Human beings have a checkered history with hair.
Hair on top of our heads, facial and body hair — it’s all been scrutinized, stylized and inculcated. For thousands of years, we’ve opined on the topic of hair, good, bad and otherwise. Hair surfaces in art, literature, music, drama, political commentary, religious rules and more.
We judge people because of their hair, or lack thereof. You can have too much of it and too little. Many religions set forth guidelines for how hair should be worn, shorn, adorned, displayed, hidden, cared for or left to its unruly devices.
Several faiths dictate how clergy must wear their hair, and some have mandates about hair and facial hair for all believers. Many “hairstyles” actually have a religious and/or cultural basis, such as dreadlocks and beards.
Consider there’s little information about what Buddha looked like. However, the texts that do attempt to document his appearance devote ample space to describing his hair, from color to texture. Even less was written about Jesus’ appearance, but in that one line, texture and color is mentioned.
But it’s just hair, right?
According WebMD, hair is made of keratin, a “tough protein.” The bulb that forms the base of the hair follicle and anchors it to the skin is a living cell. Over time, it divides and grows to build the hair shaft. What grows out of heads, faces and bodies is the result of a complex bodily function, carrying genetic markers of what and who we’re made of.
For thousands of years, hair has been an important symbol of class, gender, ethnicity, conformity, authority and power, writes Victoria L. Sherrow in “Encyclopedia of Hair: A Cultural History.”
That is, hair is a big deal, whether we like it or not.
Several years ago, I was at a training event hosted by a church denomination. One of the trainers made an offhand comment: “… just like you want to avoid the topic of hair with any group of women — all ages, backgrounds, races, colors, creeds and/or heritages.”
It was a large group of women, diverse in ages, economics, cultures, races, ethnicities and geographic origins. Talking about hair, much to the chagrin of the presenter, unified them that day. For nearly an hour, she struggled to regain control of the session.
The women wanted to tell stories. They wanted to talk about perceptions, expectations, texture, length and feelings — oh, the feelings. Several times, the trainer said, “OK, one more comment,” to no avail. Each “final” comment would spark a flurry of others.
I don’t believe this was because it was a group of women. It’s unlikely you could drop a casual reference to “long hair” or “beards” in a group of men without being bombarded with comments. The idea of mentioning hair to anyone without talking about hair doesn’t seem possible.
I asked my friends what they have learned, unlearned, believe and think about hair — honestly. Did their relationship with their hair have an impact on their religious and spiritual beliefs? Does it still? In the coming weeks, I’ll share some of their reflections.
I also want to ask you: What about hair? What have you learned? What do you believe? Has hair impacted your faith? Your relationships? Your perception of others and/or yourself?
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