Why Does Your Hair Matter to Society?

They’re just follicles, yet a lot of social and power dynamics are playing out on your head.

“It’s a very fine line between having the agency to do whatever you want with your hair, and also knowing that none of our decisions exist in a vacuum,” says Anu Taranath. “They’re always informed, consciously or unconsciously, by these larger social ideas about beauty.”

Taranath, a UW professor, sees hair as a signifier of culture, race, social pressures, and belonging. Her Speakers Bureau presentation “Tangled: Why Your Hair Matters To Society” examines how we express ourselves through our hair — on our heads, on our bodies, short or long, kinky, curly, flowing or shorn — and what replies we receive from the cultural norms we brush up against every day.

“We just have to look at Michelle Obama’s trajectory,” Taranath says. “How she groomed her hair said a lot, and how she was not able to groom her hair said a lot.”

Humanities Washington: What led you think of hair as a touchstone for this talk?

Anu Taranath: I work a lot with racial equity, and know the discomfort that people often have when they have to talk about issues of race, and what that means for people’s lives these days. We’re not often taught how to talk about any of this, and I wanted to think about a way to have a conversation from a side angle — maybe not approach it straight up, but come at it through the back door. And when you talk about hair, you’re really talking about all these big issues. I look at conversations about what beauty is and who defines it, and how it gets regulated and enforced. I look at early Chinese migration to the United States, and the way Chinese hair — especially Chinese men’s hair — was seen as a threat to the American way of life. In early advertisements and caricatures, the long braid of many Chinese immigrant men’s hair was held up as this spectacle for ridicule. We talk about the ways that Native American boarding schools, not only in the U.S. but also in Canada, created a particular type of ideal that Native American children must adhere to, and that meant cutting off their long hair. We also look at black hair, and what black hair has meant in different communities and different parts of the United States, and the struggles of meaning over what beauty is.

Instead of focusing on the individual, what the presentation is trying to do is ask lots of societal questions: “Why is it we recoil from X or Y?”

Do industry and media today push us to think negatively of our own hair?

How could they not? So much of who we are is determined by our sense of “I’m not that” or “I want to be that.” That leads us to think a couple of things — on the one hand there’s something really exciting about being able to change our look. But then again, what does that mean in the larger context? If I dye my hair blond, as a woman of color, that perhaps gets read in a very particular way — different than a white woman who’s a brunette wanting to be blond.

We saw black Americans’ hairstyles change greatly in the 1960s and ’70s, using less product and allowing hair to grow more freely.

But you also see a lot of fear and denigration of that too. Hair pride is really important in communities, but it never happens in isolation from the rest of society. So while we could say the United States is a more accepting society maybe than it was thirty to forty years ago, it has not been an easy ride for many folks who have hair that falls outside of white beauty norms. And this presentation also asks questions about body hair — what kind of hair is okay to have on what parts of your body? Women who have hair in their armpits means something. Women who don’t shave their legs means something. Instead of focusing on the individual, what the presentation is trying to do is ask lots of societal questions: “Why is it we recoil from X or Y?” We have a certain kind of image that says women should look this certain way — and often it’s women’s bodies that are being policed, rather than men’s.

There’s a pretty common trope in movies of women changing hairstyles in response to life changes — divorce, trauma, ambition to succeed.

And again, it helps us understand what hair means. Even without the plotline being around hair, something significant has happened to a character we know. When a woman says, “He’s an ass, I’m cutting my hair,” it means she’s taking control of her life, she has more agency. We have all these associations with hair. On the one hand hair is about domination and control, and wanting to belong, but on the other side of the conversation are the people that want to disrupt that.

Your most recent project for Speakers Bureau had to do with children’s books. Does hair have a place in children’s-book mythology?

Think Rapunzel — it’s a great illustration of the usefulness of long hair. But many cultures and traditions around the world have legends about hair, and what it means when it is cut, or when it’s not cut. Especially when it’s unbound, not contained in certain ways. In South Asian mythology, women who are seen as “wild” have hair that is not braided. So those things you see in children’s literature — and you also see, over the last fifteen years, a much greater emphasis on all different kinds of beauty, in a lot of the body-positive children’s literature that’s wanting to be more conscientious about diversity and difference and identity.


Anu Taranath is a professor at the University of Washington specializing in global literature, identity, race, and equity.

She is currently presenting her free Speakers Bureau talk, “Tangled: Why Your Hair Matters to Society,” around the state. Find an event here.

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