Social hair

Social hair

By looking at a person’s hair you can make assumptions about their age, ethnicity, gender, occupation, political views, their taste in music, income, lifestyle, religion, health, and sexuality. All from something that makes you want to puke if you find it in your meal.

Hair matters. For example, Vladimir Putin’s baldness may have helped him become president of Russia, as there is a joke among voters that Russian presidents should be alternately bald and hairy (and all male). Because Putin’s predecessor, Dmitry Medvedev, had a full head of hair, the thin-topped Putin was well suited to the role of president. The tradition can be traced back to 1925, with alternating bald and hairy men in power since then. Humans care about our hair. Every year Americans spend $34 billion on hair care retail products and $10 billion more on hairdressers. But what happens when hair becomes a social issue? What happens when women have “too little” hair in the case of alopecia aeoreta, or “too much” hair for those who choose not to remove hair from their bodies?

One theory says that as our brains got bigger, we needed a way to get rid of all our excess brain-heat (brains are hot). By standing upright we decreased the amount of surface-area we had in the sun, while simultaneously evolving full-body sweat glands to encourage cooling evaporation. This evaporation is more effective with less fur, so eventually we were left with only a few ridiculous tufts of hair left on our naked bodies. The hair on our head helps protect our scalps from the sun. Pubic hair is more mysterious, but probably developed separately to head hair (we can assume this because there are two species of louse who live entirely separately in head hair and pubes). Pubic hair decreases chaffing friction during sex and spreads our sexy sweaty smells around better than skin, which is probably the reason we also have hair in our armpits. Hair has since become a signal of youth and health, as hair tends to get less glossy, go grey, and thin out as we age.

Alopecia is an auto-immune disorder where hair will spontaneously fall out either in patches (alopecia areata), from the whole scalp (alopecia totalis), or from the entire body (alopecia universalis). Alopecia can affect anybody, including women and children, and has no known cause or cure. It can be traumatising for sufferers who may become withdrawn or depressed as a result of their condition.

I had the pleasure of being shown around Freedom Hair, a wig factory in Dunedin, by General Manager Steve Conley. Freedom mostly makes wigs for people with alopecia. It is an extraordinary place; surprisingly big with around thirty employees and hundreds of disembodied heads of human hair. The wigs are beautiful. Employees carefully select the hair they use for quality; it must be completely natural colour with no greys. It takes around ten people’s hair to make one wig. Their wigs are arguably the best in the world for people with no hair on their heads. Company founders Murray and Averill Barrington created and perfected technology to create custom-made fitted silicon caps which suctions onto the scalp so that the wearer can swim, sleep, dance, or even go on a roller-coaster without fear of their hair-piece falling off. Clients range from as young as four years old to people in their eighties.

Reading the stories of alopecia sufferers on the company website is a sad experience and makes you realise how much most young people take their hair for granted. One girl writes: “Losing my hair at the age of 13 was very traumatic for me. My life changed overnight from an outgoing teenager to a teenager that never left her home. My confidence, my self-esteem and feeling good about myself were very, very low.” There are many stories of women who don’t leave the house or socialise after developing alopecia. A teenage girl was bullied so much for wearing a wig she had to finish high school by correspondence. One customer of Freedom Hair who was planning her wedding went from having normal hair to becoming totally bald over the course of a weekend.

New Zealand model Anna Fitzpatrick is a spokesperson for alopecia sufferers in New Zealand, having lost all her hair at the age of seven. Her eyebrow and eyelashes on one eye fell out first, then her hair began coming out in clumps. After two weeks she didn’t have a single hair left on her body. Anna was mercilessly teased and ostracised at school, but now her beautifully shaped bald head gives her an edge over other models. She tells "I wouldn't have done as well as I did if I had hair. With hair on, to be honest, modelling-wise, I am just very commercial; I'm not extraordinary at all."

I watched a woman gluing a final layer of single hairs around the edge of a nearly finished wig to conceal the silicon edge. I said she was clever and she replied “it is clever – not me, the whole process.” Each person working in the factory has an incredibly skilled job with no margin for error. There is a machine that takes digital scans of people’s heads from around the world and carves a replica out of red cedar. Every bump and mole shows up. Locally invented and developed sewing machines pull individual hairs through tiny holes in the pierced silicon cap. It is wonderful to watch. Each wig takes around six weeks to make from start to finish.

“Don’t get too close or I’ll snip your hair off,” a woman working at a machine warns me. The factory always needs more hair. While it is common for people to shave their hair off to raise money for cancer research, wig makers would like to encourage you to grow your hair long and then donate it to them. If you have long, naturally coloured hair you are thinking of cutting off, consider selling or donating it to Freedom Hair. They have a system where people who donate hair can choose a charity that the company will give money to in the donor’s name. But don’t do it too soon – short pony tails are basically useless. And be careful if you do it – brush your hair and plait it tightly with very secure ties at both ends, then carefully cut it at the base of your neck. If the hair tangles or turns on itself, it may be unusable. Long, blonde hair is always in demand, but given the rarity of naturally blonde people willing to cut off their long ponytails, some people will wait a year or more for a long blonde wig.

Steve showed me a room upstairs with boxes full of severed ponytails and numerous shelves of scalp casts. Vaguely creepy and totally beautiful, it was the coolest thing I’ve ever seen. Each scalp is named, so you can imagine the person who it may belong to. I love the wig factory.

Despite the fabulous technology and artistry I witnessed in the factory, Steve kept reiterating to me that I shouldn’t focus on Freedom Hair as a business, but as a vital need for sufferers of alopecia. Wearing an inferior wig is, according to Steve, the equivalent of “needing a glass eye and getting a ball-bearing.” Many of their customers come to them in despair, having tried endless “cures” for alopecia such as creams, steroid injections into the scalp, homeopathy, onion juice, supplements, and any number of other alternative and mainstream therapies. But there is no known cure for alopecia. It is a cruel twist in the sufferer’s experience that hair may spontaneously grow back on its own, but may just as spontaneously fall out again. So any apparent cure is probably just a natural bout of regrowth, perpetuating a cycle of hope and disappointment. Freedom Hair has often been a last resort for people hoping for a cure. The front windows have frosted glass so people can’t see in. Steve told me that people sometimes break down crying in his office from the distress of their hair loss and the relief at finding understanding people who are willing to help them.

Alopecia sufferers go to huge lengths to get their hair back or, failing that, to find an adequate wig. Women in particular are expected to have a full head of hair – having masses of long, thick hair on a female head is a celebrated part of the western beauty ideal. However, with a luxuriant crowning glory there often comes equally luxurious hair sprouting on the rest of the female body, which our society most definitely does not celebrate. Women and men are both expected to shave their various respective body parts in order to be considered well groomed, but while a man with a two-day shadow may at worst look scruffy, a woman with dark hair on her legs, arms, bikini line, face or armpits can be seen as a disgrace, an embarrassment, a freak, a social misfit, a deviant, disgusting, or repulsive. She is an affront to what an observer in our society expects to see on a female body. Women are expected to sort that shit out: bleach; pluck; wax; shave; laser; cream – whatever, just don’t let anybody see what your natural body looks like. If there were an injection to give a person alopecia universalis everywhere except for their heads, eyebrows, and eyelashes, I’d bet many women would volunteer for it.

Female body hair was the subject of a recent Dunedin zine, Babes, in which young women proudly modelled with their body hair on display. I spoke to Babes creator Eliana Gray about why she embarked on the project. She said “I stopped removing my body hair when I was 15 (almost 10 years ago) and I still find it a challenge to accept that part of myself in public situations. I realised that I felt frustrated for still feeling anxious about people’s opinions of my body hair 10 years after making the decision to let it grow. I am currently heading to New York City where it is summertime and I was feeling uncomfortable about rocking booty shorts and mini skirts (which are some of my favourite clothing items) so I thought, ‘I know, I’ll go online and look at pictures of sexy babes with body hair to remind myself that I can be a cool, awesome person who wears short shorts AND has body hair.’ So I tried to do this and I couldn’t find anything on the Internet! I found one blog of user-submitted photos that had far too many penises for my liking and another that was mostly close-ups of leg hair. So I thought, ‘I’ll just make something – I know heaps of amazing babes!’ I also figured that there would be positive representations of female body hair that I hadn’t been able to find but I don’t think there can ever be too many so I wanted to add to the pool. So many people were excited to be involved and it turned into this really positive project.”

When I ordered my copy of Babes I got to choose an A3 print of one of the photos. After, I received a delightful text from Eliana: “Hi! For your A3 photo do you want pubes, pits, snail-trail, bikini line and legs, or moustache? Xx” What a choice!

Body hair hasn’t always been considered unsexy. For example, here’s a snippet from the Victorian porn book Memoirs of a Young Rakehell by Guillaume Apollinaire:

Her dark pubic hair, I noticed, climbed all the way up to her navel ... her nipples were set in a small field of light brown hair. Lifting her breasts, I saw that she also had some short, fine black hairs underneath. Her armpits were likewise covered with hair as thick as a man’s. The sight of all this healthy fleece caused John Thomas to harden even more.

Great stuff, but sexiness isn’t the real issue here. The issue is that women are expected to make their bodies conform to what our society has decided as feminine. However, if she looks too “sexy” she will be called a “slut.” Women are expected to be conventionally attractive to a point, with either extreme labelling her either “disgusting” or “skanky.” The message of Babes is, as Eliana says, to reinforce the idea that “women can do whatever the fuck they want with their bodies.”

After actress Mo’Nique copped flak for turning up to the Golden Globes and lifting her skirt to reveal the thick, dark hairs on her legs, she explained: “I must show America what a real leg looks like ... because it’s too much in the morning to shave, to cut, you got band-aids, baby.” Mo’Nique was called tacky, typical, bold, nasty, crazy, outrageous, chic, hot, innovative, gross, mannish, womanly, down-to-earth and a stream of other hyperboles that really shouldn’t go with something as mundane as not shaving her legs. It was common for people praising Mo’Nique to call other women (basically every other woman who has ever walked a red-carpet) “shallow” for caring about shaving their legs. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

Local woman Feather Shaw wrote a column for the Otago Daily Times this April after being asked to either shave her legs or stop wearing shorts at work. She was told she needed to look “presentable” for her front-of-house positions. In her column Feather wrote “I was so humiliated I suffered anxiety attacks to the point of vomiting. I was discriminated against and felt judged, inadequate, ugly, and dirty. The men at my work are allowed to wear shorts, and they have hairy legs. The men are also not expected to be facially clean-shaven.” Eliana Gray has also been asked to cover her body hair at work. Feather eventually received an official apology for what was found to “indirect discrimination,” which is when a seemingly benign requirement has a disproportionate, adverse effect on a particular person or group of people.

A bald woman is seen as a tragedy and a hairy woman is seen as a travesty. It’s sexist, transphobic, and pointless to take issue with the hair growing or not growing on somebody else’s body. We may have evolved to need hair, but since the invention of the hat there is not much point to it beyond the cosmetic. Hair continues to be a massive part of our personal presentation, particularly for women, whose sense of self-worth can be tested if her hair doesn’t conform to social expectations.
This article first appeared in Issue 22, 2014.
Posted 11:52pm Sunday 7th September 2014 by Lucy Hunter.