Hair is often characterized as a mere cosmetic feature of the body, however it acts as a vessel through which a plethora of discourses are reflected. An individual’s race, gender, class, or identity has the ability to be represented through ones hair. Hair acts as physical manifestation through which individuals choose to represent their paradigm. However, social factors simultaneously interact with personal beliefs, causing an intersection between the individual and society. This intersection is represented through the relationship between gender and hair in the Victorian and modern eras, and the concept of race in American throughout the slavery and freedom of African Americans.
The history of African Americans from slavery to freedom can be mapped through the thesis, anti-thesis, and, synthesis of hair. During the 15th and 19th centuries Africans were taken from their native land and transported to United States. Through this process, Africans not only lost their freedom, but also their entire culture. This included the styling and grooming of elaborate hairstyles. As slaves, Africans were unable to practice their former rituals, and were degraded for their non-European features. Hair, which would normally be viewed as a source of pride in Africa, was reduced to an un-groomed, ‘woolly’ texture, a characteristic, which a Eurocentric culture associated to an animal hide. The dominant European culture perpetuated that only the straight, fine hair of the ruling class was an acceptable discourse, thus African hair became an abnormal ethnic other. Conversely, in the freedom rights movement of the 1950’s the African American population began to gain autonomy over their lives. However, this newfound freedom was expressed through a series of constrained choices. The elaborate hairstyles of Africa were still looked down upon by the upper class. Thus, much of the black population spent time on being appealing to the white class; straightening hair became another reflection of ruling class ideologies. In fact, Madame C.J. Walker became the first African American millionaire through selling hair-straightening products. Millions of dollars were spent on being, “well adjusted” to white culture. In the following decades, a synthesis of African and American culture was achieved; the looks of both Dianna carol and Angela Davis are reflected through a combination of traditional African hairstyles and American hairstyles. Today, the styling of hair has been restored as a representation of pride and a reflection of culture; hair acts as a medium to showcase art and talent within the African American community.
The masculinity or femininity of an individual is represented through the presence or lack thereof of hair. During the Victorian ear, upper class women conveyed wealth through their outward appearance. This included the elaborate, ostentatious styling of hair a look, which required servants to achieve. Hair became a symbol of status and a link to gender identity; opposite sexes were expected to have opposing hairstyles. When woman began to gain more autonomy, the constraint of ornamented hair was replaced with freer, shorter styles. In modern society, hair is still viewed as a source of attraction. In the case of female cancer patients versus male cancer patients, hair has a higher value for women. This is because femininity is often associated with, and attached to hair. In men, hair represents the level of youth an individual possesses; boys are allowed to have freer flowing lightly coloured hair, while men in mid life typically have a more conservative style with a distinguished gray colour. Hair can also act as a means of identification or membership to a sub-culture. The military presents an image of clean-cut uniformity; hair is expected to be short and clean to express the order and discipline of an army. In contrast, the counter culture hippies of the 1970’s had long free flowing hair, and presented the antithesis of military conformity.
Millions of Dollars are spent annually within the hair industry, this is because gender, race, and, class can all be reflected through hair. The intersection between an individuals values and societal pressures are conveyed through the fluidity of hair. The African American culture was shaped through the dynamic thesis, anti-thesis, and synthesis of style. Furthermore, the concept of masculinity, femininity, and identity of an individual can be portrayed through hair.