How one’s hairstyle – and hair action – can be powerful messaging

One of the highlights of New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) is the Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair (1940) by Mexican painter Frida Kahlo. It was painted just months after she divorced her husband and fellow artist Diego Rivera. In this self-portrait, Kahlo has cast off most of the feminine attributes with which she often depicted herself. She is wearing a man’s suit and a short-clipped haircut. Locks of hair are strewn across the floor, and she holds a pair of scissors and her shorn hair.

The painting is seen as a symbol of Kahlo’s fresh start with a new identity and newfound autonomy after vowing to support herself financially following her divorce. Something that many of Iran’s agitators against the death in police custody of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini of suspected torture for not wearing the mandatory hijab can relate to.

It’s certainly worth noting how keratin – fibrous proteins that are the key structural material for hair (and nails) – played a prominent role in the history of protest and defiance. The century-old bob cut, which became part of an aesthetic that young women who aimed to rebel against societal feminine expectations adopted, is attributed to ballroom dancer Irene Castle who, ironically, didn’t intend to make any fashion statement. Castle cut her hair short just before having an appendicitis surgery.

But bobbing was solely responsible for the rise of women’s hairstyling shops in the US – about 5,000 in 1920, going up to 21,000-plus in the next four years. The lasting influence of the bob as a symbol of defiance continues. Actor Rose McGowan shaved her head during the #metoo movement, and has since kept her hair short.

Is cutting hair – and not growing it – the only symbol of liberty and autonomy? Then what about Angela Davis, the frontwoman of the ‘Black Is Beautiful’ movement in the US in the 1960s, with her emblematic Afro, which became a loaded symbol supporting her political activism and involvement in the civil rights movement? Hippies in the 1960s-70s wore their hair down to their shoulders and longer as a sign of protest against the US war in Vietnam, and to set themselves apart from mainstream society. The 1967 musical Hair – full title, Hair: The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical – literally took the tresses and turned it counter-cultural.

Can hairstyles be associated with political power? Yes, ask Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, Boris Johnson, Kim Jong-un. Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau’s hair has been sarcastically mentioned as the ‘hair apparent’ by smart (alecky) media, hinting of his political inheritance from his prime minister father, Pierre.

But there’s possibly no better example than Marie Antoinette, France’s last queen, of how politics and hair can be intertwined. Her hairstyles, on occasion, were even adorned by model ships to celebrate French naval victory. Amid the struggle for agency and personal autonomy, she possibly tried to reinvent her identity and regain her lost autonomy through her most adventurous hairstyles. Her big, outlandish hairstyles became a symbol of inconsiderate conspicuous consumption, while many of her subjects were starving.

Punk fashion designer Vivienne Westwood, on the other end of the spectrum, shaved off her hair in 2014 to generate awareness of climate change. Hair accessories may convey an important message, too. In 1968, actor Vanessa Redgrave wore a paper headband, a traditional Vietnamese sign of mourning, as she attended an anti-Vietnam War demonstration outside the US Embassy in London. And what about Meryl Streep’s hairpin with a #timesup statement at the 2018 Oscars?

The widespread use of haircuts to express solidarity and empowering movements may be due to the fact that it can be done without any physical pain – and that hair will grow back over time. Shave it off or use hairbands, keep your hair long, or snip it off as a ‘battle cry’ as Nasibe Samsaei recently did in Istanbul when she held up her shorn ponytail in protest against the death of Amini in custody in Tehran, your hairstyle – and hair action – can be powerful messaging.