Ruth Bass: Culturally and politically, the hair on your head packs power


RICHMOND — Hair may not seem like a global issue, but it is and probably always has been, its importance indicated a while ago when it even became the title of a radical musical that set the world on its end.

But smaller worlds have also been turned upside down by hair, as we observe our great-grandfathers with all sorts of facial hair, our clean-shaven grandparents and, now, the return of beards, mustaches and various arrangements that look far too complicated to maintain during the morning ablutions.

Hair streams down the backs of young women from high school through college and beyond these days. It's like a uniform, easily snapped into control, when necessary, with scrunchies and clips and what we once called barrettes. Aside from the long minutes spent drying those tresses, it's easy compared to the post World War II obsession with the perfect page boy.

Bigots and bullies see hair as a target — at least if it's a style unfamiliar to them. So, they label people with dreadlocks, side curls, mohawks and, sometimes, shaved heads. Too often, nice people who are neither bullies nor bigots look askance at someone who's hair stands out from what they consider the norm.

It happened in our family. Our son was the first in his fifth-grade class to want long hair — no clippers up the side of his face, no military style butch cut. It wasn't long before everyone in the class had long hair, not so much that he was a leader as that the time had come. But his decision didn't sit well with his grandfather, who disliked the look and bluntly asked the boy why he wasn't getting his hair cut. We kept silent, and the boy politely defended his locks.

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Weeks later, in our house instead of the grandparents', Grandpa brought it up again. Uh-uh, I said, politely pointing out that hair was not an issue at this house, nor a subject for discussion.

Parents have to choose their battles, and if photo albums and Christmas cards are any indication, few of them bother to argue about hair, or fail to persuade. The parade of styles over the years provides its own history. All of this made it quite alarming when, shortly before Christmas, a referee at a wrestling match in New Jersey threatened a 16-year-old because of his hair. It seems the kid had dreadlocks, the referee took offense, and the young athlete was told he could not wrestle unless he cut his hair. Not surprisingly, the kid took one for the team, and the scissors took their toll.

It makes my stomach wriggle a little at the very thought (shown on television with a cellphone video) of a teen-aged boy standing in a gym while a trainer plied the scissors and chopped off his hair. Talk about embarrassment, mortification, invasion of privacy, self-esteem damage. If the referee, Alan Maloney, had the power to order the cut, he should have had the decency, the sensitivity, to do it in the locker room, not in the midst of what was described as "a crowded gymnasium."

Wrestling has rules about hair length, and this boy had satisfied other referees with his head cover and head gear. In addition, the referee reportedly was late to the match and missed weigh-in, which is when questions like this are usually aired. The superintendent of schools in Buena, N.J., said his high school would no longer compete in matches refereed by Alan Maloney.

By the way, the kid won his match. The trainer with the shears was no Delilah.

Ruth Bass's grandfather had a mustache cup that kept his upper lip dry. Her website is


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