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Crowning Glory: Hair, Sex, and Politics

Updated on November 11, 2014
Lady Godiva, painting by John Collier
Lady Godiva, painting by John Collier

When I was a child there was a terrible blizzard and on that day, our parents did not know what to do with us. Schools were closed, people were stranded at work, in the city, in their offices, in their cars on the highway and me, I was stranded with my brother at a friend’s house. School was closed for more than two days and our mother didn’t know what to do with us and, after we had spent hours in the snow, we were finally given permission to go and see a movie – it was “The Spy Who Loved Me” –starring Barbara Bach who wraps her hair around a hotel room curtain and escapes. Had she had short hair she would have died, of course. It was her long hair that saved her and having long hair myself, I loved that. Barbara Bach became iconic to me of everything a woman ought be: she was sexy, smart, had great hair, and was resourceful.

Not unlike Lady Godiva who got her husband, Leofric Godiva of Coventry, England, to stop all taxes on local people by riding on a horse totally naked through the village. Leofric agreed that the only tax that would remain in place was the tax on horses. And records dating to the fifteenth century note that yes, in fact, there were no taxes levied on the people that year. Only one tax is noted and it is on horses. Lady Godiva knew that she had power. In her hair, in her body, in her wits. Rapunzel used her hair as a rope and that’s how she met her prince who climbed up it, fell in love with her, and got her pregnant and of course the witch found out and promptly chopped off Rapunzel’s long plait, later tricking the prince by dropping the golden plait out of the window where he found, at the top of the tower, the witch and his Rapunzel gone. The witch blinded him and he wandered the woods for months, solitary and desperate until he heard his Rapunzel singing and followed the sounds. She kissed him, tears of joy overflowing from her eyes into his which cured his blindness just as his touch to her embrace and her bald head immediately caused her hair to grow and all’s well that end’s well.

What is it about hair that makes it matter so very much. The classic trifecta of hair symbolism is 1. Long hair is sexual potency and unrestrained sensuality 2. Short hair symbolizes restraint and control and 3. A shaved head symbolizes celibacy and chastity.

These archetypes have been expressed throughout history time and again. Think of Samson and Delilah, Samson who had unmatched strength and could defeat almost anyone but who, ultimately, trusted Delilah and told her the source of his strength, his seven locks of hair which she promptly cut off while he was sleeping causing his strength to leave his body, the enemy now able to capture him, blind him, cast him into prison from where he ultimately was able to get even when his hair started to grow back and with it his strength enabling him all the power that was required to push on the two pillars of the temple causing the whole building to crash down and yes, kill him, but his enemy too.

The Japanese sumo wrestler wears his hair in a style called chonmage in which the wearer wears a long ponytail that is gathered and folded into a top-knot. The knot on the top back of the head was originally intended for samurai warriors and was worn so that the helmet would stay in place. In fact, to the Japanese hair is so important that there are special sumo hair dressers to tend to the hair and trim it only very lightly until the end of the Sumo’s career when there is a hair-cutting ceremony the long pony-tail is cut in portions by competitors, family members, friends, and finally the warrior’s agent who makes the final clip releasing him from his duty as a sumo.

Japanese sumo champion: note top-knot
Japanese sumo champion: note top-knot

Great Swaths of You

Cutting off someone’s hair though was not only a way to take away strength or perceived strength, it was a very effective way of shaming someone, especially a woman. Cutting hair and shaving the head was used during World War II in France to shame and humiliate women, including prostitutes, who had sex or any dealings with German officers.

The women were taken hold of in the street by French civilians – most often men – who would hold the women down while another man or men would cut their hair then shave their heads, afterward parading the shaved woman through the streets to the jeers and taunts of the crowd. Members of the Resistance also employed in this large scale humiliation tactic. The Catholic Church used head shaving and shorn locks to punish those they labeled heretics.

In England in 2006, Michael Ross Smith forcibly cut off his girlfriends ponytail then cut the rest of her hair with scissors while he held her down. The magistrate, Igor Judge, found the man guilty of assault with bodily harm though the defense’s lawyer claimed that hair was dead and no harm had been done. Judge, however, disagreed and concluded that the act was “not trivial or insignificant” as hair matters “intrinsically to each individual and the identity of each individual” and that hair was a “person’s crowning glory”. Smith had succeeded with his intent (if intent can be inferred by holding someone down and forcibly cutting off all their hair til they are bald) – he humiliated, shamed, degraded, frightened, and traumatized his ex-girlfriend. You wonder then, how anyone could say there had been “no real bodily harm”.

Humiliated French women, shaved, are forced to march through the streets of Paris. World War II, circa 1944
Humiliated French women, shaved, are forced to march through the streets of Paris. World War II, circa 1944

Hair & Crisis

Miley Cyrus talks about her ex-lover heartbreak in her song “Wrecking Ball” and who can think of Miley Cyrus without thinking about her hair – or the new lack thereof since she cut off her rather comely auburn lengths, shaved the sides, bleached it and climbed naked on a wrecking ball sporting nothing but her Doc Martins. Miley looks good with this haircut – the exception, not the rule. But she pulls it off though subconsciously I think a lot of women identify with her heartache that she speaks about so clearly in the song. If Miley didn’t keep licking things in the video her message might be more effective. And I for one will never equate heartbreak with fellatio. Still, her emotion is otherwise so raw, so out of control that I can’t help but believe she has been radically wronged and hurt. And her side-shaved head just makes the point all the more. It only stops being believable and feels like a total disconnect when she holds the pole in proximity of her pouted mouth. You can’t be devastated and sexy at the same time. Heartbreak never was and never will be sexy.

Women will tell you that we tend to do strange things to our hair when we are in crisis or going through a period of major change. A woman going through a life change will perm her hair, crimp it, tease it, bleach it, dye it, and cut it. It may be that she wants a new look to outwardly symbolize the change she feels internally. This makes sense. But hair is also symbolic of time and of memory. Hair grows about 0.5 inches per month. Cutting hair is akin to cutting away swaths of memory. If you have long hair, it is like a shedding of skin, though I tend to think this is not something we are totally aware of but more of subconscious gesture. Perhaps that is at least part of the reason why we tend to cut hair when going through major life change – a way of leaving behind part of either a painful past or, a way of just starting anew.

Bergholz, Ohio

In the small town of Bergholz, Ohio in 2011, a breakaway Amish sect made headlines when it was reported that an Amish Bishop named Samuel Mullet, Sr. had recruited other sect members to forcibly cut off the beards and hair of other sect members, some of whom were related to the assailants. The victims (in some cases the elderly parents and grandparents of the cutters) were lured to meetings where they were held down, their hair and beards cut with sharp scissors (this often left the victims bleeding the cuts were so severe). The Amish do not cut their hair or beards for religious reasons making the attacks all the more vicious. Beards and long hair are central to Amish identity – cutting of the hair was intended to shame the victims. Mullet, the organizer of the acts, was bishop of the sect and investigation revealed other highly questionable behavior on his part. Authorities report that Mullet often had younger women in the sect to his house where they would “stay for weeks” while his wife was sent to live with other family members.

Local police set to work but the attacks continued until the FBI was called in and alerted to what they labeled a hate crime. After a trial, Mullet was sentenced to fifteen years in a federal penitentiary for committing a hate crime and his followers were also convicted and sentenced. All of this was overturned by a circuit court judge who contended that the judge who had found the individuals guilty had an overly expansive definition of hate crime. Instead, he felt, that the act was not a true hate crime but was part of a personal vendetta regarding a custody issue and other issues.

Mourning Wreath made of human hair, framed behind glass
Mourning Wreath made of human hair, framed behind glass

Mourning Wreaths & Jewelry

Mourning wreaths are elaborately constructed designs made of human hair clipped at the ends onto flexible wire and then bent into flower shapes, feathers, and even whole scenes. In the Victorian era, and also in America in the 1800s, women began taking the hair of family members – usually everyone in the family – and weaving the strands and locks into elaborate designs. Each part of the family wreath had beneath the hair a tiny card with the name of the person whose hair it was and the date the wreath was made. The whole wreath was then framed and mounted behind glass as a family keepsake. The same was done with a deceased’s hair which was cut and then worked into a scene – often a cross or cemetery gates and trees – to commemorate and remember the dead.

We keep what we can of those we love – and why not hair? These wreaths may seem to us a little odd at first, but when you consider someone you really love, one of the first things that occurs is how they smell. When we lose someone, we lose their scent, their movement – and hair is both. We brush a lover’s hair, a mother’s hair, a sister’s hair, a child’s hair. We cut the hair of those we love, we braid it, oil it, caress it, smell it, we take it down when we make love, we shave it as a sacred offering to the gods. Some grow a part of their hair longer so that the angel Azazel can take hold and more easily lift us to heaven. Geishas weave and entwine their hair and fill it with all kinds of hair jewelry. Other women cover and conceal their hair from everyone except for their husband. Hair is totemic, hair is taboo.

Jewelry that contained a lock of hair or was made of human hair was a popular way of carrying the person you love with you. It was made by artisans and metalworkers who worked from swaths and locks of hair that were given to them by relatives, though many less scrupulous merchants scoured the countryside, offering money to poorer women for their tresses and then pre-fabricating the designs with the bought hair, saving them valuable time when making what were supposed-to-be custom pieces. The hair sent to them was summarily dispatched to the trash, never to be seen again and no one was any the wiser. For those on the up and up though, it was rather a noble trade. It eased the suffering of those who wore the jewelry and appealed to our sentiments. Husbands going to the mines or to work often wore their watches on long braided chains made of their wife or sweetheart’s hair. More than keepsakes, they were talismans to guard and protect and keep the wearer safe.

All over Europe and America hair jewelry was fashionable – and as it did the art of working with hair and keeping it as a tribute or memorial became increasingly popular.

In 1825, a group of young women traveled from Vamhus, Sweden, throughout Europe to work with human hair. Vamhus is still a center for hair jewelry and it can be bought today or special ordered with a loved one’s hair. You can find in Vamhus (or online but often made in Vamhus), intricately woven drop chandelier earrings woven entirely of human hair, crosses and crucifixes, broaches, elaborate butterfly design broaches, chains and bracelets. In 1957, the Swedish home arts and crafts society revived the art of working with hair by encouraging and training a new generation of hair workers. And it worked. In 1992 the hair-workers formed their own society based in Sweden.


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    • Sadi Ranson profile imageAUTHOR

      Sadi Ranson/Sarah Ranson 

      3 years ago from America

      thanks Bob and thanks for your thoughtful and informative comments... : )

    • no body profile image

      Robert E Smith 

      3 years ago from Rochester, New York

      Sadi, you have written an interesting article here. I thoroughly enjoyed it. My mother had a heart locket with some of my blonde baby hair in it. I used to pick it up and look at it. My then-blonde hair darkened and my blue eyes turned brown. Not sure if my mother kept the locket or had any more lockets with my brother's or sister's hair in them but she kept a snippet of my brother's baby hair too (his was so brown, it was almost black- maybe I was adopted hahaha). I never really thought about it in years, until I read your article.

      I really liked the article. It was interesting. Samson lost his strength when his hair was cut, only because of his Nazarite vow that as long as he was under the vow he would not cut his hair. The book of Judges says that he was under this vow, whatever the agreement made between he and God, that he would not cut his hair and would not consume anything of the vine, raisins, grape, juice, wine. Supposedly he was under the Nazarite arrangement from birth. His parents must have related to him the specifics of the agreement. Cutting the hair was a sign that the vow was broken. As far as Samson was concerned that hair of his was the center of that Nazarite vow for him. You can tell of its significance to him because of the way that he had "told [Delilah] his whole heart." When his hair finally grew back I assume his shame over his broken vow was eased and he prayed to have his strength restored and God granted the request. I am not really sure if the hair had any relevance at the end or not. I know the account takes special care to say his hair had grown back. Perhaps it was chief in Samson's heart to be under the vow of the Nazarite again.

      David's men were shamed by having one half of their beards shaved and their garments cut off "hard at the buttocks." It said the men were greatly ashamed. David told them to stay put until their beards were grown back and then they lay waste to the place that did this injustice.

      Very good article. I voted up and interesting. Bob.

    • Colleen Swan profile image

      Colleen Swan 

      4 years ago from County Durham

      This is an unusual hub because of the topic. However I found the subject interesting as I have not read about this before. Nice.


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