WWhen I put out a call on Instagram asking women to participate in a story about how hair affects identity, I received over 100 messages. The responses were overwhelmingly varied, which made me understand that while the shampoo that works for all hair types may not exist and while there is no single hack that can ensure that every hair type has perfectly stranded waves, there is one hair truth that we can hold onto for ourselves – evident: it is a large part of our identity.
“Hair is the only part of our bodies that we can change whenever we want without causing permanent damage,” writes Bumble and Bumble hairstylist Laurent Philippon. Hair: Fashion and Fantasy.“We can dress or dress it up, to reflect our personality, to attract attention, to project a chosen identity or to capture the mood of the moment.”
Case in point: When 26-year-old Mariah Gill decided to go “the big chop,” it was a way to show the world that she was proud of her black, queer identity. “It was a big, huge deal for me because it helped me find that look I was looking for. It was an instant way to tell the world I’m a butch,” says Gill, who describes her current style as a curly back with shaved sides.
“Hairstyles and rituals surrounding hair care and adornment convey powerful messages about one’s beliefs, lifestyles and obligations,” writes Deborah Pergament in her 1999 article in the Chicago Kent Law Review, titled “It’s Not Just Her: Historical and Cultural Considerations for an Emerging Technology”. “Inferences and judgments about one’s morality, sexual orientation, political beliefs, religious sentiments and, in some cultures, socioeconomic status can sometimes be suspected by the sight of a particular hairstyle.” That was over 20 years ago and it still holds true today.
“It’s likely that we’re determined to feel emotionally connected to our hair.” -Vivian Diller, PhD
Because while we project so much to the outside world with how we choose to style our hair; at the same time, our style can also naturally tell who we are, as 31-year-old Hilary Sheinbaum reminds me. She first cut 10 inches off her hair 15 years ago to donate to Locks of Love and says she felt “naked” when she first looked in the mirror.
The idea that we all feel something about our hair when we look in your mirror is deeply ingrained in us, both from a social and biological point of view. What’s behind this connection we have with our hair, it turns out, is inherited and far-reaching (it would be hard to find a culture that somehow doesn’t value hair). “It’s likely that we’re tied to feeling emotionally connected to our hair,” says psychologist Vivian Diller, PhD. “We’ve associated it with status, wealth and royalty since ancient times. Thick, rich hair has always meant health, sensuality and youth, so it remains that way for women today.”
It makes sense: a bad hair day is enough to ruin someone’s mood, and a crappy haircut can leave you insecure for weeks (…just ask me about the time I cut my own bangs with eyebrow scissors). A Research from 2000 commissioned by Procter & Gamble found that subjects’ self-esteem dropped on “bad hair” days, and their social insecurity skyrocketed. On the other hand, few things can make you feel better than feeling your best – just look at DryBar’s massive success, which has built its company on exactly that premise.
But good and bad hair days are just one piece of the puzzle. Looking at the extremes of these close bonds we feel with our locks, it’s no wonder hair loss†which is on the rise among millennial women – can be such a traumatic experience. According to the American Hair Loss Association, women make up 40 percent of U.S. hair loss patients, and their website affirms that “women’s hair loss can be absolutely devastating to the patient’s self-image and emotional well-being.” But because the problem isn’t life-threatening, they’re often told it’s “not a problem” and to “just live with it.”
However, as anyone who has ever experienced it can attest, that is not the case. “When my dermatologist told me I had female pattern baldness, I almost cried — it was so embarrassing for me,” says 24-year-old Kimberly Corson, who started losing her hair last year. “The word ‘bald’ really upset me, and in that moment I was so attached and attached to my hair, and the idea of losing it was really hard.”
Corson’s emotional reaction to the experience is not unusual. “Whether it’s from chemotherapy, whether it’s postpartum hormones, whether it’s stress, whether it’s some kind of deficiency, hair loss for women is the most damaging thing she can deal with,” says celebrity hairstylist Martino Cartier, who founded a charity called Friends Are By Your Side that donates free wigs to women who have lost their hair through chemotherapy. “From my experience, after working with more than 1,000 women, it’s more traumatic than hearing she has cancer,” he says. A breast cancer survivor I spoke to echoed exactly this sentiment, telling me that the worst part of her experience was not finding out she was sick, but rather the day she lost her hair.
With the exception of hair loss, our hair is something we have total control over. We can cut, color and style it any way we want, and we can use it to manipulate our identity on any given day. We can wear pink curls in the evening and show up at work the next morning with a bobbed bun. But despite being under our control, our hair also seems to have total power over us. And the resulting relationship can be downright transformative.
“Women have come a long way so that our appearance is just one of many aspects that fuel our confidence. But our hair still contributes to an overall sense of well-being,” explains Dr. Diller out. Beyond that, though, our hair contributes to an overall sense of who we are† at. It’s a way to channel our emotions (see: the five-inch “break-up cut” I got when my heart was broken last year) and influence the world’s perception of us (see: Gill’s big chop) . Hair is so much more than hair.
It’s hair week here at Well and Good! Here’s what you need to know about the latest advances in hair loss therapy and why one of our editors firmly believes in dyeing her gray hair.
Our editors select these products independently. Making a purchase through our links can earn Well+Good a commission.