Tools of the Patriarchy is a biweekly column on the tools that establish men’s dominance in society, or, in other words, uphold the patriarchy. Whether or not these tools are used intentionally, they contribute to a world in which women are not equal to men.
From abortion to weight loss, the patriarchal tradition of policing women’s bodies is a strong and long lasting one. Telling women what they must or must not do with their hair—whether that be the color, texture, quantity or location of it—is just another way women’s agency over their own bodies is controlled.
The list of requirements for women’s hair is longer than Rapunzel’s locks—but here are a few examples.
Covering Up Grays
Artificial hair color is a long-standing tradition, but the idea that women whose hair turned gray should quickly mask such a change was only established in the 1940s. Up until then, dying hair often presented a serious health risk, deterring many women.
The change in the norm came, as many do, when marketing techniques shifted—with companies like Clairol slyly navigating away from perceptions of the physical dangers of dye. Rather, they focused on establishing the now wide-spread ageist and sexist idea that a woman going gray meant losing her societal value.
In 2017, Allure published an article titled, “Covering Up Gray Hair is an Emotionally Draining Chore.” In it, author Madeleine Holden writes:
“Coloring grays is just one of the forms of extra beauty labor older women are pressured to do to remain ‘seen’ and, in society’s narrow eyes, be considered attractive.”
To combat the social terror of a loss of beauty, many women are burdened with financial and psychological costs for years on end.
The pressure for women to dye gray hair is one that men are rarely subjected to. The British Journal of Sociology published an article in 1987 titled, “Shame and Glory: a Sociology of Hair,” by Anthony Synnott. In it, Synnott notes how gray hair in men is often lauded and even professionally beneficial—for example, older men with gray hair are often seen as more successful or knowledgeable in their business—while “for some women, death may be preferable to grey.”
More and more women today are pushing back against the requirement to dye gray hair. As one woman who embraces her gray, Ms. author Janice Rhoshalle Littlejohn, wrote, “I’m now 52, and I see the gift of my gray hair having been more empowering than any container of Le Conte: that owning one’s self is not simply noble, or fiercely courageous—but beautiful.”
Policing Black Hair
The fact that actual legislation was needed to protect Black workers from natural hair discrimination in the workplace should serve as enough evidence that manipulation of Black hair is a tool—not just of the patriarchy, but also of a racist society.
In her article, “Hey Girl, Am I More than My Hair?,” University of Wyoming Professor Tracey Owens Patton explores how in the United States, expectations of feminine beauty are based on white women.
She explains how, in choosing to do things like straightening their hair, Black women often risk facing accusations of assimilation from within the Black community. Prominent (male) activists such as Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. Du Bois and Marcus Garvey were known to make such claims.
Those men, Patton notes, did not appreciate that straightening hair for many Black women was not an attempt at assimilation, but rather, yet another hairstyle Black women created to “define their own beauty.”
Today, even with legislation like the CROWN act in place, Black women (and men) face discrimination for their hair—though Black writers, artists and public figures frequently push back against this reality.
Powerful women such as Michelle Obama, Tracee Ellis Ross and Solange Knowles have all publicly embraced their natural hair. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie explores hair extensively in her award-winning 2013 novel, “Americanah.” And just last year, the Academy Award for Best Short Film went to “Hair Love,” a short about a young Black girl and her father learning about her hair.
Removing Body Hair
In “Plucked: A History of Hair Removal” (2015), Rebecca M. Herzig, professor of gender and sexuality studies at Bates University, explores the changing status of women at the beginning of the 20th century. The period marked a cultural shift for women with things like increased sexual freedom, education and the push for suffrage. For opponents of such changes:
“Visible body hair on women served as tangible evidence of a surfeit of manliness. As women who pushed for voting rights and access to jobs and education were depicted as sexually inverted, so, too, were they depicted as hairy.”
These anti-feminist-ascribed associations with hairy women were particularly damaging, as early hair removal methods often meant severe pain and occasionally, long-term physical damage or even death for the women undergoing them.
Additionally, Herzig notes that early advertisements for hair removal methods promised “smooth, white, velvety skin.” In doing so, they upheld racist, white-centric beauty standards, which proved to be dangerous.
The weaponization of “the hairy woman” as a symbol of anti-femininity demanded that the natural female body was unhygienic, a flatly false notion that persists to this day.
In 2019, Jimmy Kimmel interviewed Margaret Qualley on her performance in Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon A Time in Hollywood.” Towards the end of the interview, Kimmel says, “You play […] a member of the Manson Family, a hippie, you have armpit hair—is that your real armpit hair?”
His question makes three harmful implications: First, that her armpit hair was the most interesting thing about her character; second, that only a murderous hippie cultist would sink so low as to not shave her armpits; and last, that for some reason, Qualley might instead have worn “armpit wigs” rather than growing her own hair out.
Along that line of reasoning, Kimmel might also have to ascribe murderous hippie cultist tendencies to women such as Drew Barrymore, Miley Cyrus, Madonna and Amandla Stenberg—all of whom have made public appearances sporting visible body hair.
The classification of hairlessness as a requirement for women goes hand-in-hand with the loud implication that being hairy also means being unattractive, radical or unhygienic. The point is, as hairiness doesn’t really matter for men, it shouldn’t really matter for women, either.