I am slowly but steadily approaching a cross roads, one that I never thought I might come too, but never the less it approaches. I have had grey hairs from the age of 15 but since my early twenties my hair colour would be best described as white. I have inherited my hair colour from my father’s family, where early greying is common among my Darcy relatives. As a young man my Nanny Darcy used to tell me ‘it’s a bad head that don’t whiten’, which is true on many levels! Having grey or white hair is a unique characteristic on someone who is young, and many have told me that it’s quite ‘distinguishing’. Despite this, it has taken me quite some time to get used to my white hair.
At this point you may be thinking … vanity … Clay is just vain, get over it! But it’s only when you start to lose something you realise its importance. It turns out, hair is important – or so we are led to believe! I have never really been precious with my hair, nor have I been overly concerned with styling my white locks. I stopped dying it many moons ago. I haven’t been to a barber in about 10 years, preferring to cut my own hair with a razor at home. I never felt entirely comfortable in the barber’s chair; maybe Sweeney Todd had a bigger negative impact on me than others! But now that I am losing my hair it brings mixed feelings. The way in which my hair is migrating leaves me at the cross road of … to comb over … or not to comb over?
I used to laugh to myself at men with comb overs, especially on those windy days when their comb over was transformed into a Mohawk, or trap door, or some wispy creature clinging for dear life to the side of their head. But in recent windy days I have caught glimpses of myself in shop windows and car mirrors, and low and behold I appear to be styling the very same hair-do as the men I formerly giggled at … KARMA! My newly found concern for my receding hairline has focused my attention on how embedded hair is within gender constructs but it also brings about a deep personal realisation.
Hair is hugely symbolic and is a significant element in how we present ourselves. The malleable nature of hair allows it to be shaped and coloured in a multitude of ways, or removed entirely. Hair is a public demonstration of our civilised ways. Styling your hair is an act of cultural conformity and a visual display of how removed we are from nature and wildness (Hirschman, 2002). Hair is important for men and women, young and old. Hair is an intrinsic element of our identity, and new hairstyles are often symbolic announcements of a change in self (Hirschman, 2002). Particular hairstyles have been associated with certain subcultural groups - like the coloured Mohawk of the Punk Rockers or the long hair of the Heavy Metal Rockers. Hair is a cultural symbol as much as a personal reflection of identity.
Historically and still to this day, hair has many associations, and the symbolism of hair itself has been greatly researched by anthropologists (Synnott, 1987). Some of who proposed that long hair often indicated unrestrained sexuality, while short hair represented restricted sexuality and a close shaven head was a sign of celibacy (Leach, 1958, in Synnott, 1987). Although the association of hair length and sexuality may not still hold true, what does persist is how from an early age we are socialised as being connected to our hair. Girls are told how pretty their pigtails are and boys that their spikey hair is cool, and so on. From this early age boys and girls are taught how hair is gendered. This is also when and how we begin our emotional attachment to our hair and it begins to form part of our public identity (Manning, 2010).
As outlined, hairstyles are highly gendered and although there is greater acceptance of ‘alternative’ hairstyles on men and women, the power of hegemony makes many raise an eyebrow at the man wearing long hair with an accessorised hair band, or a woman with a closely shaven head. Conventional society pressures us to conform to normative gender hairstyles.
All of this brings me back to my own dilemma of sorts. The real issue isn’t actually how I should wear my thinning hair (whether I should embrace the comb over fully) but what my hair loss represents to me. Talking about comb overs is just a ruse, a trivialisation of something that is actually a little more worrying (to me). I think much of my personal angst at my hair loss centres two key issues - choice and self-awareness. I have worn my hair very short at different stages of my life, no big deal, however; now in this instance my own choice has been removed. I cannot choose to keep my hair, it’s going and there’s feck all I can do about it. My inability to hold onto my hair is a powerful reminder of the lack of control we have over our bodies. This challenges the notion that we are in control of ourselves. We do our best to shape and mould our bodies but there is a significant limit to our influence.
The second issue at play here is self-awareness. I think I still imagine myself to some degree as a young 20 something year old, however, I have aged and I haven’t really considered this much before. I’m not ancient by any means but can I still refer to myself as a spring chicken? Doubtful! Losing my hair marks a new phase of my life, one that requires me to readjust how I see myself. It may not all be bad news either and may present new opportunities. I might actually have a little fun with my wispy comb over before it eventually gets the chop. And you know, maybe the real motive for men wearing comb overs is to spread a little cheer. Maybe their real intention is spread a little happiness and make people giggle at their comb overs especially on those windy wild days! Unlikely? Yep!
Either way, for now I think I’ll try spread a little cheer and do my dammed-est to hang on to what wisps I have left. So, I will comb over … just for a little wispy while longer!
© Clay Darcy, October 2014.
Hirschman, E.C. (2002) ‘Hair as Attribute, Hair as Symbol, Hair as Self’, Presentation to the Association for Consumer Research International Gender Conference, Dublin Ireland (June 2002), pp. 355-365.
Manning, J. (2011) ‘ The Sociology of Hair: Hair Symbolism Among College Students’, Social Sciences Journal, Vol. 10 (1), pp. 34-48.
Synnott, A. (1987) ‘Shame and glory: a sociology of hair’, The British Journal of Sociology, Vol. 38 (3), pp. 381-413.