Somewhere along the road from “East African plains ape” to “anatomically modern Homo sapiens,” we shed most of our hair. It does linger in places, though, the most noticeable of which is the glorious mane atop the head.
As with skin care, keeping our hair clean is theoretically a straightforward process: just wash it with some soap. But here again, we run into problems very quickly. If you strip all the oil out of your hair, it’s very liable to get dry and breakable, mat into knots, and so forth. This is particularly true if you don’t have specialized shampoo, but are just using the same soap with which you scrub your hands and possibly your laundry. Washing your hair every day tends to be an actively bad idea under those circumstances. And, as with bathing in general, you have to consider the time required for your hair to dry (not a fast process before the invention of hair dryers), and what might happen if you run around with it wet — especially in a cold winter! It was more likely to be a once-a-week thing, or a once-a-month thing.
In between the washing and the drying, most of us need to condition our hair, i.e. restore some of what we’ve scrubbed out of it. This stage is why, when you read historical texts, you’ll find numerous references to people’s hair being oiled, moisturized with shea butter, and so forth. First you strip out the bad (dirty) oil, and then you put in the good stuff. Like soap, this is often scented — which used to make hair care a dance between the pleasant aroma of fresh oil and the rancid odor of oil gone bad. Depending on the oil you use, there’s also a risk of it rubbing off on surrounding material; hat bands can get quite filthy, as can pillowcases. And if you’ve ever wondered why old-fashioned armchairs have a little doily up at the top, that’s called an anti-macassar, because its purpose was to keep the macassar oil on the heads of Victorian gentlemen from staining the non-removable upholstery. But what type of conditioning your hair needs is going to depend on your particular situation: flat hair or textured, oily scalp or dry, are going to call for different treatments.
It might not just be natural scalp secretions and old conditioning oil you’re having to remove from your hair. We like sculpting our manes into a wild variety of forms, and we use an equally wild variety of products to make that happen, from modern hair sprays and mousses, to waxes, to greases made from animal fat, to petroleum jelly, to clay. We constantly want our hair to be a different shape, whether that’s a sleek helmet, a giant pouf, a set of perfect sausage curls, an intricate arrangement of braids, a straight waterfall, or something else entirely. As with skin products, sometimes the materials we use to make this happen are destructive to the health of our hair . . . but that doesn’t stop us from trying.
Sometimes the easier answer is to just not use your own hair. Wigs have a venerable history, and not just for the naturally balding. In many cases this was done as a matter of hygiene: although head lice are relatively uncommon nowadays, they used to be a massive problem. Removing them with a comb is possible, but requires very fine teeth and diligent brushing; many medications have been used as treatments, but the traditional ones do not appear to be very effective. The easiest answer is simply to shave the head entirely, depriving the lice of their habitat.
Partial or complete shaving might also happen for other reasons. Some people who are going bald naturally decide to embrace the inevitable; Christian monks traditioanlly tonsure themselves by shaving the top of the head, while Buddhist monks clear the scalp entirely. It’s also been a form of punishment, as I mentioned before, or a sign of status. That one can arguably go either way: taking care of long hair requires resources, so maybe slaves have shaved heads, but at the same time, a truly bare scalp instead of a stubbled one requires daily maintenance. And although this takes us away from the head, I should note that there are also situations which call for shaving off body hair, too. Some of those are practical (competitive swimmers trying to remove even that microscopic amount of drag), while others are purely fashion (Western women didn’t generally shave their legs and armpits until they started wearing clothing that showed those parts of their bodies — and there’s been pushback against it recently).
But back to the head, and to wigs: even if you aren’t infested with head lice, wigs have a lot going for them. At night you can take them off to sleep more comfortably and avoid mussing them beyond repair. You can style them without needing the wearer to sit still for the whole tedious process, and subject them to treatments (like dipping into boiling water to kill the lice) that are a complete non-starter for a living scalp. It’s a lot safer to curl or iron flat hair that isn’t on somebody’s head, too — burning the skin is a real danger, quite apart from the damage it does to the hair itself.
Where does the hair come from? These days we can make pretty decent-looking wigs with artificial material, but the best stuff still comes from a living creature. Which can be from an animal — apparently goats and yaks have both been used, which makes sense when you consider that goats are the source of mohair — but in many cases it’s cut from a human head. Remember that bit in Les Miserables when Fantine sells her hair? If you’re a poor woman lucky enough to have strong, healthy hair, cutting it off and hocking it to a wig-maker can be a good way to get a quick infusion of cash.
If the poor selling their hair to supply the elaborate wigs of the rich sounds political to you, you’re not wrong. In fact, there is a massive interplay between hair and politics. What shape your hair takes isn’t only a matter of aesthetic preference; like light vs. dark skin, it has acquired a massive weight as a result of racism. Black people, women in particular, have faced huge pressure over the last century to straighten their textured hair to conform more closely to white standards of beauty, with chemicals that damage hair and scalp alike — and by pressure, I mean that schools and companies have passed dress codes prohibiting hairstyles associated with that hair type, such as dreadlocks. And that’s hardly the only instance of hair being politicized; the Qing Dynasty mandated that Han Chinese men adopt the Manchu queue, with the back braided and the front shaved, which was a massive offense for a people who traditionally did not cut their hair. There were actual rebellions as a result — and then later, men wearing that style became a target for anti-Chinese violence in areas of immigration. What seems like “mere fashion” can be a great deal more.
But then again, that’s fashion for you. Whether it’s what we wear or our bodies themselves, we use them to signal all kinds of things about our gender, social class, ethnicity, occupation, sexuality, and more. There’s nothing “mere” about it.