What Does Your Hair Say About You?

Our hair type and hairstyle are integral parts of our identities, playing a major role in how we’re viewed by our peers. However, it’s important to steer away from harmful stereotypes concerning hair.

Reading Time: 6 minutes

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By Hyun (Benjamin) Hur

Hair is often one of the first features you notice about a person. Whether it’s someone with the biggest afro you’ve ever seen or fiery pink curls, hair types and hairstyles are huge parts of our individual identities. Hair, being one of a person’s few easily changeable features, is a form of self-expression. Everyone is born with a certain hair type and color, but how we choose to wear, style, or change it is what makes hair culture so multifaceted and a constant topic in everyday life. Hairstyles and hair trends have consistently transformed throughout history, from powdered wigs in the 1700s to disco hair in the 1970s. Though hair can be a method of expressing ourselves, it is often unfairly weighed down by societal expectations and the seemingly objective positive or negative connotations surrounding different types of hair, a sentiment that needs to be avoided. 

A hairstyle factors greatly into the energy a person gives off, intentionally or not. Someone with locs certainly has a different aura to them than someone with golden locks. Hair treatments also play a major role in this: someone’s surface-level vibe can completely change if their hair goes from the straightest hair you’ve ever seen to manicured curls after a three-hour perm appointment. But often, the change doesn’t need to be that drastic to alter our perceptions of others. Hairstyles can also vary daily: a messy bun and a combed, tidy look portray two wildly different attitudes. Most of the time, how we do our hair is up to us, whether it be a color we like, a style that fits us, or a change simply out of convenience. But we also continue to make stylistic choices, consciously or subconsciously, recognizing their appropriateness for various times and places. This topic becomes even more multidimensional because it concerns not only different types of hair but also the different receptions and interpretations that come along with it. This has a lot to do with the specific views on various hair types in each generation. An extreme example is that someone from Victorian England in the 19th century wouldn’t view someone rocking a mullet in the same way as someone in the late 1980s would. Similarly, millennials have different perceptions of hair than Gen Z.

Kids, especially teenagers, are more experimental with their hair. Adolescence is the prime time for figuring out who you are as a person and how you want to express yourself, which largely includes your physical appearance. However, children are also representations of their parents. Both our emotional and physical behaviors are supposedly reflections of how we were raised. Of course, different families of different backgrounds have varying takes on appearances. I come from an immigrant family from Southeast Asia, and there’s an apparent consensus throughout my family that boys like myself should have short, tidy hair. It’s believed that neat hair is the hair of a well-mannered and intelligent person. I have hair that is longer and more on the messy side than the standard expectation, which apparently means I’m disrespectful and disorganized according to customs. 

When I was little, my mother used to give me haircuts, so I wouldn’t really have a choice, not that I particularly cared what my hair looked like as a seven-year-old. But as I grew older, I realized that I preferred a longer and more unkempt look, mostly so my face wouldn’t look as round. This eventually led to many arguments with my parents. I remember feeling beyond outraged when my dad told the barber to cut my hair short. It was then that I realized that I should be the one telling the barber how I want my hair to be cut and that I should be able to maintain my hair however I want. Kids don’t really consider how someone’s hair affects other people’s views of them; they just want what they think looks cool. Most people get haircuts based on current trends, which differ in each country. Despite this, when I’m on FaceTime with relatives back home, they say things like, “Wow, your hair is big,” and ask me, “Do you like your hair big?” I’d enthusiastically reply that I do, but eventually, I was old enough to understand that it wasn’t really a genuine question. They were really asking, “Why is your hair big?” This was confusing to me because I didn’t understand that my parents were “conservative” or that my family back home had different perceptions of what someone’s hair should be. One of my older cousins, whom I looked up to, became an army lieutenant for Bangladesh and had to get a military haircut. My mother would tell me, “Look how sharp and successful he looks with his short hair.” Besides the practical reasons for cleanliness and safety in addition to tradition, military haircuts are for standardization and uniformity. It’s the complete opposite of individual expression, and to indirectly promote that hairstyle to a kid implements the idea to adhere to those above you, even if it’s authoritative over your own physical appearance. 

I’m perfectly aware that short hair does give off a mannered and well-behaved vibe, and I’m completely fine with my family or anyone else thinking that my hair is too messy. But truth be told, hair is divided by gender, race, ethnicity, sexuality, age, and integrated stereotypes. To name a couple of these clichés, blondes—particularly women—are deemed dumb, people part of the LGBTQ+ community have dyed hair, and locs are for Black people. Every group of people has a different type of hair that is not only an extension of their personality but also a crucial factor in their social identity. Hair can help us feel a sense of belonging within a group or culture and provide self-empowerment. But it’s important to draw the line between playfully associating one’s hair with a personality trait and harmfully stereotyping them. For instance, I’ve seen a white person on social media get criticized for having dreads. Black hair culture is a thing: it grows, is taken care of, and is styled in its own unique manner. That doesn’t necessarily mean a person of a different race is trying to be Black, but perhaps they think the style looks cool. Similarly, it’s not uncommon for people of the LGBTQ+ community to dye their hair as it is a way of expressing one’s queer identity with vibrant colors. But it doesn’t mean every person with dyed hair is a part of the community. Furthermore, someone who has long, draping hair that covers their face isn’t necessarily emo (though much of the time, they might be).  

I believe that it’s a combination of human nature and societally ingrained views to associate physical features with character traits, just like how we associate certain things with certain groups and personalities that are specific to our generation. For instance, there is a uniform bullying of gingers that I’ll never understand, yet I go along with it. Or, the fifty different types of fades most senior citizens seem to hate that I can’t keep track of. Likewise, older people during Elvis Presley’s time thought his hair was obnoxious and associated his seductive hip movements with the overall playboy style. Meanwhile, younger people fawned over him. The point is, we can never really stop ourselves from making that correlation between hair and person, whether it be based on a stereotypical personality trait or the hairstyle’s suitability. But the dangerous part is actually enforcing those implications. It’s one thing to think that someone is disorganized based on their hair at first glance and then still getting to know them, and another thing entirely to tell someone that they are disorganized because their hair is messy. My parents aren’t necessarily happy with my hair, but I’ve forced them to understand that they don’t really have a say. My hair isn’t some huge statement, and I don’t particularly try to display my messiness with my hair; it’s simply my hair. But what matters is that I can keep it the way I like, and I don’t have to adhere to what people may judge me as, even if those people are my loved ones. It’s important to be wary of how we admonish and admire within our generation, as well as the impacts of the differences in hair perception between generations. The older generation needs to be more open-minded, and we should all push for individual expression rather than stereotypical generalizations.