Every now and then we come across news reports about bullying acts that involve, among other things, the complete shaving of the vexed person.
In these pages we have often drawn attention to the fact that human beings are “symbolic animals”, namely that our mind acts through symbols and frequently – sometimes unconsciously – relies on myths: therefore, why do people consider cutting someone’s hair by force as a disfigurement? Is it only an aesthetic concern, or is there more to it?
First of all, this kind of violence damages somebody’s appearance, and the hairdo has always been one of the most important ways of expressing personality. Since ancient times, every hairstyle has been assigned more or less explicit meanings.
For example, to wear one’s hair down was normally considered as a sign of mourning or submission. Yet, in different contexts such as ritual ceremonies, to leave one’s hair down was a crucial element of some shamanic dances – the irruption of the sacred that wildly sweeps social conventions and restrictions away.
Consider that women have always regarded their hair as one of their most effective weapons of seduction: the hairdo –to hide or show the hair, to wear it up or down – frequently marked the difference between available or modest women; therefore, some cultures go as far as to forbid married women to show their hair (in Russia, for example, there is a saying that “a girl has fun only as long as she is bareheaded“), or at least oblige her to hide it every time she enters a church (Christian West), in order to inhibit its function as a sexual provocation.
The way people comb their hair reflects their individual psychology, of course, but also the values shared by specific social contexts: fashion, the beliefs widespread in a certain period, precepts of religious institutions or a rebellion against all these things. Hairdos that challenge the dominant taste and knock down barriers have often come with social or artistic rebellions (Scapigliatura, the beat generation, the hippie movement, punk, feminism, LGBT, etc.).
Therefore at the end of the 1960s – a period marked by strong social tensions – longhaired people were often charged by the police, in most cases for no other reason than their look:
Almost cut my hair, it happened just the other day.
It’s getting’ kinda long, I coulda said it wasn’t in my way.
But I didn’t and I wonder why, I feel like letting my freak flag fly,
Cause I feel like I owe it to someone.
(Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, Almost Cut My Hair, 1970)
Have you ever changed the colour of your hair, your haircut or hairdo at crucial moments in your life, as if by changing the appearance of your hair, you could also change your inner self? Obviously nowadays hairdos are still strongly connected to personal emotions. But there’s more to it.
Like nails, hair has always been associated with sexual and vital force by the public imagination. Therefore, according to magical thinking a powerful empathy exists between people and their hair. It is a bond that can’t be broken even after the hair are severed from the body: the locks that have been cut or got stuck between the comb’s teeth are precious ingredients for spells and evil eyes, whereas a saint’s hair is normally worshipped as a very miraculous relic. Hair preserves the virtues of its owners and the intimate relationship between human beings and their hair outlive its severance.
Hence the custom, within many families, to keep hair bunches and the first deciduous teeth. The scope of such practices goes beyond the perpetuation of memory – in a sense they attempt to guarantee the survival of the condition of the hair’s owner.
(Chevalier-Gheebrant, Dictionnaire des symboles, 1982).
The hair bunch that a man receives from the woman he loves as a token of love is a recurrent fetish in nineteenth century Romanticism, but it is during the Victorian era that the obsession with hair attains its summit, especially in the field of jewellery and of accessories connected with mourning. Brooches and clasps containing the hair of the deceased, arranged in floral patterns, complicated arrangements to be hanged on walls, bracelets made of exquisitely plaited hair… Victorian mourning jewelry is one of the most moving examples of popular funeral art. At the beginning the female relatives of the deceased used his/her hair to create these mementos to carry with them forever; photography wasn’t always available at that time, and many people couldn’t afford a portrait, so these jewels were the only tangible memory of the deceased.
Over time, this kind of objects became part of the fashion of the period, especially after the death of Prince Albert in 1861, when queen Victoria and her courtiers dressed in mourning for dozens of years. After the example of the Royals, black turned out to be the most popular colour and mourning jewellery became so widespread that it began to contain hair belonging to other people as well as to the deceased. In the second half of the nineteenth century, 50 tons of human hair were imported by English jewellers to their country every year. In order to establish a connection between the jewel and the deceased, the name or its initials started to be carved on the object.
All this brings us back to the idea that hair is connected to the essence of its owner’s life, and holds at least a spark of his/her personality.
Let’s go back to the victim mentioned at the beginning of this article, whose head was shaven by force.
This is a shocking insult because it is perceived as a metaphorical castration for a male, and as a denial of femininity in the case of a female victim. The hair is associated to certain powers, such as strength and virility – consider Samson, for example – but above all to the concept of identity.
In Vietnam, for example, a peculiar divinatory art was developed, that may be called “trichomancy”, which allows to understand somebody’s destiny or virtues by observing the arrangement of hair follicles on the scalp. And if hair tells many things about individual personality, to the monks that renounce their individuality to follow the ways of the Lord, shaving is not only a sacrifice but a surrender, a renunciation to the subject’s prerogatives and identity itself.
To cut the hair is not a trivial act.
In the past centuries a thick head of hair was a sign of power and nobleness. So the aristocratic privilege to wear long hair in France was exclusively reserved to Kings and Princes, whereas in China all that wore their hair short – which was considered as a real mutilation – were banned from some public employments. According to American Natives, to scalp the enemy was an ultimate mutilation, the highest expression of contempt. In parallel, within some cultures to cut the hair during the first years of somebody’s life was a taboo because the new-born babies may run the risk to lose their soul. Countless peoples consider a baby’s first haircut as a rite of passage, involving celebrations and propitiatory acts to draw evil spirits away – after part of their vital force has gone together with their hair, babies are actually more exposed to dangers. Within the Native American tribe of the Hopi in Arizona, the haircut is a collective ritual that takes place once a year, during the celebrations of the winter solstice. Elsewhere, the haircut is suspended during wars, or as a consequence of a vow: Egyptians didn’t shave during a journey and recently the barbudos of Fidel Castro swore not to touch their beards nor hair until Cuba would be freed by dictatorship.
All this explains why to cut the enemy’s hair by force is regarded as a terrible punishment since antiquity, sometimes even worse than death. People always assign deep meanings to every aspect of reality; even today a mere offence between kids that, all things considered, could be innocuous (the hair will quickly grow back) is usually a shock for the public opinion; maybe because in the haircut people recognize – with the obvious differences – the echoes of cruel rites and practices with an ancestral symbolic significance.