Significance of Male Hair – Its Presence and Removal
Raj Kumar Singh
[Reproduced from Abstracts of Sikh Studies, Oct-Dec 1999. The author is a Juris Doctor and resident of USA. The reference numbers in the text are for works cited in bibliography.]
Restrictions against male hair presence are so common and so firmly entrenched within our body of cultural mores that we take them for granted. We hardly consider the extent to which men must go in order to feel respected in modern, American society. Indeed, the man who is “dressed for success” has literally hidden every square inch of hair producing skin except for his hands, face, and cranium. A man’s hands produce only minimal amounts of hair and, at any rate, are easily ignored. The socially astute male removes his facial hair every morning and makes regular visits to a barber in order to have his cranial hair cut to a length that is typically no longer than about three inches on top and tapers to nothing over the ears and shirt collar. When we see a barefaced, five year-old boy with short, greased down hair we comment on how he looks so much the part of the “little man”. If we acknowledge, however, that facial hair is natural to the adult male’s face, and that short hair is a classic sign of subservience, we see that it would be more appropriate to comment on how the typically presented businessman has so much the look of a little boy.
As a society, we superficially appear to believe that male cranio-facial hair presentation is a matter of de minimus import. One author titled his otherwise scholarly writing on a sub-topic of the subject, Suits for the Hirsute. In his first footnote he thanks his wife for suggesting that title as an alternative to his first choice of Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow. We may well doubt that a male Sikh, or an orthodox Jew or a Sunni Muslim, who has had to make a choice between forgoing life sustaining employment or shaving his face in defiance of the spiritual tenets in which he believes, could appreciate the humor of either title. Another author begins his journal article on the significance of hair with a quote from the poem The Rape of the Lock, by Alexander Pope; to-wit, “What mighty contests rise from trivial things.” Thus, he makes his sentiments on the subject evident beyond peradventure.
Consider these three perspectives on the value of male hair : (a) the individual man’s valuation of his own hair presentation, (b) ostensible societal expectations of what constitutes the cranio-facial presentation of a good man, (c) true societal preferences in male hair presentation as uncovered by research performed in the discipline of social-psychology. If (a), (b) and (c) were in accord with one another there would be little to discuss. In truth, however, (a) and (c) do not equal (b).
Individual men place great value on their own hair as habitually presented, and social-psychological research shows that we hold bearded men in more positive regard than barefaced men. Further, we see long-haired men as being dominant and unbowed, and religious prohibitions against hair cutting and/or shaving are not uncommon among the world’s religions. Yet, on the more practical level, we largely demand that men present with bare faces and shorn cranial hair if they are to be given employment and are presumed to be good, productive members of society; therein lies the proverbial rub.
The Semantics of Male Hair Valuation
Alfred Korzybski, a highly respected theorist in the field of general semantics, held that language is much more than a system of symbols used to communicate reality in the manner of, e.g., a photograph.[24, p.viii] Rather he submitted that our words and phrases carry assumptions about the characteristics of our existence that forcefully direct, if not dictate, our thoughts and behaviours.[24, p.20] In keeping with these ideas, when we speak of a man’s hair we do well to examine our words carefully in order to become truly cognizant of the notions that those words connote within our minds. Do we speak of requiring a man to get a “haircut” if, for example, he is to be considered a good prisoner, soldier, or worker, or should we admit that we are requiring him to “cut off a bodily appendage ?” Do we say that a man can make an affirmative decision to “grow a beard”, much as the expert, dedicated horticulturist can grow petunias in the desert ? Or do we say that male facial hair growth is the default category and acknowledge that men can only become and remain barefaced when they “scrape off their faces with a piece of steel” on a daily basis ? Our common use of such terms and phrases as “haircut” and “grow a beard” clearly points up the fundamental, societal bias that we have against acknowledging positive value in men’s hair.
One of the ways in which we denigrate male hair growth is to implicitly deny that the hair that we deem to be extra is a part of a man’s body. We commonly say that a man with facial hair “wears” a beard, moustache, etc., reducing the import of his facial hair to that of a piece of clothing. We never say that a man “wears hair” if the subject cuts his cranial hair relatively short, but if he refrains from hair cutting we say that he “wears long hair”. The clear implication is that a certain amount of cranial hair is socially desirable, indeed almost necessary, while anything more than a moderate hair presence is surplusage.
It is interesting to compare the process involved in this semantic denigration to that of the social-psychological process of depersonalization, the classic examples of which are the Vietnam era soldiers who found it easier to carry out their orders while thinking in terms of “offing gooks” rather than killing Vietnamese people. In a similar vein, we find it easier to require a male employee, prisoner or military service personnel to remain short haired if we couch our edict in terms of getting a “haircut” (the word itself begs the question “which one should he cut ?”) as opposed to explicitly ordering him to go and have someone cut off his hair.
The word beard is used in at least two different ways in that, first, we might say that a man has a beard that is heavy or light, even though no hair presence is visible. In this sense we use the phrase (e.g. heavy beard) to refer to the density, and propensity for development of a man’s facial hair follicles. In the second sense, used much oftener, we use the word beard to refer to the natural, unmolested presence of facial hair. The latter usage is arguably invalid in that it implicitly denies the permanent and natural reality of male facial hair. The better view holds that, in fact, even if a man shaves daily, he still has a beard. He cannot take it off and discard it, like an offensive coat or scarf. With this definitional shift, we acknowledge that all normal, healthy men have beards throughout their adult lives. The only question is whether or not they cut off the visible evidence every morning.
In shaving, a man reduces himself to the status of being “clean shaven”, to use a phrase that is firmly ensconced within our lexicon. The corollary, of course, would be to remain “dirty bearded.” The phrase “clean cut” takes this concept a step further and implies that if a man does not cut his cranial hair to a short length and scrape his face daily then he is unclean. Classically, of course, it is believed that what is unclean should be shunned. For what it is worth, we note that the term “young shaver” is used to refer to an immature male of no status, and that “shave tail” is a derogatory term used to refer to an inexperienced army officer. The phrase “shave tail” was derived from the practice of shaving the tail of a newly broken mule to differentiate it from untrained ones.[52, p.1058] The Freudian implications are obvious.
Those who would deride the presence of long hair on men often refer to the same as being part and parcel of an “unkempt ” appearance. It is interesting to note that the word unkempt means uncombed.[52, p.1271] Thus, he who keeps his hair in the style of a short crew-cut is, under the denotative use of the word, unkempt. In truth, though, the word unkempt is used as a gratuitous pejorative used to describe a long-haired or bearded man about whom we disapprove.
To understand our society’s mixed feelings on the valuation of male hair, it is helpful to review the literature of the disciplines of anthropology, psychology, theology, and history so as to identify the reasons why men have engaged in hair cutting over the ages.
The Significance of Cranio-Facial Appearance
The human head, as viewed from the front, is the area of our bodies that is most important in influencing and regulating interpersonal conduct.[34; 35, p.25] It is the bodily area most associated with individual identity and it communicates to the other, instantaneously, information as to the age and gender of the bearer which has, in turn, a major influence on social interaction. Because our facial presentation affects how we behave whenever others are present.[1, pp.1,2, and 192]
More specifically, the presentation of cranio-facial hair is arguably our most powerful symbol of individual and group identity.[50, p.381] Hair has been significant to human beings at all times and in all cultures as a symbol of strength, sexuality and magic and has been treated as a significant part of the body.[43, p.270] Hair not only symbolizes the self, but is the self in that it is a part of the human body.[50, p.404] Accordingly, changes in appearance involving hair can be expected to have a major psycho-social impact on the individual who has undergone the change.[1, p.17]
Through cranio-facial hair presentation, people symbolize their identities with respect to a wide range of phenomena : religious, political, sexual, social, occupational and others.
Males express their ideologies and status in their hair.[50, pp.405 and 397] In ancient times, the Teutons or Germanic tribes refrained from hair cutting and shaving in order to clearly differentiate themselves from their forcibly shorn slaves.[42, p.22] This was also the case with the Celts. In this day, long hair and facial hair are often seen to be symbolic of ideological opposition to “the establishment”. The allowance of facial hair by the male represents his manhood in that it differentiates him from females and children.[50, pp.401 and 390]
People commonly make arational personality attributions, such as those relating to intelligence, personality, and criminality, based simply on facial appearance.[44, p.975] Cutting the hair is seen to indicate submitting to social control, whereas from long hair we infer an intent to remain outside society.[20, p.261] Beards typically increase perceptions by others of the bearded person’s intelligence, likeableness, health, popularity, sensitivity to others, and sexual appeal as well as enthusiasm, sincerity, generosity and inquisitiveness.[42; 49; 29] Bearded men are also seen as more mature, self-confident, liberal, nonconformist and industrious.[42, p.30] Research has shown that women find bearded men more appealing and other men ascribe to them more status, other factors being supportive. Other research shows that both young and middle aged men are seen as better looking when bearded.
A protrusive or jutting chin is stereotypically believed to suggest energy, strength of will, ambition, and determination [3, p.86ff; 6, p.143; 17, p.182], and research suggests that male facial hair serves to increase the apparent mass of the lower face.[19, p.362ff; 18, p.25ff] This suggests that the presentation of a beard or goatee may be seen as relatively intimidating by others. Indeed, beards have been shown to increase attributions of courageousness and dominance made toward the hirsute male as well as perceptions by others of his apparent masculinity and strength.[29; 42, p.30; 40] Note that the word beard may be used as a verb, in which case it means, inter alia, to resolutely and openly oppose with effrontery or daring, and/or to defiantly thwart.
Hair Cutting as a Function of Spirituality
The relatively voluntary cutting of one’s own hair has often been related to spiritual expression. Looking back through history, we see that upon reaching manhood Greek youths sacrificed their hair to the river, a quasi-spiritual entity in their view. In ancient Rome, as well as Arabia and Syria, haircutting was a puberty ritual, with spiritual significance. Ancient Egyptian travellers refrained from hair cutting until they returned from a journey, at which time the cut hair was given as an offering to God. Mourners in many different cultures give hair offerings that are believed to substitute for the sacrifice of the mourner’s whole person. And shaving the head is found in many faiths and cultures as a symbol of dedication to God; e.g., ancient Buddhism, Hinduism, and among the Yoruba.[33, p.155; 9, p.101; 25, p.276; 26, p.367ff]
The Judeo-Christian religious practices have also taken a pointed interest in male hair. The Roman Catholic or Eastern rite of admission to the clerical state by clipping or shaving the head of monks or other clerics or renunciants provides yet another example of hair cutting based on religious directive.[45, p.24] The Christain apostle Paul, in his letter to the Corinthians, indicates that it is unnatural and degrading for a man to wear long hair. Through Canon # 67, laid down at the synod at Elvira in 309 CE, it was forbidden for a woman to have anything to do with long-haired men under penalty of excommunication. Thus, any man desirous of recognition as a good Christian, as well as one simply seeking the consortium of a religiously respectable Christian woman, was provided with a motivation to cut his hair. In the Israelite tradition, when Jews were bearded, mourning the dead was symbolized by shaving the beard. Today, among conservative (but unbearded) Jews, mourning is sometimes symbolized by not shaving, but the traditional semitic practice indicates sacrificing cranio-facial hair during mourning periods.[28; 39, p.105]
Hair Allowance as a Function of Spirituality
The account, from the Judeo-Christian scriptures, of Samson and Delilah is well known in our American society, though the importance to that account of the Vow of the Nazirite is not. The Vow of the Nazirite is found in the book of Numbers, chapter six. This book is held to be high scripture by the Jewish practitioner inasmuch as it is one of the five books of Torah. The Christian worshipper holds this book sacred, though of less central import, as one of the over sixty books of the Holy Christian Bible.
Per this scriptural directive, a man may become identified as one who is maximally dedicated to God by, among other requirements, refraining from cutting any of his cranio-facial hair. The commitment is not to be taken lightly, as is indicated by the involved ritual prescribed for performance at the completion of the vow. Further, the account of Samson indicates that the taking of the vow is not necessarily to be presumed to be temporary in nature in that Samson’s mother was instructed to raise him as a Nazirite from birth, and that he was to remain so until his death. (Judges 13:2-7) The Rastafarian practitioner may cite the Vow of the Nazirite as the basis for his abstention from hair cutting, as do many orthodox Jewish men and some Christians. Leviticus 21:5, however, is just as authoritative and is, per at least one research, as the citation of choice of the Rastafarian.[51, p.1608] Other men have presented as having taken the Vow of the Nazirite who claim a generic worship of God aside from any adherence to Judaism, Rastafarianism, and/or the worship of God through Jesus.
Among Jewish men, a more common citation offered as justification for the refusal to shave or trim facial hair is that of Leviticus 19:27 which directs that “you shall not destroy the corners of your beard.” Deuteronomy 14:1 is also supportive of the value of a natural hair presentation for one who would aspire to Godliness. Leviticus and Deuteronomy are both found in the Torah which, as mentioned earlier, renders them high scripture for the Jewish practitioner, and scripture of moderate import for the Christian. Rastafarians also commonly revere the Torah.
Many Sunni Muslims believe that male practitioners are scripturally enjoined to present with a “full flowing” beard. They cite passages from the Koran, as well as the interpretations of those scriptures made by respected Islamic theologians. It may be appropriate at this juncture to note the significance of the Muslim faith to so many African-Americans. And on a more practical level, we note that it is estimated that about 25% of African-American men suffer from the condition known as pseudo folliculitis barbe which leads to painful, disfiguring skin infections as a result of shaving. Further, the historical and ongoing socio-economic oppression faced by these men hardly needs supporting references. With these three points in mind, it can perhaps be better appreciated what an affront it must be to an African-American, Sunni-ite male to be ordered to scrape off the outer layer of his face everyday.
The people, to whom we refer with the phrase “Native Americans” comprise, in fact, many different tribes, each of which has its own, individual mores, social characteristics and spiritual beliefs. Only superficially can we lump them together for discussion of their spiritual practices. That having been admitted, we may, nevertheless, submit that many Native Americans believe that a man’s vitality and strength reside in his hair and that his hair is a gift from the Creator to be cut only to signify mourning when someone close to him dies.[30, p.576; 22]
Sikhism is a religion that, worldwide, is practised by approximately as many people as is Judaism. The last in its succession of ten Gurus, Gobind Singh, directed that practitioners were to refrain from any form of haircutting. The rationale is believed to have been that hair cutting was unnatural and, hence, ungodly. Keeping hair was seen as the first step towards harmonising one’s life with nature. Additionally, it is believed that the appearance generated by the ongoing practice of abstention from haircutting enhanced solidarity and religious loyalty among Sikhs, providing them a distinct identity.[7, pp.36 and 111]
Though the Sikh who cuts hair is not to be considered an outcast, he is clearly differentiated from those who “keep the five Ks”, one of which relates to uncut cranial and facial hair.
Male Hair Denigration
Military regimes across time and cultures have been well known to require the removal of cranio-facial hair for initiates. New members of the French Foreign Legion, e.g., had their hair cut down to half a millimetre; allegedly to keep them free from lice — in reality to bestow on them a feeling of nothingness. When, after their basic military training, they presumably felt integrated into the establishment, they were allowed to grow their hair again.[45, p.22] Upon subduing the Gauls, who esteemed long hair as a distinct honour, Julius Caesar required them to cut their hair as a token of submission. For the same purpose, the Chinese Manchus imposed the partly shaven head and pigtail upon the Han men when their dynasty was conquered.[30, p.573] Forced hair removal was effected against collaborators during the German occupation of France during World War II.[50, p.402]
Why do those in authority want men to shave their faces and cut their cranial hair short ? It has been posited that the hair of prison inmates and soldiers is kept cut as a reminder that “you are not a free person and cannot do as you please with your own body”.
Shaving produces effects like other means of fostering a youthful appearance because a “clean-shaven” face mimics the surface quality of the pre-pubertal face.[18, p.30] Therefore, requiring a man to shave can have the effect of reducing his status, and his self-perception, toward that of a child. Moreover, we live in a world that has, cross-culturally and over time, viewed men collectively as being cold, aggressive, strong willed, and dangerous. Women as a class, on the other hand, have been generally presumed to be warm, submissive, obedient and nurturing.[37; 46; 5; 47] Forcing or coercing a man into daily shaving can be seen as assigning to him the less threatening, feminine role. Most to the point, and as stated earlier, is the fact that because our facial presentation affects how we perceive ourselves, it can be expected to have a bearing on how we behave whenever others are present.[1, p.2] The man, then, who presents as quasi-boy/pseudo-woman can be expected to act in the submissive, obedient, non-threatening manner that we stereotypically expect of little boys and females.
As to the significance of cutting a man’s cranial hair, numerous investigators have agreed on one symbolic meaning — castration.[2, p.80; 13; 4; 30, p.576] The forced removal of another’s hair can also be seen as a manifestation of the extraction of reparations for wrongs committed.[2; 39, p.84] For example, haircutting was a punishment for adultery in India and among the ancient Teutons, and for other crimes in Assyro-Babylon.[43, p.271] Put more simply, cranial hair removal is intended to make the male an un-man and, in the case of a purported criminal, to obtain vengeance or pay-back for wrongs done.
But how do we account for the men, non-military and unconvicted, who voluntarily maintain their hair at a short length and who shave on a daily basis ? First, we must acknowledge that hair removal can hardly be considered voluntary in a society where generating a monetary income and positive regard among one’s peers are generally dependent upon it. That having been said, we note simply that people will normally succumb to within-group, cultural pressures to conform to an appearance expectation, even at the cost of discomfort or disfigurement. Examples found within non-European cultures include the wearing of lipdiscs, neck elongation, head molding and scarring.[27;8]
In America today, we note the purchase of cosmetically based orthodonture, liposuction, and the subcutaneous insertion of pads designed to increase the apparent size of male musculature or female breasts. Dr Karl Menninger, the eminent theorist, argues for the placement of male haircutting in the same class as the aforementioned forms of bodily mutilation. All are arational and involve expenditures of money, time and/or the sufferance of pain that are not inconsequential. All involve processes that are tolerated at the behest of dominant social forces by which those who submit are coerced.
As to he who is “his own man” and who yet chooses to shave his face and shear his scalp in the absence of any express coercion or force, perhaps the best explanation of motive is found in the word inertia. An anecdote is told of George Bernard Shaw that relates the time when he was approached by an advertising executive of a company manufacturing electric razors. The executive had hoped that Shaw would endorse the company’s new product by shaving off his beard. By way of reply Shaw explained the reason why he, and his father before him, had chosen not to shave by saying that when he was about five years of age he had been observing his father shaving one day and said to him, “Daddy, why do you shave ?” Shaw’s father looked at him in silence for a full minute before throwing the razor out the window while exclaiming, “Why the hell do I ?” And, so the story goes, he never did again.
Toward an Explanatory Theory
Accepting that which has been thus far presented, we find male hair maintenance involves issues of the highest personal significance. We see that the world’s religions commonly take notice of men’s hair maintenance practices. They often proscribe the cutting of cranial and/or facial hair. In a very few cases cranial haircutting is religiously directed, but facial hair removal is only rarely suggested, and the citations applying thereto offer only weak, tangential support for same. The academic, social-science research is largely in accord in holding that bearded men are held in more positive regard than those with shaved faces. The view that the long haired male is unbowed is one that might be supposed to be as valued by modern day men as it was by the ancient Teutons and Celts.
Many of the world’s most commonly and highly revered religious human entities (including those respected as direct manifestations of God, as well as those held to be bona fide prophets) are envisioned with unshorn hair. Many of our most highly respected men of non-religious, historical import are known to have been bearded and with relatively long hair. Yet, today, the majority of our society’s men shave daily and keep their cranial hair clipped short. In what theory do we find the reconciliation of these facts ?
Law enforcement officers and military men have long been associated with the personality traits of reliability and obedience as well as the appearance characteristics of scraped faces and short-clipped, cranial hair. In the consequently proffered correlation, then, we find our first agent of reinforcement for the idea that short haired, bare faced men are good and proper. More significantly, the expectation of short hair and scraped faces on men has long been the norm for this nation’s employers in general. In holding the clipped male to be the preferred object of our workplace we show, not so much our disinterest in females in our society, but rather our particular interest in submissive men as producers of material benefit.
We, as a society, prefer men in the workplace because we perceive men, as a class, to be more dedicated to employment activities to the detriment of their familial or other inter-personal relationships. Further, we see them as being more dependable than females in that we expect them to be medically indisposed less often. But we also presume that men in general are domineering, wilful and aggressive by nature, and these are clearly characteristics that are found to be dysfunctional in a production level employee. Women, on the other hand, are stereotypically presumed to be more docile, and more amenable to following orders and accepting authority in an unquestioning manner.[37; 46; 5; 15, pp.16-17]
The clipped male seems to present the best of both genders in that, first, he is obviously a man and so brings to the employer the supposed dependability and dedication that we expect of a member of the male sex. Second, by scraping off his facial hair he communicates to the employer that he intends to be as docile and obedient as is a female presumed to be. The validity of this hypothesis is lent support by so many of today’s business women inasmuch as they are careful to appear for job interviews in clothing that is masculine on top — shirt-like blouse and suit jacket, but feminine on the bottom — skirt short enough to expose hairless legs. The cutting short of cranial hair is a further sign of male submission to, and emasculation before, the prospective employer; one need not be a Freudian psychoanalyst to appreciate the import of the fact that the removal of cranial hair, as symbolic penectomy, has never been required of women by our society’s employers, prison wardens, or military authorities.
As short hair and bare faces have become more and more common on working class men, a distinction has emerged supporting the presumption that those men who are unshorn are either unproductive or, far less likely, are independently wealthy or of an advanced professional position. An example of the latter would be the high level academic. The fact that his uncut hair and unshaven face are truly indicative of his elevated social position will be of small consolation when the college professor is treated like a socio-economic no-account as he moves about casually in public, social settings. Similarly, the long haired wealthy male who is frequently harassed by law enforcement personnel may soon tire of expressing his supposed freedom from the oppressive hair regulations of the typical employer through his unshorn hair.
Those in power have required their man-servants to emasculate themselves through cranio-facial hair removal as a demonstration of their submissiveness. As this pseudo-feminine appearance has become more and more associated with respected and valued male participation in the national economy, the powered males have become motivated to emulate the very appearance of subservience from which members of their class had historically sought disassociation. As a result, we find ourselves in a society where men commonly and unthinkingly deny both their manhood and personal autonomy by daily face scraping and cranial hair mutilation. A man’s quasi-voluntary submission to social dictates cannot rationally be seen to vitiate the position that our society’s male hair expectations are unacceptably oppressive. Those few men remaining who have the wherewithal to present with uncompromised facial and cranial hair can be recognized as being relatively masterful of their own lives and valued as such, but only if they are able to otherwise indicate a high socio-economic status.
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