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.