I have been growing my hair now for the past 24 years. It all started for a very practical reason. I decided one day that I couldn’t take any more peer pressure concerning hairstyles and looks. It seemed easier and more comfortable to simply grow my hair long.
I also owe my long hair to my sister Janie. She was the one who gave haircuts to the boys in our family. One day she slipped with the shears when she cut my hair. I was always a self-conscious kid, but to make matters worse, my sister accidentally buzzed off a big chunk of my hair the night before my first communion. So she used black magic marker to hide the patch of my exposed white scalp.
It didn’t take long to get used to long hair. Part of the comfort came from my realization that this was a traditional hairstyle of my ancestors. In many of the old photographs I have seen of James Bay people up the coast, many of them had long hair. Cutting hair was just not part of our traditional culture for all kinds of reasons.
These days, when I put my hair in a ponytail, it drops down past my waist. I find the attention people give my hair very odd; they appear to think that long hair is a rare and weird thing. This is true in particular in other countries. In Islamic cultures, the reaction has been one of humour. When I visited Egypt, women on the street giggled and laughed at the fact that a man could have long hair. In Germany, I was stopped and asked many times about my hair. The Germans are very intrigued by Aboriginal people. In Thailand, I was surprised at the reaction of people who thought that my hair and the fact that I am Aboriginal symbolized the mystical and magical Hollywood Indian.
Hair is an unusual feature of the human body. Compared to other animals, the hair on our heads can grow long, whereas the hair on our bodies stays short. Most animals with hair grow it evenly over their entire bodies.
In our modern civilization, different cultures grow hair or cut it for various reasons. At different periods during the past centuries, hair has either been looked at as a symbol of wealth or something that belongs to the poor. During the Middle Ages, someone with long hair was thought of as wealthy because they could afford to grow and groom their hair. In the 20th century, it became a sign of poverty as a person with longer hair was thought to lack the means to pay for frequent grooming.
Hairstyles and hair length in men and women also holds a powerful psychological hold. It is a sign of vitality, sexuality and fertility in women. From ancient and prehistoric times, the length of her hair was considered a way to judge a woman’s ability to bear children. For men, it was historically used as a symbol of domination over others. During times of conflict, slaves, prisoners of war and captured soldiers had their heads shaved as a sign that someone had dominated them. Forcibly cropping someone’s hair is still a way to humiliate.
The idea of short hair also became a symbol of authority and order. Those who became part of the military, police organizations, organized groups or religious orders had to have closely cropped hair as part of their uniform and dress. In our modern world, the opposite has also become true. Native American men and women with their long hair were always thought of as being outside the norm of organized society. Aboriginal people actually helped popularize the symbol of living free of society’s conformity by growing long hair. This image was part of the pop culture of the 1960s when hippies and young people identified long hair as a break with established and repressive values and rules.
My long hair these days is now a part of who I am. Some people like it, some people don’t, but I don’t really care. It shades me from the hot sun in summer and it keeps me warm in winter.