The NonVerbal Dictionary of Gestures, Signs & Body Language Cues

Hair Cue

The bangs ascend in a topknot, not unlike the tuft of a displaying male bird (see below, Media).

Ya know, I spend a long time on my hair, and he hit it; he hit my hair. --John Travolta, Saturday Night Fever, 1977 (Schaffer 2001:20)

Identity marker1. The style, color, shape, and sheen of the cylindrical, filamentous projections covering one's scalp. 2. Any of the visual, tactile, and olfactory signs emanating from human head hair.

Usage: Like our face, our hairstyle is a nonverbal signature display representing who, what, and even "why" we are. Our hairdo is a badge of identity reflecting membership in a group, and also showing our desire to identify with (i.e., be like; see ISOPRAXISM) other people. Rather like a baseball cap, our hair may be used to show membership on a corporate, military, or religious "team" (see HAT).

Baldness. In the U.S., men spend ca. $2 billion each year to reduce hair loss (known medically as androgenetic alopecia; Segell 1994). Men have used hair-loss potions at least since ancient Egyptian times 3000 years ago; in 400 B.C., e.g., Hippocrates devised ". . . a remedy for his own hair loss made of opium, horseradish, pigeon droppings, beetroot, and spices (Segell 1994:114). 

Bangs. "Indeed, whether wispy and short or soft and long, today's bangs look 'whimsical and fun,' says hairstylist Fr?ric Fekkai, who counts Ashley Judd and Sharon Stone among his clients. Even better, notes Cindy Crawford's cutter Stephen Knoll, 'it's a great way for women to disguise frown lines on their foreheads'" (Scott 2000:129). 

Big hair1. Women mark lifestyle and career changes with different hairstyles, according to Grant McCracken in his 1997 book, Big Hair: A Journey into the Transformation of Self2. The tendency to trash big hair ". . . started long before President Clinton's alleged involvement with a series of women who subsequently lost several pounds of hair after being taken under the wings of image consultants" (Turner 1998:E1). 3. "Upper-class women in the [ancient Egyptian] Middle Kingdom also developed a taste for huge wigs, the tresses of which were sometimes bound with ribbons of silver or linen and topped with still more jewelry, as fancy as any from the court of [French queen from 1774-93] Marie Antoinette" (Barber 1994:204).

Biology. We spend an unusual amount of time noticing, monitoring, and commenting on each other's hair (or its absence). This is because, in mammals generally, clean hair is a sign of high status, good health, and careful grooming. The biological equivalent of scales, feathers, and fur, hair not only keeps our head warm and dry, but also protects our braincase from sunshine. Hair once provided camouflage, too, and helped our ancestors blend into the natural landscape. Today's hairstyles help us blend into the social scene as well.

First impression. A Procter & Gamble study led by Marianne LaFrance (2000) of Yale found that, in the U.S., hairstyle plays a significant role in first impressions. For women, a.short, tousled hair conveys confidence and an outgoing personality, but ranks low in sexuality; b. medium-length, casual hair suggests intelligence and good nature; and c. long, straight, blond hair projects sexuality and affluence. For men, a. short, front-flip hairstyles are seen as confident, sexy, and self-centered (see below, Media: 1950s); b. medium-length, side-parted hair connotes intelligence, affluence, and a narrow mind; and c. long hair projects "all brawn and no brains," carelessness, and a good-natured personality.

Hair-preen. Women may run their fingers through their hair around men they are attracted to (see LOVE SIGNALS II).

Media. In the 1950s, magazine and TV images of Elvis Presley popularized the rebellious ducktail, in which the hair sweeps back to meet in an upturned point at the rear of the head, and the bangs ascend in a topknot, not unlike the tuft of a displaying male bird. In the 1960s, anti-establishment bushy hair for men was popularized by magazine and TV images of the Beatles, a British pop group whose members wore their hair noticeably longer than other males of the time. In the 1970s, very long straight hair for women was popularized by magazine and TV images of the American folksinger, Joan Baez, whose dark tresses contrasted with the shorter, chemical-permanent styles of the time. In the 1980s, pop singer Madonna's TV-video-pictured soft-tousled blond hair popularized a sexier, Marilyn Monroe look of the 1950s era. In the 1990s, TV ads of Chicago Bulls player, Michael Jordan popularized the shaved-head look, originally introduced by actor Yul Brynner in the 1956 movie, The King and I.

Optics. Like a lion's mane, our head hair grows longer than the hair on our body. Our mane borders three sides of the face (like a bottomless picture frame) to contain and exhibit its features. Bushy (i.e., longer and thicker) manes draw attention to themselves, and to the faces they contain, making the ears, foreheadnose, and chin look comparatively "smaller." Shorter, thinner manes bring less notice to themselves, but make browscheekbonesjaws, and noses loom "larger" on the facial plain.

Sex. The relative full or close-cropped look of our head mane explains the traditional contrast between men's and women's hair. Short, military cuts show off masculine power traits:bony brow ridgesprominent noses, and larger jaws. Longer, thicker hair showcases feminine eyes and lips while downplaying the more manly traits. Men may project additional "strength" with dense facial manes. Beards "widen" the lower face, while mustaches turn the lip corners downward to project a "fierce" look. It is only hair, after all, but to the very visual primate brain, appearances are "real." (N.B.: "Because the top rulers were virtually always male, the royal headdress in [ancient] Egypt also came to symbolize virility and included a false beard" [Barber 1994:150].)

RESEARCH REPORT: According to anthropologists, in many societies long hair shows "openness," "passion" and "lack of inhibition"; while shaved heads and short hair symbolize "discipline," "denial," and "conformity" (Alford 1996).

Neuro-note. The emotional appeal of human head hair is mediated, in part, by grooming-related tendencies wired into paleocircuits of the cingulate gyrus.

Photo of asymmetrical hairstyle (since the human face is relentlessly symmetrical, a visible asymmetry--such as the bangs pictured here--catches eyes and draws notice; picture credit: unknown)