Hair History and Hysterical

Pat Rice here, obsessing over hair:

How many of you hate your hair? Wave your hands!  I don’t think I’ve ever met a person who likes their hair. If they have straight, they want curly, and vice versa. Blondes highlight and rinse their hair to be more blond. Brunettes would rather be red or blond, although I’m not certain I’ve ever met anyone who wanted to be a brunette. (And lets not talk about the difficulty of matching cover models to characters. There’s a reason we chop off their heads–or hair!)

And because I don’t have room for a deep psychological analysis of why hair is so important to our self image, I’ll stick with the superficial: human nature doesn’t change much and we’re probably duplicating the vanity of our ancestors.

One has to assume our historical heroes and heroines obsessed as much as we do over their locks.  As far back as the Greeks, women were using henna and decorating their hair with expensive ornaments. Roman women used curling irons and favored gold hair powder and often wore wigs—proving again that we’re never satisfied with what we have. Even the men attended public barber shops.

And everyone’s seen those horrible portraits of Renaissance women with their high brows and hair pulled tight enough for migraines—they not only plucked their eyebrows to achieve that look, but they plucked their entire hair line!  Owwww.  Almost as bad as the sixties when teenage girls ironed their locks and slept on orange juice cans to achieve that “natural” look.

Since characterization—what makes our heroes and heroines tick—is a favorite interest of mine, I’m quite enamored of the psychology of hair. Heck, we’ve even had a play written about it.  Remember the song from HAIR?  I want it long, straight, curly, fuzzy, snaggy, shaggy, ratty, matty, oily, greasy, fleecy… Quite an ode!  Repulsive, maybe, but topical.

But have you ever noticed that we seldom give our characters bad hair?  Oh yeah, a few chicklit characters will scream about their hair, but these are modern characters who have hairdressers that can turn the most cantankerous mop into a gleaming, shiny crown for a price. But our Regency heroines didn’t have access to electric curlers and mousse.  Wouldn’t they have bemoaned a frizzy hair day? That they were a mousy brown and not a shining blond?  What about their mothers, how often do they complain that their hair is getting thin as well as gray?

And our heroes!  How many bald ones have you noticed?  I love the website describing “mullets” through the ages (beware, it plays the Cowsills).  The picture of Napoleon looks like some greasy character dragged out of an alleyway after a bad night on the town. Can’t you imagine that more than a few of our rakish bachelors started finding a comb full of hair when they reached their sophisticated thirties? Wouldn’t many of them be fretting over a receding hairline and a bald spot on the back of their heads?

It’s not just the looks of our characters that concern me.  How a person feels about her appearance is extremely important in how she behaves.  A heroine with frizzy mousy hair would want to cover it up.  In the Regency era, she might buy elaborate hats and bonnets, and prefer daytime outings to elegant evening occasions.  Of course, in much of the Georgian era, the wealthy had access to excessive, expensive powdered wigs.  That might cover up thinning hair and mousy locks, but the weight of those things must have been crushing. How many went around with aching heads? Not to mention the occasional mouse or flea infestation since the things were never washed. Ugh, shudder. I prefer less wealthy Georgian heroines, probably for that reason.

I’m as guilty of giving my characters gorgeous hair as the next person. Healthy, handsome hair has always been a symbol of beauty and virility.  To some extent, the behavior is probably genetic.  Why would a cave man grab the hair of a nearly bald or gray woman to haul her home if he could have one with young, healthy hair?  The young one would be much more likely to reproduce. Or not fight back if her suitor had lovely hair, too.

The question teasing at the back of my mind is this—What would happen if fashion declared that we must all be bald? Or cover our hair so it can’t be seen? How would we judge people then?  By the size of their noses? The color of their skin?  The size of their eyes or forehead?  The number of wrinkles? No doubt, all of the above, choosing priorities by culture.

Wouldn’t it be lovely if we could all put our characters and intelligence out for display instead of something so superficial as our looks? Maybe we should tattoo our IQs on our foreheads!

Okay, I’m ready, how do you feel about your hair? And what characteristic would you prefer become symbolic of health and virility?

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Hair History and Hysterical — 24 Comments

  1. I quite like mine. It’s thick, wavy, and sort of mousy-brown. My beard used to be lit with red when I let it grow out: now it’s salted with grey even at the stubble stage, which is another point in favour of shaving clean.

    I can’t resist mentioning here that the peasant-hero of my mediaevaloid work-in-revision looks average in almost every department except for her (thick, mousy-brown) hair, which is very distinctive indeed. She has one of those name-and-patronymic combos that about three girls get per generation per village, and is therefore known as Katy Elflocks.

    She’s not called that because she looks like she shares Lúthien Tinúviel’s hairdresser…

  2. There a bit in The Story Girl (or poss. its sequel) by L.M. Montomery from the early twentieth century in which one of the characters is devestated because her hair has to be washed right before the school concert–she knows this is going to make it look fizzy and horrible, as opposed to its usual unwashed sleek smoothness. How things have changed!

  3. Roman beauties would bleach their hair blonder with urine. The fiction ramifications of this do not bear visualization.
    Even putting your hair up could be a literal pain. Laura Ingalls Wilder complained of how pinning up her braids gave her a headache — her daughter reports it. But how you wore it signaled age and status; only a very humble or young woman could just wear her hair down in public, so when Laura went to the bank she had to put her hair up, to indicate she was a woman to be respected.
    And probably nobody just wore it hanging long and loose — too dangerous, in the days of open fires and candles.

  4. I don’t just like my hair; I love it. I’d like a more dramatic color–it’s also mousy brown, and in my 20s and 30s I bleached it blonde often enough, though I also occasionally dyed it red. I gave up coloring it in my early 40s, around the time I started going gray. But color aside, I’ve always known that I got VERY lucky in the hair department. It’s thick, wavy, healthy, and easy to take care of. It looks good short or long, and it’s even graying gracefully.

  5. I love my hair, too. I’ve had cuts I don’t like, the length and thickness get awfully hot in the summer, and on humid days it is impossible to keep it from frizzing, but I still love it. I even like my natural color — light brown — though I confess I have to cheat a bit to keep it that color.

    I was blessed with thick, fast-growing hair. When I went to the beauty shop as a kid, the old ladies getting their hair done — many of whom were having careful work done to make sure their thin hair covered their head nicely — used to sigh and say I got more cut off than they had on their heads. Perhaps that’s how I learned to appreciate it.

    It occurs to me that I don’t have characters who worry about their hair. They worry about their appearance in other ways, but hair doesn’t come up. Though I do give my characters haircuts and colors that I wouldn’t give myself. I love hair experiments in principle, but I like my hair the way it is too much to try something crazy with it.

  6. I’m quite fond of my hair, and I love the way it has turned randomly gray. I have more or less always liked it, except in my teenage years when one was not allowed to like anything about one’s body.

    But that’s not why I stopped by. I stopped by to say that it makes me sad to see a blog with so many strong women participating start out by assuming that everyone has a negative body image. I’d like to think we were better than that.

  7. I haven’t cut my hair since my parents gave up on forcing me, when I was sixteen. It’s darkened from blond to gold to brown, but now that it’s going silver, it’s lightening again. I’ve been thinking of using henna, for fun, now that I’m sixty. It reaches the backs of my knees.

    Was it the fourteenth century when women shaved their hairlines, making their foreheads seem unnaturally high, the rest of their hair stuffed up into their headdresses? That was the era of the pregnant-looking houpelands, if I remember right.

    Fashion has always been weird.

    Napoleon, I have to say, did clean up well after 1796. Before then, you could get yourself lynched if you looked too ‘aristocratic’ though admittedly he was pretty shabby when he was first introduced in Barras’s circles. But Josephine changed all that. She was quite particular. (In one of his love letters, he begged her not to bathe for two days because he liked her natural scent.)

    I think heroes and heroines with pretty hair go along with never having teeth problems, or corns, or bunions, or zits. Real life gives us plenty of that–when we read romance, we want to be in the skin of the Pretty People–even if we are quite satisfied with our bodies as they are.

  8. This is fascinating. I’ve never met so many people happy with their hair, although admittedly, I’d never thought about whether men liked their hair, as long as they had some. My first hair impressions were from salons when the old women cooed over my poodle head and I thought they were all nuts. Even then, I never accepted other people’s opinions. “G”

    Denying our perceptions of body image isn’t a sign of strength. Accepting that we all have images of ourselves and discussing how we deal with them is how we make ourselves strong. I’d really love to know why hair is such an important cultural statement throughout history. Perhaps understanding that would help us understand why we care about hair.

  9. I just got email spam offering me fuller, thicker hair (really hilarious, if you know my hair), which could be seen as support for Pat’s theory that a lot of people do worry about their hair too much.

    Debbie, it also bothers me that so many women have negative self images, not just about hair but about other aspects of their appearance as well. I think this is partly because the changes wrought by feminism are still far from complete. I’m glad Pat brought it up this time, because we’ve stumbled on a lot of people who do love their hair, and many of them love it even though it doesn’t fit into conventional beauty standards. Our response changes the discussion.

    I recall being at an Aikido party several years back and seeing people dressed up for a formal occasion instead of in their usual gi and hakama. Seeing people I knew well in an unusual setting made me think about their appearance in a way that I never had before. Although all these people were martial artists and therefore in pretty good physical shape, only a very few of them would qualify as really good looking or meeting the current standards for perfect body size, etc. But since they were my friends, I hadn’t ever thought much about the way they looked before. (Once someone is my friend, I don’t tend to think about what they look like on an objective scale.) At that party I understood — on the gut level, not just the intellectual level — that very few people actually meet those exacting standards of beauty. But since most women think they ought to meet those standards, most are unhappy with their looks in some way.

    The more we talk about it, though, the more these things will change. Meanwhile, maybe we need more ordinary looking people in our books, just to remind us that most of us are ordinary looking.

  10. This is by and large not a field where how you look has any impact for good or for ill. On the Internet, as they say, nobody knows if you are a dog. (John Scalzi announced today that he is going to appear on a local TV show, “exuding raw nerd sexuality.”) We must all be grateful that we are not Hollywood starlets, with a shelf life of Dannon yogurt.

  11. Unfortunately, in Romancelandia, there is still the perception that young and beautiful and photogenic sells books. Our conferences require that we dress for success. And heaven forbid that we mention poor health! I don’t know how much of this is reflected in what our readers read, but I do know I’ve had more than one editor beautify a character that I didn’t want beautiful. So perhaps I’m more sensitive to this topic than other genre writers. And yes, I’m a Leo, and I know how to turn heads simply by changing my style, so I’m not talking through my hat when I say hair is a societal phenomenon.

  12. “How a person feels about her appearance is extremely important in how she behaves.”

    So true, Pat. Because her appearance affects how she feels about herself. And how the world feels about her. I know that ever since I finally got a hair cut two months ago, I’ve been selling books like crazy. The world has finally been put to right now that my appearance has been tended to.

  13. Sue has nailed it — time for my semi-annual stylish cut! Book sales!

    I was one of those who pined for different hair. Mine was light brown, very thin and fine, where my sisters had Mom’s hair — dark, thick, medium, and glossy. I wanted black, red, blonde — anything but what I had.

    Until I noticed one day in the sun that I had all colors — blonde, red, different browns, an occasional black or red — and that made me feel like it was very unique. I never colored it, except for a year or two where I was ill and didn’t know it, and needed something to brighten things up. Blonde streaks gave me a new perception of the world. Stranger men would ask if I needed help getting something from top shelves at the grocery. Being a blonde does attract more attention!

    Now, my side of the family comes to the fore. Younger family members dye their hair, while mine is a soft brown, smooth as silk. I eat partly to keep it that way — I love the idea of having hair like silk, and dread what dye might do to the texture.

    But my next heroine is actually going to have brown hair — bor-ing! She’ll come around.

  14. I remember being shocked to learn that it was immodest to show one’s hair in the middle ages into the Tudor era (for women, of course, since that was the time of peacock men). I’m very glad women everywhere dropped the wimple look…except nuns, of course.

  15. I found my first grey hair at 16, and thought, “How cool is that!” I longed for a full head of silver hair, just because it would br so unique at that age. Instead, I had to settle for bleaching it (just the bangs, because unique remained important right through art college).

    Now in my 30s, I’m developing a grey streak (pretty much exactly where I bleached it for so many years) and I have no intention of covering it up. As I approached 30, I decided to stop fussing so much over my looks and wear my age with pride.

    I started cutting my own hair a few years ago, just to keep it manageable, because I don’t think about my hair too much anymore, and find going to the hairdresser a pain in the butt. Not caring has been so liberating.

  16. LOL, I want one of those book cuts. And just the response I received on this topic–a record number of comments– shows hair is a concern, whether we acknowledge it or not.

    And yes, the blond attention-getting is precisely what I’m talking about. I just don’t understand WHY this happens.

  17. Count me as another person who likes her hair just fine as it is. Mine is thick, dark brown (used to be auburn when I was a teen, but then darkened) and goes all the way down to just below my tailbone.

    When I was four, my Mom had my aunt (who used to be a hairdresser) cut my hair very short, because short hair was practical. The short hair looked horrible on me and people kept mistaking me for a boy (I mostly wore pants, because pants were practical, too). To this day, I hate photos of myself from the short hair period, because I look so awful. Sometimes I wonder whether my aunt didn’t give me that awful cut for malicious reasons (I’ve never gotten along with her and she loves pushing other people down).

    I endured the awful haircut for about a year, then I declared that I wanted to have long hair again and refused to have it cut. Since then I never cut off more than a few centimeters of split endings. I’ve never dyed it either, though I experimented with a curling iron in my teens. Didn’t work, my hair is too thick to maintain a curl for more than an hour or two.

    When I was a kid, I wanted the hair of Princess Leia or at least Janice Rand from Star Trek. But since Leia’s hairstyle is unttainable without hairpieces and a Hollywood stylist, I’m very happy with what I have.

  18. I have learned to like my Fierce! Attack! Curls!–although when I was a teen and the style was long and straight, what I got was not particularly fashionable: long and frizzy-wavy. I didn’t know it curled until I cut it short after college. And while I have had phases in my life where I spent more time on my appearance than I do most days now, I have never had a particular skill with hair, so what I want is a cut that permits me to wash my hair, shake my head, and go on with my life. Fierce! Attack! Curls! seem to do reasonably well with that.

    But Sarah Tolerance has the long straight hair I wanted as a teenager. What’s the good of being a writer if you can’t give your protagonist the hair you wanted at 17?

  19. I’ve had completely silver hair for decades. But around the time of my mom’s last illness and death fell into a bad depression, mostly from exhaustion and suddenly being thrust into the role of family matriarch when I’m the baby of the clan. I started coloring my hair to help lift my spirits. And continued. I like being mistaken for 15 years younger than I am at cons. Of course at cons my energy is high and I never act my age. Just because I grow older doesn’t mean I have to grow up <-: Now I've made the decision. After a busy summer of travel and personal appearances that ends on my 62nd birthday, I will cease with the dye. A year from now expect me to sport a short mop of snow.

  20. I can’t say I love my hair, but it’s what grows on my head and I’ve pretty early accepted my Medusa snakes (now, if I also could turn people into stone that would come handy some days 😉 ).

    I admit that most of my characters have nice hair, though. But one of my Roman MCs who spends several months as prisoner of the Germans gets introduced to the lice comb at some point. 🙂 One of my Fantasy characters wears her hair shoulder length like a man in that world because it’s more practical. When her scheming half-brother tells her to grow it so she ‘looks like a woman’ and he can marry her off to one of his minions, she tells him very clearly what she thinks about that and calls her undead bodyguards to kick him out of the solar.

  21. Things do look very different from over here on the male side: I’ve never been terribly attentive to my looks, but others (and especially the women of my family) eventually got me trained in basic grooming.

    My hairline started retreating when I was 16 — classic Male Pattern Baldness. This was right about when Rogaine first hit the market, and my family offered to pay for it ($1000/year, back then). I told them I had no intention of spending the next few decades peering into a mirror, wondering if my hairline had crept back another quarter-inch! But then, there was another factor involved: Dad’s whole side of the family likewise had MPB, and I saw nothing wrong with looking like Dad and my uncles. In fact, my baldness progressed faster than any of theirs, so I matched them more closely than I expected: My hairline merged with my bald spot well before 40.

    I tried growing out what hair I had in college, but the wavy brown hair didn’t look nearly as good as it did/does on my sister. I also tried growing out the beard, but then it just looked scraggly. So much for looking like the local alpha geeks (that is, computer programmers)…. I still hated haircuts, so I tended to let it go too long — when I did get shorn, the barbers always used to say “oh, now you look younger!”

    Nowadays, I keep roughly the same hair- and beard-style as my father did (plus a moustache), but cut short all round. These last few years the beard’s turned salt-and-pepper, which is a little unsettling, but certainly not in the same way as for many women.

    I don’t want to get too far into discussing the looks of my female relatives, but Mom’s side of the family is all beautiful women (Grandpa excepted 😉 ) — who’ve always looked noticeably younger than their actual ages (including Grandpa). So then, on both sides, we’ve got dramatic hereditary factors to our appearance, and very much a “family look” — that’s something that might well play nicely in a fictional setting.