Anne Hathaway showed extreme dedication to her role in Les Miserables when she shaved off her hair on camera. (She even brought her personal hairdresser into the movie so the cut could be captured live.)
Of course the emotional song and Hathaway’s acting abilities add to the scene immensely, but one main reason this scene is so moving is because the audience can feel the loss of self and identity when her head is being shaved. What is it about hair (which is essentially just dead skin cells that sprout up from our heads) that makes it so integral to who we are and how we express ourselves?
According to L’Oreal’s Hairscience.com, hair “is a means of projecting the image we have of ourselves … and possesses powerful symbolic and evocative properties.” It’s often a symbol of youth, beauty, and fertility. All over the world and across many different cultures, hair has taken on different meanings, but its overall significance persists across cultural groups.
Everyone from subcultures to ethnic groups use hair to mark their belonging. The military has restrictions across the branches, ranging from length (no more than three inches), to grooming (“tapered” to the skin), to facial hair (no moustaches). In the Marines, there are strict regulations that instruct men to keep their hair at a length of no more than three inches. Women must keep their hair up and out of the face. This is done in the name of uniformity, to solidify the mental state that they all must enter once they are a part of the group. It’s no longer about the individual, but the collective unit.
Social rank is equally tied to hair. The Pharaonic civilization in Egypt, for example, used hairstyles to distinguish between social classes. The upper echelon of their society wore specially designed wigs made of natural hair, while priests completely shaved their heads as a symbol of purity. Essentially, different classes and groups could be identified simply by looking at their hairstyles.
Hair’s malleability lends to its symbolic significance. In India, mundan, or the head-shaving ceremony, is still widely practiced. When the baby is about six weeks old, his or her head is shaved while a prayer is read. This is done to rid the baby of negativity from past lives (since Hindus believe in reincarnation) and it is also thought to cleanse the soul of the child, as a form of rejuvenation.
In these cases, hair is seen both as an indicator of a certain identity within a society, as well as a symbol for someone’s essence and soul. Hair can be a defining factor of who you are and the removal of hair can feel like a stripping of identity OR an act of renewal.
Hair loss affects men and women very differently. Hair is integrally tied to beauty for women, and many report that hair loss seems like a traumatic experience that leads to anxiety, a sense of loss, and in many cases, a change in identity. It is often a result of an illness or condition and therefore something to cope with and fix.
Men often see hair loss as an inevitability (albeit an undesirable one), but according to Shelly Friedman, a hair transplant surgeon, hair represents virility for men and the loss of hair makes men feel both less attractive and less manly. According to this study conducted in the United Kingdom where 1536 men were surveyed via telephone of the effects of hair loss, 37% were concerned that balding was a sign of old age, while 43% of the men surveyed revealed that they were afraid balding was affecting their personal attractiveness. Thought Catalog advises balding men to shave their heads, as many men report that the actual process of balding is more scarring than physically being bald.
Here are some tips and resources for hair-related transformations:
- Have some hair to spare? Give cancer patients some new locks by donating your hair to Pantene Pro-V’s “Beautiful Lengths” campaign. Click here for more information and participating hair salons in your area.
- Check out this app that lets you see what you would look like bald and share the images with your friends online.
- Hair can really define who you are, especially if you’re a public figure. Test your hair knowledge with this game by guessing which celebrity or historical figure championed each hairdo.
- Having a bad hair day? Here’s your perfect confidence booster.