During the early part of the pandemic, one of the things that a great number of people have found hard was not being able to access their hairdresser or barber. My FB and Twitter feeds were later full of people being joyful when they finally could get a hair cut and expressing how much better they felt about themselves once they’d had a cut and restyle. The last time I can remember having a trim was in 1998, so their joy wasn’t something I could relate to directly, because I’ve never enjoyed having anything done with or to my hair and having it cut filled me with fear and dread as a child and a teenager. Aged 14, I decided to grow my hair long, having been mistaken for a boy at school; a year prior to that I might have been delighted but something had changed. My mum insisted I go every six weeks for a trim, to ensure I didn’t have split ends ruining the entire strand of hair.
That’s the first big myth I want to explode. The trimming of long hair is done mostly for aesthetic reasons, because people like to see tidy, even ends, much as they like to see neatly trimmed and edged lawns. It was put about by hairdressers that hair NEEDS to be trimmed to stop splits extending up the hair shafts. They don’t split like that. Yes, I know, you can often see multiple splits along a single hair. That’s not one split running all the way, like a dropped stitch or broken thread in weaving. Hair is dead. The moment a hair emerges from the follicle, it’s dead matter. It’s made of a protein called keratin, same substance as your nails and indeed, the horn of a rhino. How long your hair grows is also subject to certain issues of personal biology. Each hair has a life span (between 3 and 7 years is the usual range but some can live a lot longer) before it drops from the follicle. We lose between 50 and 100 (ish) hairs every single day, but fear not, the human head contains between 90 and 150 thousand follicles and therefore, usually, hairs. Redheads have fewest but seem to have the thickest hair as each strand tends to be thicker, and blondes have the most, but it’ often the thinnest. Brunettes are in the middle. Hair goes through a cycle. The cycle involves growing, resting (ie, not growing) falling out, pausing before beginning again. The rate of growth of hair is also a factor. Some hair grows very slowly, some very fast. It grows faster in the summer and it also grows faster on the side of your head that tends to be on the pillow more. Average growth is about one cm a month. If you have a head of hair that grows fast and each hair has a longer life span, you will be able to grow your hair very long. If you have slow growing hair with a short life span, it may well never get beyond your shoulders. You can’t change this. You can ensure that the bed (the scalp) your hair grows from is kept healthy and nourished so that the hair has the best chance of growing well. Once a hair has emerged from the scalp it is dead matter. Conditioners cannot repair the hair; they can make a superficial coating to smooth the hair, prevent further damage and ease the passage of a brush or a comb. The oil the scalp produces is called sebum and it’s the body’s natural lubricant for hair, to keep it clean and water repellent. So we wash it out, sometimes daily. My scalp is prone to psoriasis and general flakiness which can make it unbearably itchy at times. Nonetheless I have unusually long hair. After my parathyroid tumour was removed, my hair started growing properly again, having stalled around hip/waist length. Wet it now reaches below my knees and touches my calves. And no, it’s not difficult to look after. It’s easier than short hair, for me.
But it is very much a part of my identity. Who I am, if you like. There’s a lot of information about hair, that claims there’s a connection between hair and being terribly spiritual. One story cited Native American (don’t ask which tribe, I have no idea) beliefs that hair is a sort of cosmic antenna, connecting us to the cosmos, making those with long hair supernaturally sensitive. There is some truth to this, but not how people think. Hair serves various biological purposes on us mammals. It keeps us warm, keeps us cool and is also used for display to the opposite sex. It also serves as part of a sensory system. If you have a cat, you will notice that they have whiskers on other parts of their bodies. These are called vibrissae, and they each attach to the body and feed back sensory information about their surroundings. That’s how a cat knows it can fit through a gap. The vibrissae provide proprioceptive feedback to the nervous system of the cat. I suspect there is a lot that needs more research. Human body hair (now so anathema to many that it is shaved and ripped and chemically removed) serves other functions too. Our nervous systems respond to stimuli like fear or uneasiness by erecting the hairs on our body; often this is a very primitive response, atavistic perhaps. I’ve used the sense of the hairs on the back of my neck going up as a warning. Something is out of place and my conscious mind hasn’t spotted it but my unconscious has. If you have seen the hackles of a dog go up, it’s the same thing.
Some cultures equate long hair with a kind of spiritual holiness. The wandering holy men and women in various places have extremely long and often unwashed and matted hair. There are theories spoken of, like hair containing life force and cutting it cuts the life force and therefore the special powers these people are believed to possess. I have never personally encountered such a figure. But I cannot help wonder if the long hair is about display rather than anything holy. How is anyone meant to recognise the holiness is there’s no physical marker? No one would ever suspect someone going about their daily business, wearing ordinary clothes and hair, of being anything special and holy, would they? I might be a tad cynical. Other cultures cut the hair off, shave the head in whole or in part, for their holy people.
Hair is connected deeply to both sexuality and gender. For many in the west, at one point in fairly recent history (Beatles, I’m looking at you!) long male hair was seen as deeply subversive, decadent, emasculating; the cutting short of female hair (in the 1920s) as a radical act of defeminising. It’s a contentious issue. It was also a thing that over a certain critical age, a woman ought not to have long hair. I see comments abounding online where people denigrate older women for keeping their hair long. It’s seen as somehow false advertising, this pretence that you are still young and fertile and therefore desirable (because you can potentially bear some man a child) and the fury and the nastiness is depressing. So much bound up in what a woman chooses to do with her appearance is about squashing women into a box marked, “Men’s playthings only” and women can be fierce collaborators in this. One tiny change, expanded by the pandemic, is the growing numbers of women choosing not to dye their hair, and embracing their silver and their grey. It’s more acceptable than it was. It’s equally acceptable for older women to dye their hair fun colours, that were more associated with student age; I have seen friends get their mermaid hair colours and it looks amazing. It’s about being allowed to choose, and not having someone brow beat you into having a bob just because you’re now 41. My mum never much liked me having long hair; she said on more than one occasion that long hair was “ageing”.
For those wondering how it is possible to care for getting close to five feet of thick, slightly curly hair, and whether it’s heavy or uncomfortable, I’ll explain a little. These days of decent power showers means it’s easy and simple to wash long hair. Modern shampoos are a huge improvement on ones from when I was growing up. You lather up only at the scalp, because that’s where the oil and the dead skin need the shampoo. Gravity means the rest of the hair gets a smaller dose, which is all it needs usually. I stand upright and let the water do most of the work. It gets wrapped in a super absorbent high tech towel (the kind you take camping because they take up less room). I don’t use conditioner every time because it doesn’t always need it, though I do sometimes use either jojoba oil (closest in structure to human sebum) or coconut oil on the last foot or so to protect. I don’t often use a hair dryer, I’ve never straightened it (or dyed or permed). I keep a close eye on hair care products, and will try new brushes/combs. Currently the range of Tangle Teezer brushes do a superb job of detangling and grooming without pulling or damaging the hair. Once the hair is dry, I usually plait it and that’s it. It gets brushed in the morning, and before I go to bed, and replaited. It takes a few minutes, but the process is soothing and reassuring, and some claim that you are activating acupressure points on the scalp when you brush. It just feels very nice. I don’t find it heavy (it’s probably silly to try and weight it) but hair doesn’t actually weight a lot anyway.
Anyway, that’s about all I can find the energy to write. Hair is deeply personal, but I don’t think having long hair makes a person more spiritual or psychic.