By Gabriela Pinheiro
Throughout the month of April 2020, a quick and random survey of various social media and online news platforms has revealed a curious trend. At this time, the rapid spreading of COVID-19 has resulted in a coronavirus pandemic, killing more than 100 000 people globally. Most of the world’s citizens are now living in varying degrees of “lockdown” conditions, where there are stringent limitations to personal and social mobilities, and worldwide imperatives to #stay-at-home in order to #flatten-the-curve. Given these (somewhat-apocalyptic) circumstances, it has been interesting to observe that, alongside the aforementioned coronavirus-related hashtags, others are trending including: #quarantine-curls, #buzzcut-season, #home-haircut-fail, #don’t-try-this-at-home and #lockdown-before-and-after.
Explicit references to hair, and to hair-related anxieties specifically, have dominated online spaces and interactions during coronavirus quarantine. Especially considering the increasing number of daily virus-induced deaths, and the collective sense of uncertainty, fear and grief that people are experiencing, one questions the current fixation with hair. The significance of hair to human histories, identities, societies and relationships, however, means that its focalisation during times of crisis may reflect broader sociopolitical arrangements and patterns. In this paper, current hair fixations are explored in relation to wider connections between gender and other identity markers including race, class, age and geographical positioning; illustrating the centrality of human hair to everyday life. To facilitate the discussion, I offer brief analytic insights into a series of 15 Twitter posts (or ‘Tweets’) that feature language constructing relationships between hair and coronavirus conditions such as lockdown and/or quarantine.
A key feature of coronavirus lockdowns is the restriction of people’s movements, allowing the continued performance only of activities and services that have been deemed “essential”. In most countries, “essential” activities and services do not include routine visits to hair and beauty salons, and/or the consumption of some cosmetics products. However, in certain countries, like the United States of America (U.S.), higher-than-usual sales have recently been recorded for at-home hair dye because “in front of dimly-lit mirrors, people are shaving their heads or dyeing their hair” (Demopoulos, 2020). In New York City (one of the worst-affected cities in the world, where almost 20 000 people have died as a result of coronavirus infection), some hair professionals have reported that their clients are expressing panic at not being able to have their regular hair treatments during the pandemic. According to journalists, some stylists are even resorting to making their clients’ colour formulas and delivering customised home-hair kits. These custom hair kits are reputed to cost as much as 75 U.S. Dollars (roughly 1400 South African Rand), and include step-by-step instructions with tutorials that are also being provided using virtual platforms such as FaceTime and YouTube (Landman, 2020). In this paper, I suggest that lockdown-induced fixations with hair are not random or coincidental, but reflective of broader hair politics that illustrate the social and psychological significance of hair in everyday life.
Hair Rules: The Social and Gendered Significance of Hair
For sociological and anthropological researchers (e.g. Alubafi, Ramphalile, & Rankoana, 2018; Lester, 2013; Synnott, 1987), the emotions and symbols that become attached to human hair (such as ‘panic’, for example) are indicative of the idea that hair, a seemingly-straightforward, biological attribute, is in fact laden with psychological, political and societal meaning. Hair is deeply-rooted (pun intended) in our personal and private sense of identity, but it is simultaneously a public, physical attribute that becomes imbued with connotations, stories, experiences and values. Hence, hair symbolism is complex and nuanced, and perhaps nowhere more explicitly than in gendered domains; where boundaries between personal and political spheres are contested and blurred: hair is private, but it is also exposed to public scrutiny. Moreover, whilst hair growth occurs all over the human body, particular hair ‘zones’ carry subtle ideological significance that appears to be based largely on Western heterosexual gendered stereotypes. The gendered politics of hair are organised and naturalised so that society’s expectations and scripts for male versus female hair are often opposite and contradictory (Synnott, 1987).
Culturally, heterosexual, binary definitions of masculinities and femininities suggest that men are generally less closely-identified with their hair, and perhaps more concerned with facial and chest hair as key markers of androgenic hormones and maleness. Typically, men are expected to keep their head hair short, uniform and ‘neat’. Norms prescribe that men should also have some facial hair, but they are generally not pressured to remove hair from other bodily zones. Conversely, social expectations and standards are different for most women, who are generally socialised to identify more intimately with their head hair. Normatively, the worth that a woman encompasses seems to depend, to a considerable extent, on the length, texture and aesthetic quality of her head hair, but her value is also contingent on the absence of hair in other bodily zones such as the armpits, legs and pubis (Synnott, 1987). The immense social and gendered significance of hair is also supported by economic consumer patterns, where there is a considerable ‘grooming gap’ in the amount of time and money that women versus men spend on hair styling and products, and where the worth of the global haircare market is estimated at 90 billion U.S. Dollars (Isser, 2020). Feminist scholars and activists, including Audré Lorde and Germaine Greer, understand hair as a symbol of women’s gendered and sexual subjugation at the hands of patriarchal values. In relation to hair, Greer (1971) states:
I’m sick of the masquerade. I’m sick of pretending eternal youth. I’m sick of peering at the world through false eyelashes, so everything I see is mixed with a shadow of bought hairs; I’m sick of weighting my head with a dead mane, unable to move my neck freely, terrified of rain, of wind, of dancing too vigorously in case I sweat into my lacquered curls. I’m sick of the Powder Room […] The rationale of depilation is crude. In the popular imagination hairiness is like furriness, an index of bestiality, and as such an indication of aggressive sexuality. Men cultivate it, just as they are encouraged to develop competitive and aggressive instincts, women suppress it, just as they suppress all the aspects of their vigour and libido. If they do not feel sufficient revulsion for their body hair themselves, others will direct them to depilate themselves. In extreme cases, women shave or pluck the pubic areas, so as to seem even more sexless and infantile. (pp. 38–61)
Greer (1971) constructs the patriarchal pressure for women to groom their head, face and body hair as unreasonable and uncomfortable. In the above statement, she highlights the manifestation of patriarchal gender codes in human hair practices, drawing clear parallels between norms for women’s sexualities and the hair prescriptions that are imposed by a codified, heterosexual society. Moreover, her words suggest that the routine hair grooming that she performs is not done because of personal choice and enjoyment. Masquerade, pretending, false and bought reinforce the sense of falsity and unnaturalness that she experiences when she engages in patriarchally-motivated hair practices, because these routines are invested in the gratification of external, societal pressure, and have little to do with her agency and personal choice as a woman. Greer (1971) also states that human hair is considered bestial, and that the qualities espoused by archetypal ‘beasts’ (aggression, acting on primal instincts and urges, assertiveness, action, etc.) are traditionally reserved for males only. These examples highlight the tension between private and public performances of hair and aesthetics, where many women feel obligated to express and present their bodies to the outer world in particular ways.
During the coronavirus pandemic, people on lockdown are spending considerable amounts of time in the privacy of their homes, as compared to their daily routines before the COVID-19 crisis began. On social media, many people’s posts have implied that the coronavirus lockdown/quarantine situation has provided a time to ‘let themselves go’ in terms of physical appearance and routine grooming practices. In line with what Greer (1971) and other feminist scholars have argued previously, this may be an indication of the idea that people (and women, in particular) adhere to traditional hair and grooming practices only because they are pressured to do so socially. In Tweet 1 (below), the Twitter user shows how dominant imaginings of human hair tend to associate its growth with bestiality, inhumanity, savagery, brutality and depravity. The user compares the ‘new’ presence and increased growth of people’s body hair (under lockdown conditions during the pandemic) to the untamed and non-anthropoid archetype of the werewolf. Interestingly, the increase in body hair is accompanied by changes to the size of people’s bodies in lockdown, illustrating how the presence of body hair is generally perceived as a symptom that someone has ‘let themselves go’ (and may therefore be ‘judged’) in physical appearance:
Tweet 1: @Roxi Horror (2020, April 7): when the quarantine ends, people may look a little different than they looked before. Remember not to judge anyone for the size of their body, any new body hair, the sharpness of their fangs, their new tail or how they howl when the moon comes out.
Other posts and interactions, illustrating the tension between private and public performances of gendered hair practices, have circulated widely on social media during the coronavirus pandemic. Aestheticians (especially in the U.S.) have reported that many female clients are anxious over growing body hair because they have to stay at home and cannot maintain their routine visits to beauty salons. In a recent news article (Demopoulos, 2020), one beauty professional stated: “We actually don’t recommend waxing at home, it’s potentially dangerous and the results will probably be disappointing. Why not go natural? It’s one less thing to deal with”. Particular aspects of this statement also support the sentiments expressed by Greer (1971). The beautician highlights the fact that when one is confined to the home (private) space, then it is more acceptable to ‘go natural’. The implication, in this instance, is that it would be unsightly and unpalatable to the public if a woman was to leave the home (private) space with normal body hair still visible. In the second portion of the statement, there is also evidence to suggest that, like Greer (1971), many women feel that routine beauty practices are burdening: something to ‘deal with’. It becomes clear that many of the beauty conventions and standards that we take for granted as normal and necessary are in fact societally-constructed and replete with sexist discourses about the way that a woman’s body should appear. During the coronavirus lockdown situation, we have been presented with a chance to reflect on the reasons why we engage in these conformist practices in the first place.
In Tweets 2, 3, 4 and 5 (below), the Twitter users show how societal rules for hair seem to be internalised so that the manipulation and control of our hair becomes more emblematic of gendered codes, and not so much a representation of personal choice. A series of analytic insights is offered below each of the posts:
Tweet 2: @readwithcindy (2020, April 8): when this quarantine is over I will be curious to see which hangs lower to the ground, my armpit hair or my saggy boobs.
In Tweet 2, the female user alludes to the fact that, because she is confined to the home space (‘quarantine’), she has been allowing her armpit hair to grow as it would naturally. Interestingly, the choice to let her armpit hair grow out is accompanied by a rejection of other gendered expectations that women encounter: in this case, the convention of wearing a bra. The implication is that her breasts will droop in the absence of their normative underwire support, and that they will hang down in the same vein as her newly-grown armpit hair. These transgressions of gendered hair norms are possible only because of ‘quarantine’ conditions, where remaining in the privacy of the home means that social expectations for hair need not be respected or fulfilled.
Tweet 3: @The Magnificent Cork (2020, April 7): I feel so sorry for women at the moment. Without their hair and nails done they actually look ridiculous. Honestly like, its lousy #lockdown.
In Tweet 3, the male user demonstrates patriarchal hair (and general grooming) expectations in action. He states that women ‘look ridiculous’ during the coronavirus lockdown because they are confined to their home spaces and thus cannot engage in routine beauty practices such as getting their ‘hair and nails done’. The user communicates his disapproval of women’s ungroomed and natural bodily states and condemns them with the word ‘lousy’. This post illustrates the patriarchal values that tend to underpin Western gendered hair norms and beauty standards: in order for women not to be ‘lousy’, or pitied by men, they should remain pristine in their physical condition at all times.
Tweet 4: @Maria Nabil (2020, April 8): Another good hair day wasted in quarantine…*blessing your timeline*.
Tweet 5: @clairequinn1352 (2020, April 13): My hair looks so good today and it is a travesty we are in quarantine.
In Tweets 4 and 5, the female users suggest that a ‘good hair day’ is ‘wasted’ in coronavirus ‘quarantine’, mainly because of the ‘travesty’ of having to stay inside without being able to show the public that their hair is groomed according to social standards and expectations. These sentiments suggest that what we do with our hair is not so much about personal choice, but about ensuring that we make good appearances in public and social realms of everyday life. These ideas are (re)articulated aptly by Juliet A. Williams, a gender studies professor from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), who reiterates that the coronavirus pandemic has created an opportunity for people to think critically about their everyday conformity to gendered aesthetic expectations (Demopoulos, 2020):
For many people the crisis is the first time they’ve ever seriously considered [the question] ‘How would I choose to look if I didn’t have to worry about what other people think? You see a much wider spectrum of self-presentation. You see a rejection of gender stereotypes: long hair, short hair, grey hair. All of the things that we do to create the illusion that there is such a big difference in the way men and women look are being taken apart.
In Tweet 6 (below), the female user illustrates that coronavirus quarantine is a ‘no rules apply’ time for conventional gendered grooming and hair practices. She has to ‘hide’ the fact that she has chosen to go braless whilst engaging in the one-hour-long exercise/outside break that still applies in some countries on lockdown. The path is ‘well-populated’ and so she is forced to conceal the appearance and movement of her natural breasts in the absence of a bra. For her, coronavirus quarantine feels like a ‘no rules apply’ time. The rules to which she is referring are gendered, hence the references to her long hair and her decision to go braless (allowed only because it is quarantine). Tweet 6 thus reiterates the ideas expressed by Greer (1971) and Williams (2020), who suggest that the gendered codes for hair performance and expression are governed by patriarchal values, and that lockdown (a condition during which people do not venture out into the public eye) presents a unique historical moment for us to think critically about why we present our hair (and our bodies) in the ways that we do.
Tweet 6: @Fleurie (2020, April 8): using my hair to hide that I’m not wearing a bra was going well until I hit a strong headwind on a very well-populated walking path LOL why does quarantine feel like a general “no rules apply” time?
Connections between Gendered and Racial Identities in Global Hair Hierarchies
Gendered hair politics are further complicated by their intersections with geopolitical, racial and classed ideologies and positionings. Modern hair hierarchies are configured largely according to the systematic hegemony of conservative, white supremacist patriarchy (Alubafi et al., 2018). In the West, ideas from popular culture dictate that long, straight and shiny hair is irrefutably feminine, sexy and valuable. These hair standards are typified in the stereotypical performances of Caucasian femininity that abound in Western popular culture and media, which are replete with gendered hair mythologies including Rapunzel, Mary Magdalene and Lady Godiva. Gendered and racialised tropes that involve hair are also popular, including the all-too-familiar Dumb Blonde woman and the Tall, Dark and Handsome man. The Dumb Blonde trope is particularly visible in the collective consciousness of white, patriarchal Americans: innocent, passive, void of intellect, seductive, air-headed, youthful (but sexually experienced and experimental) and coquettish, the Dumb Blonde trope is epitomised in both fictional and non-fictional figures like Marylin Monroe, Grace Kelly, Elle Woods and Britney Spears (Horn, 1979, as cited in Synnott, 1987). In contemporary hair politics, the rise of tropes like the ‘Karen’ (Can I Speak to the Manager?) haircut also illustrate some of the ways in which white, middle-aged women who do not have long and ‘youthful’ air are constructed as slightly ‘butch’ and as ‘ball-busters’ (Rennex, 2019).
The connections between hair, gender and politics are becoming ever-clearer during the coronavirus pandemic. In the U.S., Ainsley Erhardt (a talk show host on U.S. President Donald Trump’s favourite conservative-leaning morning show, Fox and Friends) expressed concern about how women in America were going to get their hair and nails done in the context of social distancing and lockdowns: “All my friends are saying, you know, this is not a priority — people are dying and I realize that…but they can’t get their nails done,” she said. Shortly thereafter, social media users responded with critiques that her statement and the concerns she was expressing presented as a “perfect distillation of Trump Republicanism” and “rich white lady problems”. At the time of writing, the U.S. had more than 76 000 confirmed cases of coronavirus and a total of 849 recorded deaths, which begged the question: how legitimate are concerns about our physical appearance given our current circumstances and especially the knowledge that people are dying daily? (The News, 2020). Perhaps hair fixation by politicians and popular media figures illustrates the West’s tendency to focalise ‘rich white lady problems’ at the expense of devoting attention to issues of substance and urgency.
The same anti-feminist, conservative patriarchy is internalised by other anti-feminist women: Marabel Morgan (1975, p. 114, as cited in Synnott, 1987), for example, offered the following advice on how a woman should greet her husband on his return from work (the assumption being that she does not work outside of the house): “Greet him at the door with your hair shining, your beautifully made-up face radiant, your outfit sharp and snappy…. Take a few moments for that bubble-bath…. Remove all prickly hairs and be squeaky-clean from head to toe. Be touchable and kissable”.
Owing to their dominance of global hair hierarchies, and because they find their roots in decades of racist and oppressive histories, hegemonic ideas about hair are entangled intimately with the privileges afforded by Western white patriarchy (historically and contemporarily). Hence, it is possible to view hair as a corporeal artefact that (re)produces derogatory discourses about blackness, and about black women in particular. The politics of gender, hair and race have been shaped by the early (and enduring) racist influences of colonialism and slavery. As systematic forms of oppression and exploitation, colonialism and slavery catalysed the erasure of positive ideas about natural African hair, predominantly through the exportation of Africans to the West in the slave trade. In colonial America, white slave owners characterised African hair textures as “woolly” and favoured black women with straighter hair and lighter skin for ‘employment’ as personal house slaves; whilst those black women with kinkier hair and darker complexions were confined to work in the cotton fields (Nyamnjoh & Fuh, 2014, as cited in Alubafi et al., 2018). Chigumadzi (2016) found that black people living in Brazil and the Caribbean have shared hair stories, because in the American experience, a woman with ‘good hair’ is a woman with long, shiny and straight hair. In the neo-colonial period, where white patriarchy and cultural imperialism persist, many ideas about black people’s hair continue to be informed largely by two colonial misconceptions in particular: that natural black hair is dirty or unsanitary, and that natural black hair does not grow. To elaborate on the ways in which these gendered and colonial rules continue to play out in modern hair hierarchies, Mokoena (2016, as cited in Alubafi et al., 2018) notes that:
Many black women who wear weaves and relax their hair will explain their choice by either saying that their natural hair is unmanageable or that natural hair is dirty. This is one of the most enduring stereotypes about black hair. People will even cite the anecdotal evidence that Bob Marley’s dreads had 47 different types of lice when he died. These are urban legends of the worst kind because they perpetuate the stereotype that only black hair attracts lice, and other vermin, which is scientifically untrue.
In South Africa, with its history of colonial rule, apartheid machinery employed the same discursive strategies and racist tactics to divide people on the basis of particular aesthetic features and supposed ‘biological’ differences. In this context, hair was one of the most visible and public indicators of race, second only to skin colour. It is no secret that, in the name of ‘science’ (eugenics), the apartheid government institutionalised invalid and racist measures such as the ‘pencil hair test’ in order to classify South Africans as either ‘white’ or ‘non-white’ (black, mixed race or Indian) (Chigumadzi, 2016). Black women’s hair thus became (and remains presently) one of the most highly-contested aesthetic practices in the South African imagination (Alubafi et al., 2016; Chigumadzi, 2016). Racial slurs to describe African versus Caucasian hair textures were (and are still) propagated through polarising vocabularies such as kroes-hare (meaning ‘kinky’ hair) versus lekker-hare (meaning ‘nice’ hair). These vocabularies illustrate how “distinctions of aesthetic value – beautiful and ugly – have always been central to the way racism divides the world into binary oppositions in its application of human worth” (Mercer, 1987, p. 35). In the post-apartheid era, hair politics and his(hair)stories continue to exert a profound influence in shaping many black women’s perceptions of themselves and also their relationships with their bodies; especially in relation to an ostensibly superior (and ‘more beautiful’) white other (Alubafi et al., 2018).
The interconnections between hair and race are also evident in the biologising and totalising racist discourses that continue to (re)appear in everyday talk and interaction around black women’s hair. In a recent study by Alubafi et al (2018), black women living in Tshwane (Pretoria) noted that ‘good hair’ is still largely understood to mean ‘white hair’ (sleek, long and straight). Moreover, many black women express feelings of frustration and humiliation when white people ask if it would be okay to touch their afros; that these requests from white people are inappropriate and serve only to reproduce racist ideas about which types of head hair are (ab)normal (Gassam, 2020). In these everyday interactions, a particular kind of relational and power dynamic (re)emerges, where whiteness has voyeuristic privilege, and blackness is exhibited purely to satiate white consumption, fascination, entertainment and pleasure.
One is reminded in this instance of historical figures such as Saartjie Baartman (see, e.g. Catanese, 2010). However, one also need not look very far in order to encounter contemporary illustrations of the same corporeal violences (central to which are questions relating to human hair). In the sphere of modern sport, for example, racist/sexist hair politics manifest in the ‘scientific’ (read: humiliating and discriminatory) measures that are sometimes used to evaluate women athletes; especially those who are not white. Dutee Chand is an Indian athlete who identifies as a woman, but she was recently suspected of having high levels of androgens (male hormones) and was thus subjected to a series of ‘sex verification tests’: one of which entailed the measuring of her pubic hair; the length of which was then recorded and graded according to a five-grade scale (Padawer, 2016). Similar procedures were conducted on the body of South African athlete, Caster Semenya, whose case demonstrates another example of intersectional identity discrimination (along gendered and racial axes) at the hands of conservative white patriarchy in the sporting arena (North, 2019).
Moreover, South Africa’s current education system also reveals how historical racism and sexism endure in contemporary hair politics: a case in point is exemplified by the August 2016 incident at Pretoria High School for Girls, where administration insisted that black female learners straighten their hair in order for it to adhere to the school’s code of conduct (which stipulated that girls’ hair should be ‘neat’ and ‘tidy’). These examples reflect how human hair remains fundamental to the maintenance of historical racist/misogynistic policies, and how the complex image of black hair is fraught with historic emblems of black people’s purported inferiority (Alubafi et al., 2018). Whilst many white women endure (re)articulations of sexist oppression in patriarchal matrices, it seems that “the racial implications of hair texture [and hair in general] take on added significance for black women, given the central role accorded to hair in racialized constructions of femininity and female beauty” (Caldwell, 2003, p. 18).
In Tweet 7 (below), the male Twitter user makes references to black women and the hair and grooming practices to which they must normally conform. The reference to race is made explicit through his use of the word ‘nigga’. This word is a variant of the word ‘nigger’, which has a particular history that finds its origins as a racist slur used by white people against black people in the mid-1800s. However, the term, and black people’s use of the term, have evolved to take on new meanings. One new way in which black people employ the term ‘nigga’ is colloquial, to refer to other black people in casual conversation and as a reclamation of the term as part of a positive and collective identity (see, e.g. Rahman, 2012). In Tweet 7, the black male user is referring to the ‘niggas’ (boyfriends or partners) of black women, whom he references through the word ‘ladies’ and the inclusion of a photo of a stylish black woman. In the Tweet, he suggests that quarantine is a time where black women are unable to adhere to conventional beauty standards, implying that as soon as the coronavirus pandemic is over, these women will hurry back to beauty salons to receive their usual beauty treatments. He also suggests that, in order to have sex with (or ‘give it up’ to) their ‘niggas’ (from whom they have been separated because of coronavirus lockdown), these women will need to first make sure that they adhere to gendered codes for grooming: they should be ‘fully waxed’, their nails should be done and their head hair should also be properly groomed:
Tweet 7: @B. (2020, April 8): Ladies first day out of quarantine on the way to their nigga house fully waxed, nails & hair done and ready to give it UP [photograph of stylish black woman].
Gender, Age and Hair in the Western Imagination: to Go Grey or to Die?
In Western aesthetics, there is also a clear interplay between hair, gender and the identity marker of age; where Western standards of beauty show an obsessive reverence towards youth and its preservation, and a complementary devaluing of age and elderliness. Synnott (1987) notes that grey hair is often one of the first physical and public signs of human mortality, and that grey hairs (and ageing) are often concealed through conventional dyeing practices. However, where grey hair and ageing are concerned, there is also a (gendered) double standard in most youth-focused, Western settings: for women, greying hair is generally perceived negatively, as a sign of aging: there is a loss of youthful characteristics (including women’s ‘crowning glory’) that make femininity intelligible and seductive to patriarchal masculinities.
For most Western men, however, greying hair is often regarded as ‘distinguished’; hence, the old adage: men age like fine wine, but women age like milk. The metaphorical ‘souring’ of women as they age, common in Western framings of beauty and gender, alludes to the double standards characterising gender codifications and aesthetic rules. The constraining effects of these rules featured prominently in a 1983 scandal, where the U.S. Food and Drug Administration admitted that hair dye may cause cancer, and many female consumers of Clairol’s hair dye said that they would rather die than ‘turn grey’ (Banner, 1983, as cited in Synnott, 1987). In Tweet 8 (below), it is evident that coronavirus conditions, such as ‘self-quarantine’ mean that people (and women, in particular) can get away with foregoing their usual beauty and hair colouring routines because they are not going to be seen by anybody. The female Twitter user places ‘without a bra or makeup’ next to ‘growing out your grey hair’ and this syntax shows that gender rules for hair have become somewhat relaxed whilst women are confined to their homes during a period of time when public appearances do not matter to the same degree as they would normally:
Tweet 8: @paget_brewster (2020, April 8): maybe during self-quarantine, you do a little touch up on interior house painting, without a bra or makeup, while growing out your grey hair…
Re/rou(o)ting His(hair)stories: Hair as Resistance
Human hair is very often the site of interwoven discriminatory politics, but it is also a battleground for people’s resistance to societal conventions: hence, it is far from neutral, but rather highly-ambivalent and contested. Historically, the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements of 1950s-60s America were underpinned by aesthetic ideologies and practices that encouraged black people to reclaim their natural styles, and the afro was glorified with the slogan Black is Beautiful (Synnott, 1987). As a parallel to these bodily and hair-related modes of resistance, the influence of the Black Consciousness Movement in apartheid South Africa meant that black people started to reject the primacy of white beauty rules, drawing attention instead to political blackness, and to black power, through their hair choices: as a key part of their rebellion against racial and gendered configurations, many black South Africans wore afros and other natural styles in order to symbolise a return to themselves, and a collective reframing of negative ideas about black physicality and black bodies (Biko, 2004, as cited in Alubafi et al., 2018). Furthermore, some black women in the recent study by Alubafi et al (2018) expressed that their hair still serves as a contested, ambivalent and dynamic part of their daily aesthetic lives and routines, including the resistance of pre-1994 hair imagery: importantly, they emphasised that South African black women who straighten their hair, or wear wigs and extensions, are not simply imitating their white counterparts, but that the free adoption of different styles (some of which were previously thought to be owned and worn exclusively by white women) forms a core part of the liberation of black people and black hair.
In the present era of hair and gender, the continued and gradual dismantling of dominant hair hierarchies is evident. Through their hair adornment and style choices, many black women in South Africa are gradually disrupting racist and sexist his(hair)stories, as was especially publicised and highlighted in the protest by Pretoria High School for Girls learners following the 2016 incident at their school (Alubafi et al., 2018; Chigumadzi, 2016). It is also positive to see that people’s questioning of normative hair conventions is occurring in creative domains, through film and other media. In 2020, for example, Matthew Cherry’s Hair Love was awarded an Oscar upon being recognised as the best animated short film of the season. The film has been hailed as a celebration of representation, and of a young black girl’s journey of self (and hair) acceptance (McKenzie, 2020). These forms of resistance allude to the subtle, but powerful capacities for hair to tackle and neutralise aesthetic and socio-political hegemonies in the context of global race/gender arrangements.
Other forms of hair protest include those witnessed in social movements such as the Hippie and Punk movements (Synnott, 1987), and in the growing refusal by many women to remove their body hair and/or to keep their head hair long. Within LGBTQIA+ and drag scenes, performance artists such as Conchita Wurst (who wears a beard) have also made significant contributions to hair resistance (Tallie, 2014). The increasing prevalence of women’s unshaven armpits, and the growing popularity of women’s buzzcuts, show how feminine shame has started to become feminist (‘crowning’) glory (Lester, 2013). During coronavirus conditions, such as lockdown and quarantine, more and more people seem to be questioning the hair practices in which they engage on a daily basis. One might argue, then, that the global pandemic has offered an opportunity for critical thought and reflection around mainstream hair norms (in relation to gender, race and other identity markers) and that the ‘letting go’ of convention might alter and (re)shape the ways in which we think about aesthetics in the post-coronavirus era.
The Psychosomatics of Hair: Loss, Locks and Life Transitions
Psychosomatically, the gendered nuances of hair are also visible, straddling both private and public spaces: In one study (Synnott, 1987, p. 383), the following was expressed by a woman who had lost all of her hair through radiation therapy for the treatment of cancer: “When you lose your hair, you feel like you have nothing to live for […] a girl just isn’t a girl without her hair”. Her sentiments and ‘feelings’ allude to the centrality of hair as a core part of her sense of self as a legitimate and worthy woman in society. Moreover, the level of pain that she experiences in relation to the loss of her hair is comparable to the grief and emptiness that is typically associated with death and mourning. According to some psychologists (see, e.g. Radin, 2019), the urge to cut one’s hair during periods of grief can be likened to shedding a layer of skin; a way to rid the Self physically of difficult emotions and experiences.
The gendered connections between grief and hair are observable across numerous cultures, where head hair among Punjabi women, for example, symbolises life and vitality and is thus left dishevelled and unwashed during the mourning of husbands (Herschman, 1974, as cited in Hirschman, n.d.). The female Twitter user who posted Tweet 9 (below) uses a simile device to show how coronavirus quarantine compares to the feelings associated with a breakup. The loss of normalcy and routine that happens during quarantine is likened to the loss of an intimate partner, and feelings including ‘sadness’ and longings for ‘revenge’ are expressed. Interestingly, the ‘revenge bod’ is polarised with the image of being ‘sad as shit and eating everything you can find, binge watching shit tv’, which shows how people’s personal and private aesthetic performances are different in private and public domains. The ‘revenge bod’ is usually created for the purpose of showing one’s ex what they are missing, and so again this communicates the idea that gendered bodily practices are largely maintained by external pressures that women feel. This is the case both during quarantine and during a breakup. The ‘chopping’ of this user’s hair is mentioned in relation to the feelings of loss, sadness and yearning for normalcy that characterise periods of grief and mourning:
Tweet 9: @Kristen Leanne (2020, April 6): Quarantine is like a breakup: one day you’re fucking sad as shit and eating everything you can find, binge watching shit tv. Next day you wanna work out and get that revenge bod…then you wanna chop your hair off and colour it [crying emoji].
Many women who have experienced other types of trauma also express desires to cut their hair or even to shave it off entirely. In popular culture, examples of this are represented in film and other media. In the 1988 film, The Accused, the protagonist decides to cut her hair into a very short style after she is gangraped and discovers that her rapists have not been found guilty (Radin, 2019). This is also evident in Tweet 10 (below), where the female Twitter user constructs cutting one’s hair during quarantine as something inevitable (‘when you cut your own hair’). The cutting of the hair is cathartic because the experience of being in quarantine is traumatic. This is likened to the gendered tropes that are common in films and other media:
Tweet 10: @CamGurrrl (2020, April 13): When you cut your own hair in quarantine pretend to be a female character who’s gone through a significant and/or traumatic event, and now has her spontaneous, tearful, cathartic haircutting scene scored by rousing music.
Another, highly-publicised and notorious example can be identified in the case of Britney Spears, who, in 2007, (in)famously shaved her own head whilst in the midst of personal trauma involving a war with the American media, a divorce, substance abuse and mental health difficulties. After years of alienation and torment as a puppet of American popular culture and media, Spears later explained that the notorious head-shave symbolised a reclamation of her personal identity and individuality, but also a physical way in which to handle the emotional pain that she was experiencing. Having been sexualised from a very young age Britney used the buzzcut moment as a mode of defiance and resistance against stigmas surrounding gender and mental health (Morrish, 2017):
She seemed to be trying, with befuddled brilliance, to tell the truth. She recoiled from celebrity culture by mortifying her own flesh. She stripped herself, publicly, of her sexuality. She presented herself as grotesque. Her mortification of the flesh at 25 is just the latest example of how bizarrely-troubling American society finds the female body.
Coronavirus lockdown/quarantine periods are also periods of transition and change, involving considerable stress and anxiety for many people. The psychological and affectual impact of this situation may be expressed through people’s decisions to change their hair or modify their physical appearance in other ways. For the remainder of the tweets (below), brief analytic comments are provided that illustrate this.
Tweet 11: @Krestamir (2020, April 6): new piercings and hair color after this quarantine [tongue emoji]
There is the implication of a transitory period for the user. She is going to have these bodily procedures performed after quarantine, showing that she will be coming out of a difficult time in her life. The tongue emoji is a performative way of communicating a particular message or emotion.
Tweet 12: @Jo (2020, Apr 8): The worst part about this quarantine is that I can’t dispel my manic energy in negative ways. No tattoos/piercings, no dyeing my hair, no impulse buying, no going to the Pub and ordering everyone shots of Jameson. What am I supposed to do? Hike? Read? Meditate? Fucksakes.
Dyeing one’s hair is constructed as a way to ‘dispel [her] manic energy’. This female user is manic because of the quarantine. Other maladaptive or destructive (‘negative’) activities or coping mechanisms are mentioned, symbolizing that cutting one’s hair is something that we often do when we are not coping. This suggests that quarantine and coronavirus pandemic are difficult to handle. There is also the polarization of healthy coping mechanisms with unhealthy ones…in society’s view, drinking, dyeing your hair, buying things impulsively and getting body modifications like piercings or tattoos are considered unhealthy. The healthy mechanisms involve hiking, reading and meditating. ‘Fucksakes’ expresses anger and exasperation.
Tweet 13: @kj (2020, April 6): btw I dyed my hair like…the 2nd day of quarantine I am not stable lmao.
Tweet 14: @emo_mom (2020, April 6): this quarantine put y’all in the same mental state you were in when you were 13, that’s why you’re listening to your “emo throwbacks” playlist and dyeing your hair
Tweet 15: @Tallulah (2020, April 4): quarantine made me do it. Instead of having a meltdown, I dyed my hair.
Evidently, hair is laden with psychology and affect: one makes changes (like cutting and/or dyeing) the hair during times of ‘instability’ (like coronavirus lockdown/quarantine conditions). In Tweet 13, the ‘lmao’ stands for ‘laughing my ass off’ and could signal the idea that the female user finds the quarantine situation absurd. In Tweet 14, the female user refers to the ‘emo’ trope, which is known to emphasise emotional expression and is usually typified by reverse mullet and jet-black or rainbow-hued hairstyles. The reference to this trope suggests that quarantine has initiated a ‘mental state’ that is highly emotional. Finally, in Tweet 15, these sentiments and ideas are reinforced: the female user cites ‘quarantine’ as the reason for a ‘meltdown’ (emotional instability) and goes on to mention changes that she has made to her hair instead.
In this paper, a series of tweets (posted during the month of April 2020, in the context of coronavirus lockdown/quarantine conditions during the global pandemic) was analysed thematically, and the analytic insights were connected to broader theory around hair politics to show that hair is significant to people in ways that are personal, emotional, psychological, social, spiritual, historical, political, economical and sexual. The ideological effects of hair are particularly evident during the global pandemic, which has presented us with an opportunity to reflect critically on the reasons, values and ideas that underpin our daily adherence to (mainly Western) aesthetic conventions. Expressed through social media platforms such as Twitter, quarantine-related hair fixations and anxieties reveal the affectual and political intricacies with which hair is imbued.
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About the author
Gabriela Pinheiro is a critical social and psychological researcher. Gabriela joined the CSA&G in 2020 where she manages the Gender Justice Project in collaboration with the Irish Embassy and is also involved with other ongoing work in the CSA&G. She completed her Master’s in Research Psychology at the University of the Witwatersrand and interned at the UNISA Institute for Social and Health Sciences. Her research background includes work in the South African Higher Education sector and community engagement. She has particular interest in the study of critical social psychologies, genders and sexualities, and student health/wellbeing.
 At the time of writing. For updated statistics and further information, visit: https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/.
 These Tweets were selected randomly. Using the Twitter application, the recent Tweets were filtered to show those from April 2020, before typing the following keywords into the search bar: coronavirus hair, quarantine hair and lockdown hair. This is just a small collection of Tweets related to coronavirus and hair, and an array of others can be viewed on Twitter: https://twitter.com/explore.
 At the time of writing. For updated statistics and further information, visit: https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/country/us/.
 I refer in this instance to hegemonic Western standards and cultures of beauty. It is important to recognise the heterogeneity and plurality within and between different cultures when contemplating the politics of hair and beauty. In Rastafarian culture, for example, many men choose to wear their head hair long (and/or in dreadlock styles) because they believe that this is where their strength lies. This example alludes to the dynamic nature of hair politics across and within different cultural groupings (see, e.g. Waldstein, 2016). Gendered hair norms are also contested and resisted – this is discussed in later sections of this paper.
 There are exceptions to this uniformity, even within dominant Western beauty cultures. If we think about sport, for example, many male athletes choose to remove body hair because the practice is perceived to enhance physical performance. This alludes, again, to the plurality of hair expression by different people, even when they are see as falling within a particular group or culture.
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