NPR News & Classical Music
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations
David Bouchier: A Few Well Chosen Words

David Bouchier: A Simple Haircut

haircut_pexelsfancycrave.com_180716.jpg
Courtesy of fancycrave.com via Pexels
/

Last week I had a haircut, not at my usual Long Island barbershop but at a ladies’ hairdressing salon in the French village where we were staying. The reasons are too complicated to explain, take my word for it, but the young proprietor Muriel had agreed to give me a high-speed low-cost trim between her more conventional clients. The other customers were all ladies, their heads covered in lather and exotic chemicals, who naturally disapproved of my intrusion into this temple of beauty. Fortunately, due to the strong local accent, I had no idea what they might be saying.          

Nothing is more mundane, ordinary, and boring than a man’s haircut, and yet nothing is more charged with symbolism. The accidental fuzz that evolution left on top of our heads, perhaps to keep our brains warm, has acquired more meanings over the years than any other aspect of the male anatomy, except perhaps height. 

Marines have shaved heads to symbolize masculinity and toughness, prisoners to symbolize submission and weakness. Religions have many rules about hair. Sikhs don’t cut theirs at all. Pious Jews may wear long sideburns. Muslim men grow their facial hair. Monks traditionally wore their hair in a tonsure, bald with a fringe all around. God cares about hair. 

A long time ago, after two years of service in the army wearing the regulation military buzz cut, which resembled a hedgehog run over by a lawn mower, I let my hair grow thick and luxuriant, as was the fashion in the sixties, and took myself to a men’s hairdressing salon in London to have it “styled.” This was not a success. Friends passed me by in the street, and even my dog refused to recognize me. Style, as it turned out, was a huge embarrassment, and ever since then I have favored some version of the old-fashioned Victorian short back and sides, which is not a style at all but a kind of rough pruning.

Peculiar haircuts are appropriate for young men who are trying to attract attention or to make a point: I’m cool, I’m a punk, I’m artistic, and so on. But an exotic hair style on an adult male suggests that the he is paying too much attention to outward appearances, or perhaps simply that he has no mirror in the bathroom. The eighteenth century was a golden age of male vanity, when real hair was reduced to stubble and men paraded around in elaborate hairpieces. Nobody was allowed to be more conspicuous than the king, who had the biggest and strangest wig of all. Later it became the convention for clowns and comedians to wear funny hair, so that audiences would have something to laugh at even if the jokes weren’t funny. This habit has been copied by some politicians who ought to have been comedians but have missed their vocation, like Boris Johnson in Britain and that fellow in North Korea. It’s all a bit strange, but it makes the point that hair can send a message: it speaks to us.

Muriel the French hairdresser kept her promise not to spray me with perfume or color, zipped an electric trimmer briskly over my head, and sent me out into the street looking exactly like everybody else. A short back and sides is the only hair statement that says nothing at all.

Copyright: David Bouchier