The Genteel
February 26, 2021



I'm losing my hair. Well, I think I'm losing my hair. Maybe it's a deficiency. I don't believe in "stressed out." It could be genetic. Probably. Either way, the changes, in the quality and texture of my mop, have begun. I've got something like what Jude Law is going through. Is that a bald spot?

I never thought of myself as a "hair person." I've always taken it for granted, and I've done whatever I wanted with it - copper highlights, growing it out, cutting it short. I mean, there were those two years I bleached it out until I eventually just let it all blend into some sort of ombre. How terribly in fashion.

Is to be without hair, then, to be without, I don't know, some sort of style? Is being bald, willingly or not, less beautiful?

What do you think about your own hair? In a word, I'd say you probably associate it with one thing: beauty. Subconsciously even. I never cared much for the indirectly direct "fashion statement" hair could make; the stylish qualities it could possess and exude. And yet, its effects on our beauty standards are abundant, ingrained in the subtlest of ways. To many people, it's an accessory, with all the weaving and feathering and extension-ing we can do these days. Half of the hair in Hollywood isn't even real or "natural," but it's "oh-so-beautiful, oh-so-covetable." There are magazines dedicated to hair trends - hey, they don't call it "hairstyle" for nothing - and the beauty pages of your favourite fashion magazines are undoubtedly littered with product placement for innovative dry shampoos and leave-in conditioners, or those sprays that hold strong but leave little residue.

Is to be without hair, then, to be without, I don't know, some sort of style? Is being bald, willingly or not, less beautiful? No. But not many people want to talk about it. I refuse to believe it's a non-issue. Some immediately associate it with the uncomfortable things that are simply a reflection of the fragility of human life. Some associate it with a sort of badass non-conformity, or with outrageousness. For most men I know, it's a sensitive issue that most just deal with silently. You'd never discuss a man's comb-over with him, would you? For most women I know, the thought of cutting off all of one's hair is like asking them to sign away a yet-to-be-conceived firstborn child.

Hair care is big business - huge business actually. Statistics firm Euromonitor estimates that Canadian retail sales in the industry reached C$1.5 billion in 2010, seeing a modest two per cent climb. By 2015, that will grow to C$1.6 billion. In the United States, those numbers are even higher, with sales as high as US$41 billion by December 2011, and haircutting services comprising 46.8 per cent of the total. Amidst a recession, and the subsequent bounce back, a report by IBISWorld shows that the industry probably won't slow down: "Over the past five years, the share of revenue from this service segment increased slightly, with the segment declining less than other service segments."

Jude Law.

But the root of this big business is the strong correlations between hair and power, between hair and identity, between hair and class systems. During the reign of Queen Elizabeth in the 16th century, her iconic and buoyant red wigs set a precedent for trends across the kingdom. A century later, during the reign of Louis XVI in France, the aristocracy donned intricate and tall wigs and headpieces adorned with feathers and ribbons that trickled down in variations to the masses, to the aspiring bourgeois. This story in the Washington Post examines the practice of braiding messages into hair to relay escape plans of slaves to each other in places like Colombia. Even during the American slave trade, many women used hair as means of expression in the overwhelming state of oppression. In the 1920s, the flapper bob and "Marcel wave" became a symbol for women's liberation, where cuts receded and came closer to the head, rejecting puritanical ideals of modesty and traditional displays of beautiful, yet restrained, long hair. This represented freedom, leveling the playing field between men and women. A similar influence was felt during the '80s "age of excess" and power dressing, where perms and tease cuts went sky high and big hair meant business. This also signaled a continual evolution in men's hairstyles, where the David Cassidys of the 1970s, preceded by the '60s hippie, gave way to more play with men's hair (think Hair Bands and Flock of Seagulls). By the 1990s, and well into the 2000s, men and women held equal ground, and products like gels, glues and pastes became increasingly marketed to men, who have since embraced everything from the stringy Kurt Cobain to the once-defiant shaved head. But all this experimenting, all this freedom, was only yours if you could afford it. To have "great hair" is to be "in fashion." To have hair - and be able to do something with it - contributes to your identity.

Of course, the act of hair removal on every piece of bodily real estate is almost expected. But not one's head, especially not a woman. And when it is, it's a subversive, marveled thing.

And yet, being bald, or willingly being without hair, has never been as celebrated or encouraged. A bald man has never sold me deodorant, nor has he sold me clothing. A woman without hair has never sold me cigarettes, nor has she sold me liquor; she's seldom, if ever, sold other females something like makeup. Of course, the act of hair removal on every piece of bodily real estate is almost expected. But not one's head, especially not a woman. And when it is, it's a subversive, marveled thing. There was Sinead O'Connor who hated the Pope, and actresses like Demi Moore and Natalie Portman chopped it off for the dedication to their craft…in some cases met with the critical acclaim of having the "courage" to do so. Not even America's sweetheart Britney Spears could make being bald popular; instead, she was pitied, psychologically evaluated and ridiculed.

But hair is also deeply connected to cultural and religious practices. In the Corinthians, St. Paul was to have said, "Doth not even nature itself teach you, that, if a man have long hair, it is a shame unto him? But if a woman have long hair, it is a glory to her: for her hair is given her for a covering." In the Sikh religion, hair is one of the five articles of faith and is never to be cut. This recent Times of India story explores the fallbacks and opinions around 29-year-old Sumati Jain's decision to shave her head. "I got extreme reactions...Some thought it was really cool, some laughed behind my back, some even thought I'd turned into a monk," she is quoted in the piece. Jain is challenging the standard of beauty, aligning with traditions used to signify widows or celibacy. It also explains other connotations (like not being able to find a husband) present in India, a country where hair is vehemently valued, yet sold off with just as much candor to North American consumers eager for extensions or weaves, in addition to occasionally being used to make wigs for those who need it. In his 2008 documentary Good Hair, comedian Chris Rock explored the cultural traditions and fashions among African Americans and their hair, revealing that human hair is India's number one export, and is often shaved off with force from Indian women and sold through illegal markets.

I almost opted out of opening this piece with a personal anecdote, hesitant from a combination of embarrassment and shame. Because, for a man, to be bald has its own connotations; it is not the norm, or at least normally beautiful in any sort of traditional, popular-cultural-fashionable depiction. And to give into this perhaps makes me a little guilty, and a little ashamed. And yes, I would like to say this whole ideal is banal or dated. But for some it's not. Obviously not for those like me with questionable days of hairplay left. And why? Perhaps because of my generation's apparent and rampant vanity. Or because I don't feel anywhere near "aging." Who knows? Maybe I'll end up like Tom Ford. Or probably more like Stanley Tucci. (A nose ring, paired with stark black horned-rimmed glasses could be a "look," right? Ugh.) Either way, if we know each other, don't ask me about it, or point anything out. I am not my hair. 



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