Why is so much hair wanted where it isn’t, and not wanted where it is? Many of our ideas of beauty, of grooming – even of sexuality – are hair-related. It’s one of the things we have in common with our fellow mammals. (Many non-mammals – even some insects – may appear fuzzy – but, anatomically speaking, it’s not real hair.)
As in numerous other cases, our thoughts about hair can often be traced back to the Bible. According to Genesis, Esau, one of two brothers who were contending for their blind father’s blessing, happened to be hairier than his sibling, Jacob. Since the father (Isaac) could feel, but not see, Jacob “disguised” himself as Esau by covering his smooth skin with goatskin, and thus successfully deceived Isaac.
Then, the Book of Judges tells the story of Samson, who had enormous strength, which somehow resided in his hair. And when deceitful enemies rendered him shorn, he was in their power. It was only when his hair began to grow again that he had the power to bring down the temple of the Philistines.
It has always seemed remarkable to me that, judging from their sculpture, most ancient Roman males were clean-shaven – although the methods and implements they used must have been extremely primitive by modern standards. (They called savage outsiders “barbarians” from their word “barb,” meaning beard. Incidentally, the name “Barbara” also derives from the same root.)
Even today, however, without some kind of expensive and arduous surgery to stop their hair from growing, most men in our culture are doomed to a regular, often daily, shaving ritual – a fact which, a century ago, made a fortune for a man named King Camp Gillette, whose marketing innovation was to sell razors cheaply, but sell separately the blades, which had to be frequently replaced.
I personally have chosen to forego that badge, or penalty, of masculinity, and been bearded for most of my adult life. I fear an original incentive may have been a thoughtless remark by my father. He was in general a mild-mannered man, but once, when, for some reason, he was angry at me, he told me I had “a weak chin.” (Ironically, on the occasion of a subsequent confrontation, I was bearing that criticism in mind, when he said, “Don’t you jut your chin out at me!”)
So, when I was able to grow a beard, I did. My father himself had a moustache, and, in his later years, people used to tell him he looked like Groucho Marx.
Speaking of resemblances, my own beard marked me out, as a young man, from most of my contemporaries, and, in 1959, which was the year of revolution in Cuba, l was often semi-mockingly called “Fidel Castro.”
Hair color is of course one of its most important properties, especially in women, and we are bombarded with legend and lore that redheads are fiery, that men dream of a Jeannie with light brown hair, or that they prefer blondes. But eventually there comes the appearance of “silver threads among the gold.”
Hair is also, for better or worse, a matter of race. The Japanese, for example, nearly all have black hair, and tend to have very little facial hair. Some people of African descent tend to have kinky hair, and fortunes have been made selling them hair-straighteners.
Speaking of fortunes, hair products in general must constitute a huge proportion of national consumer expenditure. And what we don’t spend on ourselves, we spend on our pets, particularly on our furry cats.
It seems ironical that in certain societies, such as that of England, which have shown comparatively little interest in hair, a fashion should have arisen for elaborate wigs, worn especially by men. This custom prevailed so enduringly that, until only recently, British judges and barristers were required to wear wigs in court.
And what about Religion? The Jewish faith endorses plentiful beards for men – and even boys are encouraged to let their sidelocks grow – but it wants women’s hair discretely hidden. Islam has similar permissions and restraints. Buddhists are fairly free hair-wise, unless they’re monks, who are enjoined to shave their heads, in order to discourage vanity. Christians also shave – although Jesus is generally depicted with a beard. (After all, he was a Jew.)
As for the future – in practically every science-fiction portrayal of future humans I’ve seen – not to mention humanoid aliens – they appear to be hairless. In which case, our destiny is clear: Hair today – gone tomorrow.