By: Regina Vargas
11 months and 13 days. It’s been almost a year since my last haircut. For as long as I can remember, the idea of a haircut always excited me. I would walk into the hair salon expecting to be a brand new version of myself when I walked out – but in reality, I always found myself feeling lost afterwards, as if four inches of my identity, rather than my hair, had been cut away. What a strange feeling it is to become a different woman after a haircut. Hair and identity have been linked together for centuries; the length, color, and style of a haircut has more significance than a fashion statement. The significance of hair has been a vital aspect of nearly every culture in history.
In Native American cultures, long hair is viewed as “an extension of thought” and personal strength explains Paula Lightening Woman Johnstone in her article on the significance of hair in Native American traditions. Rather than an expression of style, long hair is a religious tradition in Native American tribes. One such instance of religious connotation is that hair is only to be cut when mourning the death of a loved one. When Native Americans became oppressed by European colonization, men’s hair was the first thing on their body that was altered, cutting it off as a symbol of defeat. This custom can be tied to the belief that a haircut often indicates a new beginning.
Johnstone explains how cutting one’s hair signifies the need to make a change and begin a new life. It is extremely common for women in today’s world to chop off their locks following a heartbreak, needing to rid themselves of the past. This mirrors the Native American tradition of tribes cutting their hair in order to mourn deep wounds caused by trauma. Today, Native American boys sporting long hair are still subjected to unjust discrimination by authoritative figures. In 2014, a 5-year-old Native American boy named Malachi Wilson was sent home from his first day of school in Texas due to his long hair violating the school dress code. Though his hair is a part of his religious beliefs, the school demanded he cut it if he wanted to return to school. This violation of the Constitution and Texas Law portrays the continuation of Native American oppression in America.
It is extremely common for women in today’s world to chop off their locks following a heartbreak, needing to rid themselves of the past. This mirrors the Native American tradition of tribes cutting their hair in order to mourn deep wounds caused by trauma.
In African-American cultures, women used to regularly manipulate their natural hair to conform to European beauty standards; straightening their curls or afros because society has made them believe that their natural look is not beautiful. It wasn’t until around the Natural Hair Movement in the ‘60s that black women decided to take a stand against racism and harsh standards, letting their natural hair symbolize their identity and power. I reached out to Lauren Bell, a 20-year-old African-American student, to get a personal perspective on the importance of her natural hair and how it connects to her identity. She revealed to me how she struggled to embrace her natural hair growing up due to unrealistic beauty standards portrayed in the media. Although black women have recently received more leading roles, like Kerry Washington in Scandal, their characters strictly wear their hair straightened in order to look professional. Today, Bell is a strong believer in the importance of going natural.
“I think it's super important as a black woman because for years it's been reinforced in society that our hair is inferior or not good enough. So to embrace one's natural hair is to embrace your own natural beauty and to me that is extremely important,” she says. Although the media has done a better job to portray minorities as beautiful, like in Dove’s ‘Love Your Curls’ campaign, she still believes there is a lot of work to be done. “I definitely do think that there is some prejudice that still goes against black women wearing their hair naturally especially in the workplace, or at least a stigma of it. Even for myself, when I wear my hair natural to work I have to wonder if I would’ve worn my hair straight whether or not I would be treated the same way,” Bell explains.
"Even for myself, when I wear my hair natural to work I have to wonder if I would’ve worn my hair straight whether or not I would be treated the same way."
This fear of being treated differently because of hairstyle portrays the negative effects of associating one’s hair with an identity. Natural hair among black women has been labelled “unprofessional” for years – Bell believes the media is greatly at fault. When asked about why it’s important to sport natural beauty, Bell says, “black women in America are constantly being told our beauty is not good enough.” Wearing one’s hair naturally has become important for women everywhere, in order to work towards putting an end to impossible beauty standards for black women portrayed in the media.
Hair continues to be a significant part of fashion throughout time; it is a form of self-expression. It can be easily manipulated to signify one’s identity, and has developed into a symbolic part of one’s look. Breaking these hair stereotypes will help put an end to discrimination due to a hairstyle, allowing it to symbolize power and individuality.