The Transformation of Beauty: Hair Styles in a Global Culture
by Michael Sones
Hair matters. Hairstyles matter. And that’s because beauty matters. Let no-one tell you any different. It is not all that matters. Other things are important as well, some are more important, but looks are definitely important. In contemporary global culture, for better in some ways and perhaps for worse in others, looks are gaining increasing importance. If you are in public life the news media seem to be paying increasing attention to how you look.
In her recently published book The Substance of Style: How the Rise of Aesthetic Value Is Remaking Commerce, Culture, and Consciousness, the columnist Virginia Postrel perceptively illustrates how the “look and feel” of things have become increasing sources of value in modern cultures. The cost benefits brought about by mass production, large markets, and consumerism have led to an increasing interest in aesthetics as a source of value. No longer satisfied with the purely functional consumers are looking for goods which, through their design, allow the consumer to express his or her personal taste. This is, in part, she says why there is also such a premium being placed upon how people look in our society with all of the attendant anxieties about competition and deception that accompany beauty.
Senator Hilary Clinton, the wife of the former President of the United States Bill Clinton, discovered the importance of appearance in public life to her cost. There were numerous media comments about the frequency with which she changed her hairstyle suggesting that as her image kept on changing she did not know who she really was, or worse, was keeping it from the public and therefore she might not be trustworthy in political office. While it was perhaps said somewhat ruefully and tongue-in-cheek there is an important point in what she said to law students at Yale University on Class Day, May 20 2001, ” And, I have to say that in all the years since I’ve been at Yale, the most important thing that I have to say today-is that hair matters. This is a life lesson my family did not teach me, Wellesley and Yale failed to instill on me: the importance of your hair. Your hair will send very important messages to those around you. It will tell people who you are and what you stand for. What hopes and dreams you have for the world.and especially what hopes and dreams you have for your hair. Likewise, your shoes. But really, more your hair. So, to sum up. Pay attention to your hair. Because everyone else will.”
Hairstyles can be chosen by women to convey certain messages in a manner in which it is more difficult for men to do. In his book Big Hair: A Journey into the Transformation of Self the anthropologist Grant McCracken looks at how women can use their hair to transform themselves and by so doing give expression to different aspects of their personality.
Certain kinds of hairstyles suit certain kinds of roles. Margaret Thatcher, the Iron Lady of British politics, had a hairstyle that could be described as a combative helmet. It does not invite intimacy. There is little soft, nurturing, or sexy about it. It is not a hairstyle that says “run your fingers through my hair.” Passion, satin sheets, and good red wine are not suggested by this haircut.
However, there is a new and global standard of beauty emerging. While Western standards of beauty have up until recently been dominant other influences are gradually shaping a global cultural appreciation of what is beautiful. Not only through the Internet and economic globalization but also because throughout the world vast numbers of people are on the move, migrating from war zones, drought, famine, political persecution and economic destitution. Out of this chaos, confusion, energy, creativity, and human suffering new standards of beauty are emerging. And these new standards are not only affecting women. Metrosexuality, a term coined by the British writer Mark Simpson in 1994, refers to ” refers to urban, heterosexual men who wax, exfoliate and perform other grooming rituals some consider strictly feminine. ” (1) In Japan, Europe and throughout Latin America, there are men who are allowing themselves to be “pampered” in what have previously been stereotypically feminine methods in the interests of looking good.
An article in The Sunday Times on November 16, 2003 referred to how globalization and the correlated mixing, mingling and inter-marrying of races will lead to a sharp decline in the number of natural blondes and redheads over the next 100 years. Currently about one third of British women are varying shades of blonde but only about 3% of those are natural blondes according to Dr Desmond Tobin who is a researcher in hair cell biology. Natural redheads only account for about 1-2% of the population. Both blonde and red hair may have appeared in Europe as recently as 20,000 years ago but why they evolved is mysterious. The intermingling of races will in all likelihood lead to natural blonde and red hair eventually becoming a rarity. Yet, simultaneously, the coloring of the dark hair of Koreans and Japanese streaked with blonde or red is now an ordinary sight. Japanese women with blonde or red hair do stand out and it is thought that this contributes to its sex appeal. It also taps into the developmental rebelliousness of adolescence. For some Japanese teenagers the adoption of Western hair coloring also signifies a rejection of their ‘Japanesenish’-in other words, their parents. Perhaps not so dissimilar to how many adolescents in America and other Western countries rebelled against the conservatism of their parents in the 1960s and early 1970s by the adoption of ‘hippy’ styles. In the last thirty years or so there have also been significant changes in the Japanese diet. It was previously a lot of rice and fish but now includes red meat, pasta, and pizza: ” nothing is more fascinating than to see a Japanese woman in a yukata on a hot summer day, with her hair dyed some shade of brown and eating a pizza with chopsticks.”(1) This is leading to an increase in body weight among young Japanese and a corresponding increase in breast size.
Newsweek Magazine declared Saira Mohan, a Canadian-born woman of mixed Indian, Irish, and French descent, as the new face of global beauty in November 2003. Eastern and Western standards have been “cross-pollinating” and Saira Mohan with her mixture of ethnic origins is the perfect hybrid flower. Mohan recently told an Indian newspaper , “I capitalize on all the angles. I am what I am, and if they want to pay me for being Punjabi, great. If they want to pay me for looking Spanish or Italian, wonderful.”
The same issue of The Sunday Times had an article called ‘China revels in the decadence of a Miss World competition.’ There is a growing fascination with Western popular culture in China and there is a boom in beauty contests making a sharp change from just twelve months ago when one was raided by the police. 85% of Chinese beauty contestant entrants have been to either college or university. As China opens up economically there is an increasing interest in fashion and Western standards of beauty. Whatever we think about the degree to which the media influence cultural perceptions of what is beautiful at least in democratic societies we are free to choose whether or not to go along with them. As China almost inevitably becomes more democratic there will be an increasing variety of styles for the Chinese to choose from.
The New York Times reported on December 28th, 2003 that many advertisers and advertising agencies are seeking out a “new look” which is expressive of the fact that there is now a mixing and mingling of races and cultures. More than 7,000,000 Americans consider themselves to be members of more than one race. The blonde haired and blue-eyed beauty ideal of Northern European heritage is no longer the only one. In urban areas such as New York racial mix is becoming attractive and ‘chic’ and, as it does so, advertising agencies and fashion leaders are catching on. While there is still a lot of complaint about the predominance of Western beauty standards in non-Western cultures this is really a complaint about the dominance of Western media and the images of beauty prevalent in Western cultures. As some aspects of this image of beauty are slowly changing in American culture, aspects of the image of beauty portrayed by the Western influenced media in other countries will also change. While the significance of skin, eye and hair color and other racial features will probably change, it will be interesting to see if this changing beauty standard affects ideals of body shape and weight which seem to have more to do with tendencies and anxieties in consumerist cultures as such rather than racial heritage. In other words, it is hard to imagine rampantly consumerist cultures having obesity as a beauty ideal as it might give the game away.
Perhaps it is particularly in the realm of hair and hairstyles that this mixing and mingling of cultures and races can already be seen. After all, not much can be done about skin color but hair can be curled, kinked, colored, straightened, extended, braided and so on.
In 1950’s America the dominant hairstyle for men was short back and sides.It was practically universal for men except for those on the fringes of society. It was functional, controlled, technocratic and soulless. While women had more variety in their choices of hairstyles, the socially controlled place of women was epitomized by the popularity of the up-do. Big hair, the bouffant and beehive, ruled. Rolled, pinned, sprayed and lacquered into place it, like the women under it, was not supposed to move. Dusty Springfield, the white soul singer with panda mascara eyes, helped further popularize the beehive hairdo in the 1960s. Those towering structures, made possible by developments in hair lacquer during the 1950’s, were ripe material for urban legends. There was some concern about how hygienic these were and so legends sprang up about black widow spiders making nests in them and then the unfortunate wearers dying from the spider bites of hatched infant spiders. In another version the hairdos of some poor girls became welcoming homes to cockroaches.
But during the 1960’s and the 1970’s this all changed as did the role of women. The introduction of the birth control pill gave women greater control over their reproductive lives. TV brought the images of other cultures and the Vietnam war into the living rooms of America. One of the key architects of that change in the way Western cultures thought about women’s hair was the Englishman Vidal Sassoon. Previously, hairstylists had concentrated on the hair as if it was a work of art in its own right and the client merely the stand on which it rested. Sassoon cut hair differently. He cut it to see if the shape of the hair worked with the shape of the client. The revolution had at least as great an impact on men’s hairstyles. When men began to think of hairstyles as “fashion” they realized it did not always need to be the same.
We’re now in an age when there is no one dominant cultural style. Black women have their hair relaxed, extended and dyed red and blonde. White men have their hair in braids or the dreadlocks of the Rastafarian. Nor do people stick with one style. In this age of change and personal transformation, when the clash and mingling of cultures and religions undermines the received wisdom, hair has become one the ways in which people transform themselves and give social expression to this transformation with a freedom that would not have been possible a few decades ago. There are now many different acceptable versions of what it means to be a man or woman in our pluralistic cultures and this shows in hair. Women can now wear their hair, or cover it, in a variety of different expressive ways. If you look on the Internet there are dozens of sites for long-haired, bobbed, bald, and curly haired women as well as just about anything else you can think of. All of these ways have their aficionados. Some women wear voluptuous long hair suggestive of welcoming sexiness. Others wear the helmet hair of Thatcher or the big hair of Dolly Parton and other singers. Still some prefer the healthy manes of Candice Bergin and Farrah Fawcett or they may opt for the pixie look of Liza Minelli. We are spoilt for choice and we can change our choices to an astonishing degree of acceptable styles that would not have been possible just a few years ago. Just look at these three different pictures of the popular black singer Beyonce Knowles.
Racial mixing and mingling seems to be where the future of beauty is at. While there will probably always be individuals who are racist let’s hope this developing new beauty standard also heralds societies and cultures in which there is an increased racial tolerance and an end to the ugliness of socially sanctioned racism.