By Lisa Regula Meyer
Growing up the child of two free spirits, music was a huge part of my childhood, and that music was predominantly that of the sixties and seventies. To both my parents, music was huge, and to my dad especially, the current music (I grew up in the eighties, so not too big a difference) was horrible. According to him, it lacked tune, originality, and spirit, and wasn’t worth hearing. So instead of radio, we had the turntable and his vinyl collection on giant stereo speaker stacks. One of the more memorable tracks for me was “Hair,” the musical soundtrack.
Really, the premise behind Hair is brilliant, the idea that those dead extensions of cells protruding from our heads are a defining characteristic of who we are, and as important to our sense of self as the music which we enjoy. It’s brilliant because it’s so close to the truth for so many people. Think of all the stereotypes that go along with hair- “hair bands,” “dumb blondes,” “feisty red-heads,” long hair for women, short hair for men, dreadlocks, Afros, Mohawks and spikes, shaved heads, buzz cuts, and more.
Hair and music go together well because both are such fitting avenues by which to identify ourselves while also identifying with a larger group. So many facets of our identity are socially constructed, built by internalization of others’ expectations and preconceptions. We can show how we identify in outward appearances such as clothing or accessories that are quickly changed to suit the occasion, or we can use more permanent means of identifying with a group. Similarly, we can crank up the European house music when we’re just among friends, or settle for a similar but more nondescript but popular genre when listening in the office.
What makes hair possibly more important than other symbols of our self is its more permanent but malleable nature. Hair dyed pink for a concert is likely still going to bare some trace of that change come Monday morning. Hair shaved for a bet or as a fundraising incentive will still look shorn for quite some time. At a chemical level, hair soaks up smells that we’re frequently exposed to, bonfire smoke, our perfume, even some drugs that we may use, whether legal or not.
What’s even more intriguing, to me at least, is the presence of hair. We have hair virtually all over our body, simply for the reason that as humans, we fall into the larger group of animals called mammals. Outside of the hair on our head, hair on the rest of us still has features of our identity. Beards and mustaches are obvious, and underarm and pubic hair also play their own roles through their presence or lack, and some research indicates through chemical means as well. At some point in our evolutionary history, hair was even more practical, serving as insulation from cold and precipitation, although those purposes are mostly lost at this point. Why we would have such reduced hair on most of our body, but not our head, is a point of discussion among evolutionary theorists across biology, psychology, sociology, and anthropology.
Luckily enough, our hair grows and changes alongside our identity, and both can change quite a bit over the years. The mullet you were once so proud of grows into a more respectable cut fit for life in an office. You adopt the hairstyle you’ve always wanted and admired after coming out as who you truly are. You trade a more elaborate hairstyle for something easy to care for when you’re more preoccupied with babies and toddlers. The hair you lost during chemo comes back curly instead of straight, and neither you nor your hair is ever the same. Your graying locks betray the worry over tough times at work or caring for parents as they age. You look back through pictures, and see not only a changed hairstyle, but a different person than you are now.