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The Social Construction of Straight Hair

A while back, my cousin's hair was suddenly straighter-than-usual. This, it was explained, was the "Japanese hair-straightening technique" that was all the rage. As is often the case with such things, once informed of its existence it became apparent that the technique really was all the rage. Especially with your younger Jewish women, which makes sense since Jews tend to have not-so-straight hair. At first glance, the Japanese origin of this technology passed muster, since lots of technologies originate in Asia nowadays. But then you think about it -- why would a hair-straightening technology originate in Japan, where everyone's hair is straight? Phoebe Maltz asked the question and got an answer. Apparently, Japan isn't as monolithically straight-haired as one might think, but in addition, a land of straight-haired people generates a more exacting standard of what kind of hair counts as "straight."

The general social trend toward preference for ever-straighter hair is somewhat mysterious. The superficially similar preference for lighter hair has a straightforward evolutionary explanation -- light hair suggests youth. And, indeed, in blonde-heavy Iceland it's notable that older people had a more youthful look about them. But straight hair is about . . . what?

September 18, 2005 | Permalink


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In the US it's not mysterious at all, just a consequence of racial and ethnic prejudice. High-status whites of North European descent have, on average, straighter hair than African-Americans or Mediterraneans who have historically had lower social status here, so straight hair becomes a marker of social dominance. As with light hair and youth, this can become detached from its biological origins to the point where even moderately-straight-haired whites want straighter hair. (There's also a pure element of fashion, since curls and waves have been in at various times. Remember the Star-Bellied Sneetches.)

Not sure about Japan, though it's possible that something similar is going on, with ultra-straight hair as a marker of high-status ethnicity that then takes on a life of its own.

Posted by: Matt McIrvin | Sep 18, 2005 1:02:15 PM

...And I don't think there's any need to identify an evolutionary preference for straighter hair, since I don't think there is one: the curly or kinky hair that prevails in some parts of the world may well have itself evolved through sexual selection. (Same for light-colored hair, actually. If the preference is really so universal, would anyone have black hair by now? Maybe, if it were correlated with survival traits like skin melanin in sunny places, but I think the question is worth asking.)

Posted by: Matt McIrvin | Sep 18, 2005 1:08:14 PM

Actually, long, straight hair is associated with youth in the sense that it's generally unflattering on most people over thirty-- it's a very unforgiving style. It drags the face down, doesn't provide any camouflage for puffy eyes or not-quite-symmetrical features, etc.

As luck would have it, I had straight, fine hair in the big, frizzy eighties, although as I've gotten older my hair has gotten wavier, which is more flattering, if not fashionable. Luckily, being a redhead hasn't been a detriment in my adolescence or adulthood, although it, combined with an assertive manner, used to make for some really annoying pickup attempts .

Posted by: latts | Sep 18, 2005 1:23:09 PM

I also seem to feel that many ugly-duckling-turned-swan type movies have a heroine with curly hair that becomes sleek and straight once she finally becomes pretty and desirable. Or I could just be thinking of the Princess Diaries. But I'm sure there are more.

Posted by: susan | Sep 18, 2005 2:13:58 PM

it's not a racial thing....we always want what we don't have. and i wish i had curly hair!

Posted by: f-i-n | Sep 18, 2005 2:51:43 PM

I naturally vary from straight-haired to curly, though I increasingly have to work for my straight hair. Not all fashion and beauty is done for the benefit of men, for one thing. You could call it a tertiary sexual trait, or an indirect sexual trait--there's probably already a good name for it, I'll have to ask--behavior or traits you use to send signals to other members of the same gender. I think Susan hit on it--straight hair comes across as neater, and more elegant. The transformation in Princess Diaries (which I haven't seen, but I tried to gather something from the sequel which I watched half asleep on a plane once) is from scattered and uncapable to competetent and elegant. When I'm just going out to have a good time, I let the natural curls bounce in or even add them. If I were to go for an interview at Goldman&Sachs or something equally ludicrous, I'd blowdry it straight. In fact, it's possibly the fact that other people know straight hair takes time that it's a bit of a status symbol. Look at me, I'm so together and organized I have time to carefully blowdry and iron my hair in the morning. I'm actually convinced that's the point of a lot of fashionable beauty. Luckily I don't go for interviews at Goldman and Sachs much, or else I'd have to kowtow to it more.

Posted by: Saheli | Sep 18, 2005 3:10:46 PM

It is a combination of fashion and boredom. I was looking at the haircare products aisle recently and realized that there were no home perm kits. There used to be a whole section of them. Now there were a wide variety of anti-frizz conditioners. Women want to change their hair periodically. The fashionistas want to stand out from the hoi polloi but then the riff-raff figure out how to achieve the look (and the products are available at CVS, not just fancy salons).

I got my hair cut recently and the stylist then flattened it with an iron. It was a really freaky sensation, it didn't feel like my hair at all. It is a very expensive and high maintenance look. When I see someone with it, I figure it is more about showing off wealth than any inherent attractiveness.

Posted by: Violet Strange | Sep 18, 2005 3:37:11 PM

I would think that older people in Iceland would look more youthful because they would be less likely to have the sort of sun damage common in American tan-worshippers.

Posted by: Amber Taylor | Sep 18, 2005 4:02:03 PM

Frankly, I think it's a matter of convenience. I've had both straight and curly hair (gah! bad 80s perms!), and my hair tends toward a combination - straight in the front, curly in the back. I often found that the curly part of my hair, and all of it when it was permed, would trend towards dreadlocking, knotting, etc., which resulted in me spending an hour in the morning brushing it out when getting ready.

Of course, now I keep it boy-short, so none of this is a problem anymore, but if I were to grow it out again, I would totally go for the hair straightening - part of the reason I cut it was that I just didn't have the time, now that I have a job, to get up an extra hour early in the morning just to de-knot my hair.

Posted by: sam | Sep 18, 2005 5:38:45 PM

I believe the wish for straight hair has to do with neatness, or a kind of polished, manicured look. It's sleek, as Susan said. Curly hair is seen as wilder, more unmanageable. It's harder to look really pulled-together with curly hair. Or at least that's what a curly-haired Jewish friend of mine says when expressing a desire for hair like mine.

Posted by: ac | Sep 18, 2005 6:29:22 PM

Light hair suggests youth to Europeans, because many European children start out blond and their hair darkens as they get older.
But my Chinese colleagues were suprised that my daughter is blonde, when neither of her parents are. Where they are from, the children's hair is just as dark as that of their parents. So the symbolism is culture-specific.

Posted by: Joe Buck | Sep 18, 2005 7:01:12 PM

I think it's just a master principle of Japanese culture to completely articulate the space of possible cultural obsessions.

Posted by: spacetoast | Sep 18, 2005 7:09:21 PM

"...to completely articulate the space of possible cultural obsessions."

Glass love seems a likely Bukkake reference.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Sep 18, 2005 7:18:35 PM

The general social trend toward preference for ever-straighter hair is somewhat mysterious. The superficially similar preference for lighter hair has a straightforward evolutionary explanation -- light hair suggests youth...But straight hair is about . . . what?

Surely straight hair is about...nothing, except current fasion. I'd give the current preference for ultra-straight hair another 2 years, tops. In fact, my guess is among those-in-the-know, it's probably already out of fashion. I cast my vote for a WWII era wave/curl for women, preferably combined with a new vogue for red/auburn hair coloring.

Posted by: PB Almeida | Sep 18, 2005 8:42:37 PM

cast my vote for a WWII era wave/curl for women

Alameida, doesn't that itself require smooth straight hair first? I was under the impression those waves and curls were added, not natural.

Posted by: Saheli | Sep 18, 2005 8:54:41 PM

Alameida, doesn't that itself require smooth straight hair first? I was under the impression those waves and curls were added, not natural.

No doubt the waves and curls largely weren't natural. I'm just sick of that severe Jennifer Anniston look.

Posted by: PB Almeida | Sep 18, 2005 8:59:23 PM

I am sure that there are plenty of people who do it just for the hell of it, but for a sizable minority it clearly (whether they admit it or not) has to do with downplaying the traits ascribed to their tribes. It is also something that one can do from a relatively young age and that does not require a big bag of cash at once, as is the case for straightening things like noses. Then again, I am sure that it does add up to thousands of dollars extra in hair products spending over a life time for the people who are religious about it.

Posted by: Nonna | Sep 18, 2005 9:42:19 PM

Since when are Jews the only ones who have "not-so-straight" hair, Dr. Mengele?

Posted by: Marc | Sep 18, 2005 9:47:22 PM

Actually, bob, it's nothing so quotidian as that, or even obviously porn. Maybe. It is definitely weird fetishy Japanese cultural detritus though.

Posted by: spacetoast | Sep 18, 2005 9:56:58 PM

I'm just sick of that severe Jennifer Anniston look.

Ah, I agree, despite the fact that I often wind up there by mistake. If we no longer care about minimizing labor-intensity, I agree, you can't really beat Katherin Hepburn hair.

Posted by: Saheli | Sep 18, 2005 10:16:51 PM

The superficially similar preference for lighter hair has a straightforward evolutionary explanation -- light hair suggests youth.

I don't see why we need to propose an evolutionary explanation for something which can be quite easily explained by cultural factors. If light hair were evolutionarily advantageous, we would expect to see an increase in the incidence of light hair over time, which I don't think is the case. Certainly dark hair is much more common across human populations than light hair, suggesting that the evolutionary explanation doesn't actually explain much. To the degree that the incidence of light hair among certain populations (e.g. scandinavians) has an evolutionary basis, it seems more likely to be the result of founder effect and other non-fitness related processes than to any advantage it confers in appearing youthful. After all, traits which do not become useful until after an individual is past prime reproductive age have little bearing on fitness.

Posted by: Larv | Sep 18, 2005 11:05:17 PM

Speaking as someone with naturally very curly hair who has been getting the Japanese straightening treatment done for over 2 years now, straight hair is so much more fun than curly hair. If you have curly hair, you can kind of vary the length although too long or too short is out of the question, and you can sort of change the layers around, but basically, you just have to cut it to minimize volume and have the right shape. Straight hair can be almost any length, you can add crazy layers and shape it more easily. It's possibly to make straight hair curly or wavy, whereas curly hair can only be curly or, with a lot of effort, straight.

I have bangs now, and I could never have had them with curly hair. Thank you Japanese straightenting treatment!!

Posted by: Julie | Sep 19, 2005 2:52:54 AM

Nonna, this kind of knee jerk reaction is why so many people think that Jews are hypersensitive. *I* think that most Jews are hypersensitive, and it detracts from the ability to address real concerns.

There is a greater percentage of redheads among people of Celtic descent than among the general population. There is a greater percentage of wavy or curly hair among Jews than among the general Caucasion population. There is a greater percentage of women who have facial hair issues among those of Mediterranean origin than among the general population.

No one is building camps here, for crying out loud.

Posted by: Lisa | Sep 19, 2005 11:14:50 AM

My apologies, nonna. I thought the attributions were above the comments, rather than below them. My comment was directed at Marc, rather than at you.

Posted by: Lisa | Sep 19, 2005 11:19:16 AM

And the thread starts out with race and class...

Rot. What about comfort and ease of care?

I’ve got wavy thick hair that just doesn't look good on me long or naturally thick, class and race aside. When it gets "older" after a cut, it thickens and becomes increasingly unmanageable and, more importantly, damned uncomfortable be it summer or winter. I get it cut, not because it gets too long for social or professional standards, but because it gets too thick & uncomfy. When long hair was in fashion, I still had to keep it short. If there was a way to get it to stay thin but could let me grow it longer, I’d give it a try. I say it’s great for people who have a salon option to wear their hair how they like it.

Posted by: Bill | Sep 19, 2005 6:32:46 PM

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