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HAIR POLITICS * NEW YORK, NEW YORK

hair politics
Photographer: Arainna Galesi


"My hair is like a tree; the roots wipe away any negativity," says Aaron, a white male in his late teens with long, corkscrew dreads. "My hair gives me knowledge that I need to know." This derivative of knowledge that Aaron speaks of can give others the impression that he is crossing the lines of race. Because dreads are traditionally an African hairstyle, Caucasians like Aaron make themselves somewhat more vulnerable to pass judgments upon. Aaron admits he has received some harassment for his hair, but concedes that people are intrigued by a "white guy having long, matted dreads." The issue of allowing race to decide hairstyles is actually not a concern for Aaron. When asked about the political implications surrounding dreads, Aaron definitely agrees, but says beyond those possible links (his) hair is "more like me," rather than what the politics infer.

The concept of hair transcending racial lines so as to not discriminate against its owner is not that foreign, considering from all the people interviewed, all agreed there definitely is a sense of spirituality surrounding their hair. This common bond of spirituality is deeper than race and proves the age-old adage that hair has a mind of its own. In Western societies, hair can be one of the key aspects we look for in deciding a person's psychological state. Well-groomed and polished hair naturally infers stability, while matted, untamed hair can only be worn by degenerates, rebels, outcasts in society, and the occasional troubled artist. In essence, like skin color, hair can set the scene for many unvocalized implications and preconceived notions.

In Western society, hair serves more of a social function in that it predetermines a person's personality. However, in other cultures like the Sinhalese, hair is regarded as a deeper sign of spiritual transformation. There are woman within the Sinhalese society who are given by the gods loosely woven somewhat manic-looking, multiple or single locks of hair. Within our own society they would appear to be the fiendish incarnations of Medusa as Gananath Obeyesekere would have us believe, since she chose to place a deranged-looking Sinhalese woman on the cover of her book entitled Medusa's Hair. These seemingly demented figures actually serve as high religious figures within Sri Lanka. Their matted hair is viewed as a gift from the gods and represents their highest spirituality. Unlike the Hindu monk's shaven head, matted hair is optional. The more matted locks, the more spiritual gift-giving. There is a much deeper significance in that the locks symbolize penes. When a woman is rejected sexually from her husband, she mysteriously grows these matted locks to represent the loss of sexual power. But rather than being a shameful thing she sees her locks as penes emerging from her head, indeed a gift from god. These are no ordinary penes, they are god's penes. The god's sakti, which means "a source of life," is a symbol of chastity and castration. Within Sinhalese society, although they have the appearance of wild woman off the deep end, these women are given the highest respect. Their role in society is an elevated one in which their hair actually symbolizes their status as one of the chosen few.

To view hair as a spiritual source is a very Eastern concept. However, regarding your hair as an extension of your soul and as an idealistic object of your place in the world is not completely foreign to Westerners. By interviewing a cross-section of people of differing ethnicities, genders, and backgrounds about the politics surrounding hair, it became apparent that whether unconsciously or not, hair is a very crucial component in one's concept of identity. People spoke of hair giving them knowledge about the earth, because its development was deeply connected to their own roots and extended beyond their bodies.

At age sixty, Pat Flanagan finds comfort in his long, straggly beard and unevenly grown-out hair. For Pat, his identity is connected with his hair. "Hair is a statement of who I am. Hair is my protection. Hair can cover a world of sensitivity." Pat is so tied to his hair that he only trims it once a year at the Jewish holiday of Lag Bomer, which occurs 33 days after Passover. Pat has been completely altering his appearance every May for the last seven or eight years. He feels that snipping the hair from his head and face once a year is like a "rebirth." "After trimming my hair, I rediscover the physical sense of who I am. The semblance of a young man is there." As a stockbroker on Wall Street, Pat never felt he needed to sacrifice his preference of appearance. He is aware that "appearances speak volumes." Yet he continues to present himself in a somewhat disheveled way for his own sanity, rather than try to be what he is not. "I am used to being subject to reject, even downright rejected, but all judgmental behavior enables us to go through life." When asked if he felt that his position as somewhat of an outcast in society allowed him to be more introspective and also objective about society, he thought for a moment and said, "There is an identity, therefore wisdom that comes with having a beard." Pat believes that his hair protects him. "It makes it easier to be sensitive; for me to be as feeling as I am capable of being without anyone getting on my back."

On the flip side, what if hair no longer serves the purpose of a natural shield against the world? For Jennifer, 22, a glabrous bartender on St. Mark's Place in New York City, hair is an accessory that changes with her moods. She has gone through a slew of different cuts and colors, but admits that her recently bald "do" is the most outrageous. "I feel more like myself because I cannot hide. Usually when I am having a bad day, I just cut off my hair. This came out of convenience." Because of the many assumptions that people can make about a crew-cut or shaven-haired woman, it was only appropriate to ask how she thinks most people perceive her. Jennifer said, "I am sure most people think I am a lesbian, but I am not." She also says that she does feel feminine. She enforces this by saying, "Men find my hair fascinating and want to touch it."

Hair is a culture unto itself. It breeds, it reflects moods, and it can equal the weight that race bears. For LeAndre Wharton, an African-American in his early twenties who had a platinum "do" at the time of the interview, hair is a symbol of his roots, but also his individuality. "My hair brings out the best in me, I like being different." LeAndre grew up thinking that by adopting a style normally reserved for another race, such as platinum hair, you are essentially denying your heritage or "selling out." He says, "I eventually grew out of it." Now his new platinum hair symbolizes "getting wild again."

Among the many rebirths and self-awarenesses that come from new hair styles, one of the common characteristics that became apparent during the interviews is that hair is an extension of the spirit. Algea, with his medium-length dreads, sells what he calls "sculpture wraps" on the street, which are hats that eerily represent a Modernist sculptor's image of hair. He was more than willing to talk about the spirituality of his hair without being prompted. " Dreads symbolize magnetic energy. The spiraling of hair represents movement and growth." Because of this magnetic energy that is attracted to hair, Algea feels that he receives "cosmic energy," which keeps his "body clean." Algea sells his hats because the "head is the most spiritual part of the body." He demonstrated this by making a circular movement above the head of the photographer. As promised, she felt a rush of energy surrounding the top of her head.

Christina Gallagher

New York, New York

1998


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