Judgments and Fitting In

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.