HAIR TRAUMA: or The Samson Syndrome
By Laura Sullivan

One might scoff at the notion of Hair Trauma, as some superficial concern that can be answered by “Don’t worry, it will grow.” Yet throughout one’s life there may be many incidents and conditions relating to one’s hair that leave scars on the psyche and deeply affect an individual’s self esteem. Not wanting to appear vain or superficial, clients and patients are often reluctant to discuss painful memories or current challenges regarding their hair. Although when the subject is introduced, many people will viscerally recall their traumatic hair experiences.

These memories have been held in the body, and can be healed and released for the benefit of the whole person. Our hair is a major aspect of our appearance, telegraphing information about us before we are close enough to make eye contact or say “hello”. Our hair, or lack thereof, is a condition that is with us day and night throughout our lives, affecting how we feel about ourselves and greatly influencing how others regard us.
The best way to describe the realm of experiences that sometimes result in hair trauma is chronologically, beginning at birth.

From the moment a baby’s head crowns, the first comments are about the hair or lack of it. Of course, the next matter is the sex of the child. Once that is settled, it is amazing how quickly the subject returns to the hair, with comments about the color, the volume, and texture helping to define the new little being. The original hair often disappears, with a different color and texture appearing. There could be many changes over the first months, or none. That lack of growth or change is commented on as well. When a child is developing during the first five years, hair length often influences society’s gender identification.

Many female babies do not develop hair for a year or so. If the child is not dressed in overtly female clothing, the comments are often “What a cute little boy!” Parents have been known to tape a bow on the head of their daughter to remove all doubt. Usually there is little long-term impact from this delay of hair growth as long as it comes in eventually.

A stronger impact is made on little boys, whose mothers, enthralled with their son’s beautiful hair, forbid cutting the gorgeous locks until age four or five. By that time the child has heard over and over what a beautiful little girl he is. If Daddy is a rock star or the child lives among people where males with long hair is more acceptable, there is usually no gender identification issue. The ego of the child is concerned about fitting in with friends and family and eventually society at large. If at some point, ‘fitting in’ might be the precise opposite of what is intended, hair becomes the most immediate way to broadcast that rebellion.

There is a language in hair. Most people consciously create their hair to look the way it looks. One can choose length, color, style, and whether to cover it or not; using a wig, scarf or a hat. It becomes a way we tell the world who we are, without uttering a word. Some people spend hours, adding up to days each month, doing something with their hair, all to the end of creating a certain impression. One’s relationship with their hair can range from obsessive to ‘couldn’t care less’ with an amazing spectrum between them.

Currently the range of acceptable coiffures has expanded to allow for tremendous self-expression. Throughout the history of mankind, that was seldom the case.  Each chapter in history has an associated hair fashion for that specific period. Long or short, bearded or not, wigged or powdered, hair fashions were as rigidly defined as the clothing fashions and revealed much about the status of an individual.

Lucky were the women who had long straight hair in the 60’s. Unfortunate were their friends with the frizzy hair that had to be ironed or set on coffee cans to achieve the straight look. In spite of our present day freedom of choice, that cycle is revisiting us now, with new chemical advancements to achieve the desired straight effect. I will speak more about chemical damage later.

One type of hair that has rarely has fit into America’s culturally accepted norm is black, as in African American hair,. In the late 60’s and early 70’s the Afro was popular; a style that allowed hair to be ‘au natural’. Unfortunately, this was short lived. We need only to look at the past decades of Oprah shows to see what black women go through to make their hair look as ‘white’ as possible. According to women of color, most of them want hair that is silky straight. This desire is rooted in a self-deprecating mentality that believes their hair worn naturally is unacceptable. The first perm, to relax the kinks, is like a rite of passage for a young black woman.

There is no set age at which this must happen, but there is a belief that waiting too long could retard a girl’s social progress. This early and frequent exposure to chemical processing begets breakage, scalp inflammation, and the invisible damage of those chemicals being picked up by the capillaries and more than likely, transported to the brain.

Black men also use chemicals, but often resort to cornrows, doo-rags, cutting it very short, like our President, or shaving it all off. Because African-Americans have dealt with this challenge through the ages, many have claimed the term “hair trauma” as theirs; including a reality TV series, websites, and a feature film on the subject.

The essence of hair trauma often stems from having hair that does not conform to society’s current fashion and believing one must spend a huge amount of time and money to achieve a level of personal and public acceptability.. This can be due either to the quality and texture of the hair, or external control regarding the style.

When children are school age, seldom do they have control over their own hair. Parents usually dictate the length and style. A current client told me that she and her three sisters all wanted long hair as girls, but their parents insisted they keep it short and boyish, as it was easier to care for. Other young women, longing to try the stylish shorter cuts their friends were sporting, were not allowed to cut their hair if mother or dad wanted it long.  Many boys were and are still forced to endure electric clippers, making their hair as short as possible.

Parents dictate what is easiest or considered most attractive by them. The children must oblige. Many an independent child has cut their own or a friend’s hair usually with disastrous results. This becomes a mini-trauma in the moment for children and the parents, sometimes remembered in later years with a laugh.

Children today have much greater control over their hair than previous generations, hopefully resulting in fewer traumas like the next one I will mention.

A 33-year-old man had his first hair session with me when I visited the intentional community he lived in. He had never been allowed to have his hair cut by anyone but his mother, who was a hairdresser. She was not living near by at the time. When I finished balancing his hair, he had tears in his eyes, saying this was the first time in his life that his hair ever looked the way he wanted. No matter how well he described his preferences to his mother, she never did as requested. He always felt disappointed and violated.

In adolescence, hair becomes a vital part of our identity, contributing to achieving social acceptability or ridicule. Many individuals have endured the wrath of their parents in order to look like their peers. One client told me of the family strife when he grew his hair to look like Elvis Presley. His father’s disapproval was palpable and remembered decades later.

A few years later the influence of the Beatles prompted a whole generation to grow their hair longer than was ever worn in their parents’ lifetime, thus angering their parents at this rebellion against the norms. The length of the Beatles hair seems so tame in retrospect, yet it was the symbol that sparked a cultural revolution. Teenage males growing their hair long in the sixties and seventies was a fierce statement of independence and rejection of their parent’s values.

Familial discord, and challenges to school standards were sometimes painful. There were strong lines drawn and judgments made about those who chose to wear their hair long. Young men in the days of ‘Easy Rider’ could be beaten up for having long hair in the wrong part of the country. Hippies, defined as such by their hair length, were denied entry into certain countries.

I knew a man who was not allowed to pass into Costa Rica along with his friends because of his long  ‘hippie’ hair. He cut it off himself at the border, and was allowed in. In late adolescence and as we age there are voluntary occasions of hair trauma. The most notable are when one joins the military or a religious order. In these cases, the removal of hair is done to strip the person of their individuality, creating instant conformity and humility. For many, it is a painful relinquishing of identity.

There are forced cutting and shaving incidents, for instance in some prison experiences or in helping to eradicate lice, particularly in schools. When the majority of the group is doing the same thing with their hair, it reduces the trauma of the experience because the individual feels part of the greater whole. In fact the new acceptability of the shaved male head came to be when male sports figures lost their hair due to chemotherapy for cancer treatment. Many of their teammates shaved their heads as an act of solidarity and support for their recovering teammate. The new look was popularized as “cool” rather than a sign of illness. Unfortunately for women, the Sinead O’Connor look never caught on the same way.

Throughout one’s life, there is always the possibility of a terrible haircut or chemical process gone awry. I was one of many little girls, subjected to Toni Home Perms, almost always with disastrous results. Chemical processing is responsible for a great degree of hair trauma. Another personal experience was when I was a professional actress 30 years ago.  I agreed to have a ‘light body wave’ on my long straight hair the week before I was opening in a play I’d be starring in for 4 months. This was not to curl my straight hair, but to give it body and make it more manageable.

The very experienced hairdresser I hired, made a mistake, leaving the solution on too long, burning my hair to a crisp. There was no alternative but to cut it all off, leaving three inches of unmanageable frizz in place of my long luxurious hair. The director did not insist I wear a wig for the role, but the incident brought up all kinds of questions, like who am I without my long, beautiful hair. Am I still considered attractive or feminine?

Can I feel that way inside when I look like this externally? Hair accidents that happen before a big event have a much greater impact on our self-confidence. Hair destroyed before a wedding, graduation, performance, or award ceremony deeply impacts our self-esteem. These tend to be the more traumatic hair events we remember years later. Sometimes, overcoming them builds character in ways we would never have chosen.

Perm damage is common, but damage to the hair from straightening is even more pervasive. Anyone with curly or frizzy hair has lived through some years where straight hair was the more desirable look. The chemical processing using lye and other formulas can be responsible for whole chunks of hair burning off at the root. The hot metal straightening tools often burn the hair as well, leaving embarrassing holes in the hairdo. There are newer methods today, providing less damaging results. The point is not that less harmful ways exist to alter the look of our hair, but that humans feel the need to alter their hair to feel acceptable or desirable.

Hair is constantly being manipulated in our efforts to achieve self-acceptance and hopefully the acceptance of our peers and loved ones. Our hair is a major way we express who we are to the world around us. Women especially feel diminished by thinning hair. In most cultures hair is intimately tied to sexuality. The lack of hair may communicate a lack of sexual appeal, and is generally considered to be less attractive than a full head of hair. These are some of the reasons why dealing with hair loss can be so difficult.

There are many causes of hair loss.

First there is the normal shedding of 50 plus hairs a day, generally replenished with the approximately the same number daily. The longer the length of the hair, the greater the loss appears to be. For example, twenty hairs that are a twelve inches long will seem like much more hair than twenty hairs that are two inches long. In each case it is still just twenty hairs.

A very traumatic and often long-term hair loss situation is due to illness. Low and high thyroid are both known to cause hair loss. Blood sugar dysfunction, insulin resistance, and diabetes have some causative effect on hair loss. Hair loss is often the side effect of certain medications. Some blood pressure medications, cholesterol reducers, steroids, seizure medications and oral contraceptives can cause hair loss. Hormone replacement therapies that contain methyltestosterone may also accelerate hair loss and can exacerbate thinning hair in postmenopausal women. It may take a long time to heal or stabilize these conditions, which is usually necessary before substantial hair growth resumes.

Androgenetic Alopecia is the most common type of hair loss. It usually affects almost 50% of men, and 10-20% of women. A possible cause of male pattern baldness may be the conversion of testosterone into dihydrotestosterone (DHT). DHT shrinks the hair follicles producing smaller and thinner hairs. This condition may begin as early as late adolescence and can be very damaging to one’s self-confidence.

If efforts to regrow hair are not successful, an individual may have some difficulty accepting that this is how they now look. If they feel unattractive, it can impact social interactions particularly with potential partners. A well-known therapist confided that when he first began to lose his hair he was very concerned about how women would now respond to him. Fortunately he met a lovely woman who assured him she liked bald men, averting years of inner doubt He then recalled a colleague who continues to wear his hair in a “comb over” when everyone can see he is really bald. His sudden compassion for his friend allowed him to understand how painful a process hair loss can be for some people.

A client came to me after being mutilated by ‘Hair restoration specialists’. Large plugs of hair had been painfully transplanted in 3 rows along where his front hairline might have been. Then his scalp had been cut in a giant cross and stitched together to try to shrink the bald area. He constantly wore a hat to cover the scars. Many people will go to great measures and expense to try to reverse hair loss. This has spawned a billion dollar industry and a great deal of disappointment. Although some hair regeneration methods have been successful, nothing has proven to work for everyone with hair loss challenges, mostly because there are so many different causes.Female Pattern Hair Loss can be genetic and is often influenced by stress, medications and hormones.

Then there is Telogen Effluvium, when sudden or severe stress results in noticeable hair loss usually a few months after an event such as illness, surgery, pregnancy, an accident or loss of a loved one. The stress may be physical, mental or emotional. The body withdraws nutrients from the hair to allocate them where they are deemed more essential. Fortunately, when the stress is resolved, the body will give more energy and nutrients to the hair again.

Unfortunately, when we lose our hair, it damages our self-esteem and creates fear, adding to our stress, and possibly prolonging the stressful experience of hair loss. With hair only growing at an average of ½ inch a month, it takes a long while for the new hair to fill in to a level of comfort and acceptability. There are herbs, minerals and nutrients that can help stimulate new hair growth. The Hair Balancing system can help prevent hair loss and other holistic techniques can also be very effective.

Another cause is Anagen Effluvium. This is the sudden loss of hair as the result of powerful chemicals or radiation suddenly halting the hair growth cycle. This is most commonly experienced within 1-3 weeks after cancer treatments. Some or all of the hair can fall out, often in uneven patches. Even though cancer treatment is very common and familiar now, to the patient experiencing the hair loss it can be very distressing.

Alopecia Areata affects about 2.5 million men, women and children in the U.S. It can occur as smooth round patches or progress all the way to total hair loss. This is thought to be an autoimmune condition. It can improve and it seems to worsen with stress. Traction Alopecia is due to too much tension on the hair with braids, elastic bands and hair extensions. This type of tension can also break the hair shafts, not just pull hair out at the roots.

Hair loss can also be self-inflicted. Trichotillomania is the OCD that involves pulling hair, eyelashes or brows out by the root. About 2% of the population is afflicted by this condition at some time or another. It is definitely stress related and is considered an anxiety disorder. It has been cured by counseling, behavior modification therapy, and even homeopathy. None of these treatments work for all who are afflicted. There is much shame associated with this condition, particularly if the results of the pulling are obvious to others.

Then there is hair loss due to thermal and chemical burns that can damage or destroy hair follicles. Hair styling with the excessive use of heat often results in breakage or loss. Aggressive grooming, harsh products, and excess chlorine from pools and hot tubs are also responsible for damage and loss of hair.

Another cause of hair trauma is domestic violence. Hair is a major point of control in an unhealthy relationship. Abusers often will not allow their partner to cut their hair, or will insist it be worn in a specific way. The abuser may pull on the partner’s hair to cause pain, subordinate, or disfigure, by actually ripping the hair out. Clients have recalled having their hair violently twisted to the point of nearly breaking their neck to enforce obedience. These incidents are not easily forgotten. A sensitivity and hyper-vigilance around the head and hair is often experienced throughout the rest of one’s life after this type of trauma.

A movement therapist shared with me that when she was a little girl her mother left her with her grandmother while she took a job to support them. She felt so abandoned and angry that she refused to let her mother brush or comb or touch her hair again. But she always loved to have her grandmother fix her hair. It was a way to punish her mother, denying her that intimate nurturing. As she recalled this experience, she suddenly realized that her 3 adopted daughters, who all fix each other’s hair, will not let her, their new Mom fix their hair. Not yet.

You may be one of the fortunate individuals who have never dealt with any of these issues. Or perhaps you have made peace with your challenges and moved on. Unfortunately, the relationship that too many people have with their hair is full of pain, sensitivity and frustration. The emotional scarring can be profound. The reason I am bringing these issues to light is that these traumas can be successfully addressed with body-oriented psychotherapy and holistic hair therapy.

You may not be aware that hair has a vital function in assisting the body to release stress. We are not usually conscious of our stress being released through our hair. It becomes noticeable when our stress increases to the degree that the hair cannot process it fast enough. The hair becomes brittle, less manageable, sometimes even split and broken. When we are having “a bad hair day” it is generally when our stress has accelerated faster than it can be released through the hair, so the hair does not perform as it usually does.

This is when we need to be more appreciative of our hair functioning on our behalf, and not as disparaging and critical as we often become. When there have been major catastrophes that push stress into a higher gear, such as the attacks on 9/11, the increased stress is very apparent in the increased damage to the hair. I observed hair that was healthy and beautiful in the weeks prior to the attacks became dull, split and frazzy, shortly after the traumatic event.

Hair is thought by many health practitioners to be an akashic record of what we have experienced in life.

We know it holds physical information about nutrients, deficiencies, heavy metals or other toxic exposures. What many people do not know is that our hair also holds grief, fear and pain. In many cultures people will cut their hair after a divorce or death of a loved one. It marks that event in a powerful way and literally releases the old energy that is held in the hair, of time with the one who has passed.

I am a Holistic Hair Care Practitioner and Educator, and have worked with hair trauma for over 20 years. I practice a holistic healing art called Hair Balancing. The precise cutting technique is based on the principles of Sacred Geometry and is able to accelerate the release of trauma through the hair. This is accomplished while co-creating the style the client desires. The process heals and expands one’s energetic field, which has been well documented by Kirlian photography, and by those who are trained at reading auric fields.

The acupressure points on the head are very specifically stimulated several times during the process. The stress release is palpable, which is why I offer this service at no charge to victims of domestic violence at our local shelter.

The advocates working there have experienced these results personally and recommend that the victims have a session if they can. The staff will suggest, “Please, do this for your emotional and physical well-being.” They report seeing an emotional release in the women after a balancing, and that over the next few days they seem more relaxed. The women feel happier inside and definitely feel happier about how they look.

Since most of us must deal with cutting or styling our hair on a somewhat regular basis, does it not make sense to have this experience be healing and life enhancing if we have that option?