A Hair perhaps divides the False and True.
Omar Khayyám, The Rubaiyat
The subject of hair is a somewhat ticklish one. This is largely because as soon as you attempt to consider hair in any depth you realise that, semiologically speaking, it is as messy, tangled and many-stranded as Rapunzel’s pony-tail after an hour doing ninety with the top down. We think of the people of the East as being the ones with trichological issues, with their veils, headscarves and turbans (not to forget wigs and yarmulkes), but it is only fifty years since Britain operated by much the same rules. The hippie’s hanging locks only possessed any power to affront the Establishment because all classes were still neatly groomed and hatted to a man. Male or female, we can largely now wear our hair in any way we please, but we are mistaken if we think this constitutes much of a freedom. Every style or lack of style, every colour and cut, is imbued with such complex cultural signification that by comparison the handkerchief-code or those rubber shag-bands read like Baby’s First Book. As a woman, it certainly makes getting ready in the morning fraught with issues:
Long blonde hair? You have more fun. You’re bubbly, but a little dumb.
Redheads? Feisty maniacs – or maybe just a ginger twat.
Brunettes are serious, clever too. Boring, dull but good for you.
Black hair’s intense, a Gothic shade. Obsessed with leather and the grave.
You can’t win, with hair. Brunettes are ignored or turned into dominatrices. Blondes are discussed as if they’re some sort of currency – does all that talk of platinum, gold and silver go people’s heads? – but with being highly prized comes being patronised. Even Ann Widdecombe, for heaven’s sake, has said that going blonde made people talk to her ‘more slowly’. Blondes are always giggling! – unless they’re glacial ice-queens, of course. Remote, cold and unapproachable; classy not brassy. Redheads are pure trouble: lusty and demanding. Don’t take my word for it, ask Dean Swift: ‘It is observed that the red-haired of both sexes are more libidinous and mischievous than the rest, whom yet they much exceed in strength and activity’ (Gulliver’s Travels). Or Tom Robbins: ‘Redheads are said to be children of the moon, thwarted by the sun and addicted to sex and sugar’ (Still Life with Woodpecker). Or P.G. Wodehouse: ‘Red hair, sir, in my opinion, is dangerous’ (Very Good, Jeeves).
My apologies – as a redhead I take this one rather personally. To nail my colours to the mast, and since I am among friends, I will confess that I came to roussisme relatively late in life, having been born a dark brunette. In my serious academic years it was always a matter of pride to me that my curls were entirely natural and that I never coloured my hair, not even with home-made lemon-juice highlights. Feminism was rather more vocal in those days, and what you did or didn’t do with your hair was subject to scrutiny and considered as expressive of your political credentials. I wore my hair long and loose, which I suspect to some signified widescale flirtatiousness (loose indeed). Certainly one undergraduate professor was unable to keep his hands off it, and would wander behind my chair during lectures and seminars, to surreptitiously stroke the ends of my dangling curls. Once – unable, I suppose, to stop himself – he openly ran his fingers from my parting down over my shoulders, declaiming ‘This is Woman!’ He then proceeded to discourse on the iconography of femininity in pre-Raphaelite art. It did not endear me to my classmates. I already had a scattering of grey hairs, even at eighteen, which I always tweaked out; when a decade later this task had become impractical, I turned to my hairdresser for advice and consolation. I have been growing steadily redder ever since, as the proportion of grey increases. I expect I will keep it up for a few more decades, until I can sport long witchy coils of brilliant white. In the meantime, I enjoy the mythology I find daily applied to my coiffure, though I feel rather guilty for seizing all the advantages of red hair with none of the years of Gingerist bullying. Wodehouse reserved his strictest anti-auburn remarks for those who take my path: ‘It ought to be a criminal offence for women to dye their hair. Especially red. What the devil do women do that sort of thing for?’ (Indiscretions of Archie) but I prefer to see my choice through the eyes of the couturier Hubert de Givenchy, who believed that: ‘Hair style is the final tip-off whether or not a woman really knows herself.’ What I know is that in every sense that matters, I am a natural redhead.
Of course, we’re none of us merely colour-coded: length and style also have their say, appointing you a status and declaring it to all and sundry behind your back. For some reason, for women straight hair is currently the norm. Personally, and despite my mother trilling ‘Curly locks, curly locks wilt thou be mine’ and ‘There was a little girl who had a little curl’ at me throughout my childhood, I have always enjoyed my ringlets. With my stepdaughter, however, you are in danger of a biting remark if you compliment her before she has applied her GHDs of a morning. She has learned to loathe her own natural hair. I have seen young women whip straighteners out on the train, the bus and even walking down the street. I have heard cries of anguish and vows to return home from those who’ve been caught without a brolly and ruined their ‘Brazilian Blowout’ (no, no – not that – it’s a formaldehyde-based treatment for semi-permanent straightening. On the head.). Before the straightening mania took hold, I had always envied women with a gleaming curtain of hair; feeling somehow that it was more sophisticated than my chaotic mane. Now that flattened tresses are so ubiquitous, I take pride in the relative rarity of my curls, although I still feel that there is something a little ‘wild’ about ringlets that prohibits you from certain styles of clothing. I have somehow absorbed a suspicion that the curly are too uninhibited, and as a result avoid animal prints, furs and bright colours in favour of sartorial severity.
It is not just the girls who have choices to make. In some ways the stakes are far higher for men, since Freud described the haircut as an act of castrating emasculation. If you’re a balding man, do you frantically comb-over; crop or shave what remains to a neat and dignified penumbra; or go the full gleaming Jean-Luc Picard? If, with a full head of hair, you choose a skin-head style or a military buzz cut, can you ever do so unaware of their ideological connotations? Once you’re greying, should you go silver fox or paint it black? (If you’re standing in the bathroom with your Kindle in one hand and a bottle of Grecian 2000 in the other, let me remind you that while George Clooney and Jon Stewart are enormously sexy, a little part of every Beatle-lover died when Paul McCartney gave himself a maroon bouffant). Do you wear it in Wildean profusion, a floppy banker-boy style, a bedraggled Emo, a Mohawk, a shark-fin? Are some cuts just ‘too young’? Do you go to a stylist, a hairdresser, a barber or do it yourself with a beard-trimmer (and what does each of those options tell us about your class, age and attitude)? Is a degree of benign tonsorial neglect a sign of self-confidence, self-acceptance or just plain selfish? The beauty and grooming industry, which has long preyed on women with its blend of pseudo-science and snake-oil, is aiming increasing numbers of products at men too; with an estimated global male market of approximately $33.2 billion by the year 2015. You have been warned.
Much as I’d prefer to stick two fingers up at the beauty industry, the truth is that successfully maintaining long hair requires the sort of commitment that you would give to a pet. It is not cheap to keep. If you want a mane that is the cynosure of all eyes it needs to be nourished, given time and attention, and properly looked after. On women, long glossy hair has long been correlated with attractiveness, signifying good health and higher oestrogen levels – though a successfully-deployed grooming regime and the demise of ‘dressing your age’ now mean that the coiffure cascading over our shoulders can proclaim a youth and fertility that our crows-footed faces belie (the dreaded ‘1661’ syndrome). While on men, long locks are generally read as a gesture of anarchy and independent spirit (though to St. Paul, a matter for ‘shame’), on women they are the approved norm (her ‘glory’). I have French friends who consider that the British and Americans have become overly obsessed with long hair – certainly, given the number of women who now routinely wear hair extensions, something seems to be changing. There is a proliferation of what we could call ‘cheerleader chic’, a heaped mass of tonged and straightened hairpieces, for which I suppose we can blame the Barbie-doll aesthetic of footballers’ WAGs. Like breast implants, to my mind hair extensions take something that is sexiest when most natural, and turn it into an absurd and artificial parody of itself.
We can blame the footballers too for that other increasingly common and unnatural activity, male waxing. Shaving on the chin I largely agree with – although I must say that becoming enamoured of a bearded man was quite a revelation, in that never before had I had an evening’s tryst with a new lover without the next morning finding my face grazed all over with the dreaded stubble rash. (With one particularly sandpaper-chinned chap, I was applying Sudocrem for a week after.) I’ve not found facial hair to possess the ‘pussy tickling’ properties for which it is legendary, but it is definitely less chafing, which is a bonus. (When you go, as I do, the ‘full Hollywood’, abrasion can be an issue). I have always predominantly found myself attracted to largely-built men, who’ve tended to come with a full complement of chin, chest, back and leg hair, and I’ve never had a problem with that. Only one of my exes was what you’d call a ‘smooth’ man – so alarmingly smooth, indeed, that it seemed unnatural (though it was not). Fortunately, though he had no underarm, chest, leg or buttock-hair at all, he was fully adult in the genital area. Nevertheless, I always felt like a shaven monkey when lying beside his polished flesh, and ever so slightly repelled.
There is something deliciously wanton in the ruggedness of the male physique. If I wanted a smooth, delicately-built lover, I’d choose a girl. I want pheromones, and lots of them. Sweat running down a hairy arse. Something warm and furry to twine my fingers in when I’m bouncing up and down. To treat body hair as taboo, as many women and men now do, as a source of such anxiety and fear, does not speak for comfort in your own skin, and good sexual times. Our glistening poster-boy footballers, Ronaldo, Beckham, Rooney and so on, baby-oiled to within an inch of their lives, have a lot to answer for. I can understand why they do it: like the ancient Greeks, or the hard men of Hollywood (Stallone, Schwarzenegger, etc.) they are athletes whose physique is their paycheck. Body-builders have always waxed, tanned and lubed themselves the better to show off their musculature. But to me it really, truly, is not sexy. It is the antithesis of allure. If I imagine running my fingers down Beckham’s body in those Armani ads, all that happens next in my fantasies is that I am looking for a tissue or a t-shirt to wipe my hands clean. At least, I suppose, they have manly physiques (though I find it hard to forgive them for foisting their ‘manscaping’ onto my beloved rugby players now too). The scrawnier side of Hollywood, however, the Johnny Depps, Brad Pitts and Justin Timberlakes, seem to me like just so many ladyboys. That men have now been indoctrinated into believing that going for a BSC (back, sack and crack: an hour-long waxing procedure), and possibly tossing in a stomach and chest-wax too, is some sort of treat both to themselves and the women in their lives, is quite an achievement for beauty-industry propaganda.
Really chaps, as men, your duties are simple: keep clean, keep fit, perhaps splash on a mild cologne, and trim your pubes (it makes your cock look larger, and makes oral sex more comfortable for the giver). Be happy in your body. You don’t want to follow we women into the time-sucking vortex of unnecessary personal grooming – it takes us long enough to the leave the house already as it is.
Illustrations by Michael Faraday (right) and Neil Kerber (left)