to the Voice of Hijab. Women’s Studies International Forum. (2006): 29. 54-66.

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6 Comments

  1. Kate Kali Ma said,

    May 17, 2012 at 3:39 am

    My life could almost be divided into hair periods. I grew up with long, curly hair, all my friends wanting to brush it and style it for me. College was a short bob, curly, feminine and my natural honey brown. When I started my career, I buzzed the sides and back, with a long top I straightened, dyed auburn. The “year of catastrophe” I grew it out into a wedge, dyed deep black. When I became engaged, I kept the black and grew it out in layers, allowing it to curl as it pleased. And now, pixie cut, back to my natural, now greying, honey brown- on my way back to graduate school.

    My hair has become a physical manifestation of turning points in my life. My hair is a measure of progress, which I measure by change. Social norms aside, hair has diverse personal meanings. I think the most wonderful point we could reach is if we stopped trying to assign broad meanings to appearance in general, hair cut and color included. But we are probably a long way for that. In the meantime, I’ll just keep trying to throw off assumptions by being exactly who I am instead of whatever meaning has been assigned to my appearance. And each person who makes a personal decision instead of trying to follow each style because of the social context (remember those terrible giant bangs everyone had?) brings us one step closer. So here is to hair short, long, curly, straight, dyed or not, as long as it makes the person happy.

    • feministtalk said,

      May 17, 2012 at 5:51 am

      Thank you for your comment. You had the many hair styles that you’ve mentioned, that I imagine having. I am sure I don’t fall into what society expects from me to have, or to do with my hair, my hair is long because I want it that way. What I wish I knew is how I would feel after i cut it off since I have some attachment to it. 🙂

      • Kate Kali Ma said,

        May 17, 2012 at 6:20 am

        I am absolutely certain that you have your long hair because of what it means to you, not to others. Having long (or short) hair because you love it… that is the ultimate goal. And so ignore all those people who tell you to cut it off, or grow it out, and do exactly what you want. Some with a feminist bent will get too excited about cutting hair off in a gesture of defiance against gender norms- and and thus are just as trapped inside the constraints they hate as the woman who keeps long hair out of fear. But just the act of analyzing our feelings about our hair brings us closer to being true to ourselves.

        Thanks for another great post, by the way…

      • feministtalk said,

        May 18, 2012 at 3:06 pm

        Thank you for reading. It means a lot to me. I also appreciate your views and kind words.

  2. May 31, 2012 at 3:09 am

    Yes, I agree with Kate – true liberation is doing what we want and not thinking about which gender construct our hair style falls into. I once dated a man who said, “If you cut your hair short, I’ll treat you like you have short hair.” Whatever THAT means. AND he was a hairstylist! Needless to say, he is ancient history. I washed that man right out of my hair, as they say…

    Best,
    Michelle*

    • feministtalk said,

      May 31, 2012 at 7:15 am

      Yes, hair makes people construct in their minds how genders should appear. I for one choose my hair style unless I ask for advice which is rare. Somehow people believe when they tell me what to do with my hair I should listen. I have a friend who cut her hair for locks of love, and her bfntold her she reminded him of a boy or a lesbian. Society also sees women who have short hair are associated with lesbianism. Which I disagree with that. Thank you for reading.


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