The Way We Are Created: Eco-feminist Explorations of Bodily Hair by Tallessyn Grenfell-Lee

In the last few years, I’ve been thinking a lot about hair. It’s hard to avoid thinking about it when you are the greyest, hairiest woman in your suburban, north shore town.  Myself and the other two ‘all natural’ women in town stand out like beacons among a sea of smooth, streaked, glossy manes of gorgeously cut and styled hair. And each spring, I stare at my shorts and tank top a little longer before wearing them around town. I’ll be perfectly honest – I don’t blame those slaves to fashion one bit. Although I try to avoid what I call the ‘crazy witch woman’ look, there’s no getting around it – smooth legs look slick, and dye smooths out those grey frizzies and takes a good ten years off your age!

So, it got me wondering – what does hair have to teach us as women of faith? Is there something unique about hair that causes us to fixate on it so much? And it occurred to me that hair actually symbolizes so much about our relationship with the Creation. We exist in an interconnected matrix of the living and non-living – as a matter of fact, we rely completely on the abiotic sphere, for life and as the matrix within which relationships occur.  Our bodies exemplify that relational paradigm; our living cells are inseparable from the non-living matrices of our skin, teeth, and hair.  From our living bodies emerges a non-living, interconnected medium, symbolic of the whole ecosphere.

In this way, hair represents an interesting case study of the eco-feminist critique.  Although hair appears to be nothing more than a collection of dead cells extending from our living bodies, the cultural and spiritual significance of hair belie such a reductionist view.  As a culture, we expend vast amounts of energy, time, and money on having hair, getting rid of hair, or styling hair.  These expenditures reveal the great significance of hair, which dates back to biblical times.

Our scriptures equate hair with strength (Judges 16); religious purity (Leviticus 13); and holiness and beauty (Numbers 6:5; 1 Samuel 1:11).  Pauline texts also discuss hair with great concern, and scholars debate the significance hair as a symbol of fertility or genitalia, and how these cultural influences led to the practice of asking women to cover their hair (I Cor 11:6-15). Poor Mary Magdalene was labeled a prostitute simply for loosing her hair to dry Jesus’ feet, a practice that likely symbolized grief, humility, reverence, supplication, or gratitude, rather than amorality (Luke 7:35-6). Consequently, the stain of this stigma overshadowed her contributions to the early Jesus movement for millennia. How many women have been stigmatized for hair-related ‘offenses’?

Proverbs 16:31 asserts, “Gray hair is a crown of glory; it is gained in a righteous life.”  Was this idea wishful thinking? Did it apply only to men? Or have we simply lost this idea in our culture, particularly for women? The fact is – for good or for ill – our hair communicates much about us socially, and these messages vary from culture to culture. But wherever we are, our hair represents a tangible kinship with much of the rest of Animalia.  Could this connection – and our desire to sever it – lie behind some of our desire to conquer our hair?

Women spend countless hours and funds trying to change themselves from the way they were created to be, whether in body hair, head hair, facial hair, hair texture, or hair color.  Often, the ability to change one’s hair becomes associated with wealth and then social status. Sadly, many women have come to believe that the hair on their created bodies renders them ‘disgusting,’ ‘gross,’ or ‘nappy’ – used derogatively to describe African hair.  Why do we see male body hair as erotic, yet female body hair as repulsive? Why should anything about our created bodies ever be inherently repulsive?

Whenever I spend time with the ‘hippy-crunchy’ Earth lovers, I notice the great abundance of hair.  No matter the ethnic origin, Earth-lovers seem to have a great appreciation for hair – body hair, head hair, dreadlocks, beards, and more.  Now, certainly cultural pressures can go both ways – perhaps some people feel pressure to go ‘natural.’ Yet I still wonder if there might be something inherently questionable about feminine or other cultural practices that try so hard to de-foliate our natural bodies and/or ruthlessly subdue our hair’s natural look. Do not these practices harm our self-image as well as our understanding of our relationality with other animals, undermining an eco-centric understanding of self and humanity? Might our quest to remain young – no grey hair, no body hair – further alienate us from kinship with the Creation?

We each must follow a unique path of discipleship; and I pray that whatever we choose to do with our hair, we know without a doubt that our created selves are beloved and beautiful as they are.  I know I’ve never seen a baby – or a pet dog – judge someone over their hairdo; they just love us for who we are. Maybe the rest of Animalia has something to teach us after all.

Tallessyn Zawn Grenfell-Lee is a doctoral candidate in Environmental Ethics at Boston University School of Theology, studying the engagement of congregations with the local food movement. She previously did graduate research on Alzheimer’s Disease and preventive research on Ovarian Cancer. She received a B.Sc. in biology from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, an M.A. in Molecular Biology fromHarvardUniversity, and an M.Div. from the Boston University School of Theology. She lives on the North Shore of Massachusetts with her husband and two daughters, and enjoys gardening, canoeing, learning about medicinal and edible wild plants, and rewriting old hymns to make them more inclusive.

16 thoughts on “The Way We Are Created: Eco-feminist Explorations of Bodily Hair by Tallessyn Grenfell-Lee”

  1. I don’t know what ads others are receiving with this blog, but just above the “share this” line I see an ad for natural beard dye for men only and another for Brazilian wavy hair, presumably for a hair weave…which proves your point. Hair is an industry, because we have been made to feel that the hair we have is not ok.


    1. Your point about the industry is a great one. I recently saw ‘MissRepresentation,’ which describes the capitalist-economic history of the ‘health and beauty’ (what a term!) industry in terms of its objectification and exploitation of women. I highly recommend it.


  2. There is an interesting line between beauty and grooming and objectification and exploitation. Where the line is — is not easy to decide.

    I read recently that societies where men are bearded tend to emphasize the difference b/w men and women and male dominance. So men shaving their facial hair may sometimes reflect an interest in de-emphasizing the gender divide.

    In Minoan Crete both men and women were concerned with their appearance, I would judge. The men were not bearded and the women wore makeup and carefully arranged their hair. The society seems to have been egalitarian and not male (or female) dominant.


  3. Wherever we go, how we choose to appear will send culturally-formed messages about our identity. But as you mention, that line is tricky between wanting to appear professional so that people will take you seriously (i.e, ‘playing by the rules’) and wanting to push that envelope and ask, why are *these* the rules? When I met my husband, he had a mohawk and long hair. As a fellow preacher’s kid, I completely understood his need to express himself – that mohawk was sending a cultural message, but only because of his context.

    Even chimps and gorillas and wildcats groom themselves and each other. Grooming – being neat and clean – may be inherent; maybe we’re actually ‘created’ to be ‘well-groomed.’ Perhaps it’s an intuitive sign to others that we are psychologically stable? Perhaps we’re also created to want to express ourselves through our hair – what a wonderful thought! So there’s the blurry line again between conformity of what is considered well-groomed, and individual expression.

    One test to help me figure out whether something counts as oppressive/exploitative is to examine the expectations for men vs. women as far as looking well-groomed. But the other one is how one feels when s/he is not able to do the grooming they normally do; I think makeup and hairdos *can* be simply fun self-expression, so long as people do not feel ‘ugly,’ ‘disgusting,’ etc. without them. I would be very interested in why only the Minoan Crete women wore makeup – usually it is to look younger (in order to attract a mate, or perhaps be less threatening), right? That can lead to the idea that women’s success depends on their ability to look young, and equate youth with beauty, but only for women. Perhaps in that context, the makeup was worn for a different reason?

    I LOVE the idea that being clean shaven can almost be a sign of solidarity with women. Funny how in other communities, beards are seen that way! Thank you for all the interesting insights!


  4. Wonderful thought-provoking article and follow-up commentary with questions and insights. You stated so clearly my own perspective when you said “. . . examine the expectations for men vs. women as far as looking well-groomed. But the other one is how one feels when s/he is not able to do the grooming they normally do.” My emotions run the gamut about my choice to be ‘all natural’ with body hair since around ’95; I’ve played with the hair and my feelings about it and other people’s comments, and am still fascinated. A few years ago, my young nieces asked about my choice to leave unshaven legs and armpits; I tried to keep it simple, coming up with a similar response to yours that I quoted. Having grown up with a mom who never left the house without makeup and hair done and matching clothes, I often heard “you would be so pretty *if only* you would [insert appropriate grooming or makeup or clothing]. So these days, I try to gauge whether I am creating an image of my body self from choice or obligation or expectation. And, as it happens, I have to laugh today at the timing of this post … because I’m off to get some purple stripes in my hair for the fun of it and to present some visual solidarity to my teenage niece who will be visiting in a week or so and is struggling with identity issues. Thanks for the timely and enjoyable post.


    1. That is so fun Darla – very cool of you to get some purple hair! You know, for as long as I have known Emily Culpepper, she has had a streak of pink in her hair :)


  5. Great post Tallessyn – it gives us much to think about. My mom and I received a lot of attention, both critical and affirming, when we shaved our hair off. My mom was fearing the hair loss that would likely result from the chemotherapy she was going to undergo, so as a way for her to have some power over the situation we shaved our hair off preemptively – and boy did people react! Could you believe some people even critiqued my mom for being ‘negative’ and for shaving her hair ‘unnecessarily’ since it was not guaranteed that she would lose her hair from the treatment, so in their mind she would have shaved her hair off ‘for nothing’. My mom did lose her hair, every single possible strand from every single place in her body, but now she is cancer-free and has all her hair back. But people’s reactions to us shaving our hair off was incredible, and sometimes just plain stupid, really. I did it just to be in solidarity with her, as you know I had long curly hair, and people still ask me why I haven’t grown in back. But I love having no hair! It’s easy and gives me one less thing to think about in my day to day.

    There are two funny things I’ve experienced about having no hair: 1) how frequently women tell me they wish they had the nerve to do it and how they have always been tempted to shave it off but are afraid they will look funny, and 2) almost as a rule, the people (strangers) who give me compliments on my ‘hair cut’ are older women, and older African-American men. Curious huh?!


  6. Fascinating and timely. I have been thoughtful about the fact that I don’t feel comfortable putting on a swimsuit any old time to go to the pool or the beach with my family. If I don’t happen to feel appropriately “groomed”, I pass altogether rather than hold everyone up for the 20+ minutes it would take to wax, pluck, shave and trim…only to then ice, lube and moisturize away the redness and sting… only to THEN have my tender flesh ‘light up’ on fire when I submerge that same abused flesh into salt water or chlorine. Lame! My husband and brothers can wake up and throw on a swimsuit and go. I object! But not yet enough to go natural, myself, though the routine itself sounds suspiciously like an old testament torture.

    By way of a confession: I have actually wondered what will happen if I lapse into a coma – who will groom my eyebrows? Who will ensure I’m not both in a coma, which is bad enough, but then sporting a uni-brow by way of additional insult. Yes, I see all the things wrong with this line of thinking…

    This is old news, but it strikes me again and again that a very large subset of “we” define beauty by the male standard of sex appeal, and then hold other women to it and judge them as though the standards are our own. This is the bit that I am most curious about when I catch myself in a visceral reaction to pretty much anything to do with beauty. Where is that coming from? If I really believe, as I profess, that we are worthy of love and grace, just because we are made in the image of God, and that we are beautiful not only because of our femininity and grace and softness, but also for our strength and fire and the less desirable, scary parts of us that make us unique and enliven the human experience… how is it that body hair even ranks as noteworthy? It’s absurd and yet it drives a significant portion of my schedule and budget and time and routine in a way I hadn’t considered.

    Except for the coma bit.


  7. This has been a great read. I am a staunch feminist (this is how people will call us…just because I don’t care about my gender or conform to rules laid down by society). I have waxed my arms and legs twice in my entire life. And I still wonder what made me do that. I have never threaded my eyebrows. I wear no makeup and Im cool with it. Isn’t being yourself and natural, the best thing you can do to yourself? I have no interest whatsoever to make myself all smooth and fair. I do face weird looks when I am out in my shorts. Specially from women! What an irony…


  8. Hi Tallessyn —

    I’ve been writing a paper for the Association for the Study of Women and Religion conference and then going to SF to deliver, so…I’ve not been following “Feminism and Religion” as religiously as I did in the past…just to explain why I’m writing on 7/3/12…

    I have been well-aware of the significance of hair to (even) feminist women since the 1970s. Sometime late in that decade, I started a feminist choir with a group of other women here in Madison, Wisconsin. By the early 1980s our numbers had grown to 40-50 women. We wanted to keep our group as friendly and cozy as possible, so during our after-rehearsal meetings, we usually had a quick go-round answering some question. One night I suggested that we talk about what our hair meant to each of us. After some head scratching, every single woman there said something that revealed something about her life or her character. It was amazing! The answers ranged from “If I ever cut my (very long) hair, it will be the beginning of the revolution” (and that was personally true for that woman, because when she cut her hair, she came out as a lesbian) to “I don’t care a thing about my hair” (said by a woman whose hair looked like a small rug on her head). The answers had less to do with culturally-scripted feelings about women’s hair than with personal self-understandings.

    In my case, I had just returned from a year-and-a-half in Germany (a difficult, but fascinating year), and the first thing I had done was get my hair cut really short. I knew I had cut Germany out of my life in order to really return to the U.S., so I was wondering about the other women there and what their hair meant at at moment of their lives.

    I just recently cut my hair again. It was very long and wavy (and beautiful), and I had kept it long for almost 20 years. There were many people in my life who only knew me with long hair. I cut it so that I could swim every day and not spend my life washing and conditioning it. I love the freedom of my short hair, I love how it looks, I love how it goes with my 65-year-old face. But the amazing thing is that several people didn’t even recognize me without my long hair. Now that tells you a lot about how hair and identity are intertwined. It was shocking!


  9. I think an important mirror to this discussion is the male obsession with maintaining full head hair despite aging. Many of us would relish the choice of either keeping their gray hair or dying it. For men, alopecia can represent obsolescence and early death. The huge hair replacement industry proves how dearly men feel the loss.


  10. Thanks, Matt, for responding to this issue, which I hadn’t noticed on the FAR blog, having only come to the blog recently. As a 65-year-old woman with thinning, gray hair, I recently decided to buzz my hair to about a half-inch all over. At first, I covered it with wigs, but now I mostly go out au naturale, and it is the most freeing feeling! I can drive with the windows open in the car and have no fear of “mussing” my hairdo, I have more time to read in the mornings, and people have actually complimented me on my “streamlined” look. It feels good, but I don’t know that I’d have the courage to do this if I were younger and looking for a partner. The pressure to “fit in” to a prescribed “look” is intense, and very culturally-induced – particularly for the young.


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