by Bruce Dunlavy             

(My blog home page and index of other posts may be found here.)

A man’s hairstyle says a lot more about him than just his fashion sense. Some say that the way a man wears his hair now is the way he wore it during what he considers the best year of his life.

I am inclined to modify that a little bit. I think that a man’s hairstyle reflects when he stopped thinking critically – that is, when he stopped entertaining new ideas. If a 75-year-old still has the flat-top he wore in the Marines in 1959, he probably has the same political and social views he had then, too. The same can be said of the 60-year-old with a ponytail behind his bald spot who still longs for the hippie days of 1965 or the 50-year-old who still rocks the disco mullet.  A man who changes his hairstyle now and then is a man who is still thinking critically.

A man’s hair is important stuff. Some men will go to great lengths (haha) for the combover that covers their baldness. They’ll go to Hair Club for Men if they can afford the treatments or hairpiece warehouse if they can’t.

In the case of the man bun (or “mun”), there is plenty of commentary, both pro and con. It even has a self-proclaimed “official” website.  It’s not just unusual hairstyles on men that become the subject of criticism and abuse. It’s those that are considered unmanly. A guy with a buzzed head, a military cut, or some other short, neat styling won’t be subjected to shouts of ridicule on the street, but a guy with a man bun might be.

Berthold Rothas by Nicolas Guérin

Image credit:

In the early Twentieth Century, long hair became unfashionable – indeed, unacceptable – for men. By the 1950s, “long hair” meant “touching the shirt collar or eyebrows,” and it was associated with sissies and intellectuals. Classical music was dubbed “longhair music” for the supposed lack of masculinity of the men who enjoyed it. In 1953, Tea and Sympathy started a two-year run on Broadway. The protagonist was a student at a boys’ boarding school who was harassed for suspected homosexuality by his classmates, based partly on his longish hair.

It was the following decade that really did it, though.  In the 1960s, long hair was more than just a fashion statement for men. It was a political statement. It was an anti-system act.
When The Beatles arrived in America early in 1964, their long hair was scandalous, even though by later standards it was rather short. The hit Broadway show of the 1960s that was designed to shock, challenge, and attack every convention was simply called Hair.

The hair-length battle raged for a decade, with boys being sent home from school if their hair touched their eyebrows or the tops of their ears. Fathers and sons battled constantly, with parents forcing teenage boys to barber shops and supervising the clipping of their hair. I personally knew a father who said that if his daughter came home with a long-haired boy he would kill both of them. Another man I knew would occasionally drive his car onto the sidewalk and try to hit long-haired young men.  The iconic 1969 film Easy Rider was hyperbole, but not that much.

Anywhere a long-haired man went he was subjected to taunts, insults, and perhaps a beating. Bob Seger alludes to it:

Well you walk into a restaurant,
strung out from the road
And you feel the eyes upon you
as you’re shakin’ off the cold
You pretend it doesn’t bother you
but you just want to explode
Most times you can’t hear ’em talk,
other times you can
All the same old cliches,
“Is that a woman or a man?”
And you always seem outnumbered,
you don’t dare make a stand
(excerpted from “Turn the Page”, by Tony Woods, Barry Weeks, and Jim Brady)

Even on campus there were physical attacks. At my college in 1964, a group calling itself “Greeks for Goldwater” went around forcibly cutting the hair of anyone whose locks they deemed inappropriately long. Future presidential candidate Mitt Romney was reported to have done the same thing to a schoolmate at Cranbrook, his Detroit prep school, in 1965.
During his presidential campaign, Romney said through a spokesman that he had no recollection of the incident. That time-worn “denial-that-isn’t-a-denial” is particularly troubling because it means that he acknowledges that he might have bullied and assaulted a schoolmate, but if he had it would be such an insignificant incident that he wouldn’t even remember it.

One of my college classmates wrote to me from law school with the story of a case he had studied in class. A Columbus, Ohio, police officer patrolled High Street near the Ohio State University campus, and when he saw a young man with long hair he would club the kid with his nightstick. Apparently, he had an arrangement with the interns at the OSU medical school whereby he would bring them head lacerations for suturing practice if they would let him stick around and watch them shave the guy’s head.

Even today, in 2015, it’s still out there. There is a group of men in South Africa whose hobby is driving around to find men with “top knots” and cutting them off.  Something tells me they are not the only “hair police” in the world.  There is a reason why ultra-nationalist neo-nazis are called “Skinheads.”

All this provokes the question: “What’s the deal?” Why is an unusual hairstyle – particularly long hair – so threatening?

Think of it this way – what is well-known as the first thing that happens to new military inductees? It’s often depicted as the initiation to soldierly life. That’s right, the military haircut. The clippers-all-over attack that turns the scalp to suede.

Why are fighting men expected to have very short hair? And why is that extended to civilian life, in a country that supposedly cherishes freedom of expression?

Could it be that, unless it is clipped so short that one man’s scalp is indistinguishable from any other man’s, hair is a proclamation of individuality? Soldiers are expected to fight as a unit, taking orders and implementing them without regard to their personal opinions or attitudes. Cutting off their most obvious badge of individuality is the first step to depriving them of any individuality.

When we apply this to the non-military world, it is easy to see that those who fear nonconformity, those for whom independent thinking is anxiety-producing, feel threatened by anyone who displays individuality. Individually expressive hairstyles are the outward sign of an inner rebellion against the social order, and those who display it may find themselves deprived of it.