Today, in an aggressively secular world, Rapunzel-length hair is often a signifier of wealth, excess, and reality-TV stardom. But for millennia, long hair has held religious power and served as an important link to the spiritual realm. That power is unabated.
In one example of many, you can trace the idea back to the Nazarites of the Old Testament — to Samson and the scissor-happy seductress Delilah. “Samson letting his hair grow was an oath to God. The deal was: As long as you don’t cut it, you’ll be powerful,” says Frank Korom, a professor of anthropology and religion at Boston University. “When Delilah had his hair cut off, she severed that oath, which made him weak and vulnerable. Hair is so often about power.” Even today, ancient parables like this still resonate. “In the case of Samson, the hero’s long hair connotes a cultural notion about manhood and endows him with a kind of holiness,” says Susan Niditch, a religion professor at Amherst College. It pleased his god.
Of course, not everyone’s god is the same, and spirituality is a broad spectrum. Ancient Greek deities are often depicted with long, flowing hair as a sign of power and divinity (picture Zeus, Venus, and Apollo). In the Rastafarian faith, long locs are meant to mirror the mane of their leader — the lion — as physical proof of their devotion. For Hindus and Buddhists, long hair can represent beauty and (perhaps dangerous) sexuality — and cutting or shaving it off is surrendering worldly gifts to fully concentrate on the eternal. Some evangelical Christian women rely on a long sheath of hair to cover their heads in humility, and the Amish believe that the Bible instructs women to grow their hair long and married men to let their beards grow as a way of rising above secular fashion. Sensing a pattern? “Hair is a common means of cultural expression because it offers such an easy way for people to advertise their identity and make a statement,” says Niditch. “We may not all wear the same clothes, but we all have hair. Uncut hair can suggest an embodied immersion into nature, which is so often intertwined with concepts of spirituality.”
McDonald is a 29-year-old singer-songwriter from St. Andrew, Jamaica. She grew up with Rastafarian parents and decided to grow her hair in long locs when she was a child in accordance with Rastafarian tradition.
I believe that Rastafari is a very personal journey. We definitely use the Bible as a reference to how we live, and the things we believe, and our history. But in many ways, Rastafari is self-discovery through sacramental herbs, the books we read, the way that we deal with each other, even the way that we grow our locs. With Rasta, there’s an idea of staying natural. We maintain an all-natural diet and try to keep the things that we put on our body, down to the shampoo that we use, as close to nature as possible. Part of that natural approach includes not cutting our hair. For Jamaican people, as with people of African heritage, when we stop cutting our hair it naturally forms into locs.
My parents never forced me or any of my siblings to grow locs; it was always our decision. I was actually maybe the last one in my family to do it — I think I was about 9 or 10 years old. At the time, as much as I was growing to understand the world around me, I still think that I didn’t understand it fully. Growing locs, for me, was more about identifying with my family. I felt like that was really important. I remember at the time, Rasta wasn’t something that was very accepted in Jamaica. There are many boundaries and many stereotypes that we had to face every day. We were almost seen as outcasts, and for me, growing my locs was a way of identifying with my family and my beliefs.
Anybody who grows locs and is somewhat aware will tell you that there is a whole other dimension to growing locs separate from just the physical representation of it. I believe that locs are an extension of our energy. As someone who has studied a little bit about the chakra system, the spirit is very connected to what’s happening in the physical. So for me, locs are almost an extension of my crown chakra energy. They act as antennas, you know? My hair helps me to discern the intentions of people, actually. It might sound crazy, but it’s something that I really do believe. I respect it because it has encouraged a level of awareness in me in many ways.
I also feel a need to protect the energy, so sometimes I wrap my hair. Especially going into public spaces, I think that my locs make me more sensitive to energies, so sometimes when I know that I’m gonna be around a lot of energy, around a lot of people, I’ll wrap it just as a form of protection.
Jessie Kaur Lehail
Kaur Lehail cofounded the Kaur Project, a storytelling site about the varied experiences of modern Sikh women like her. She lives in Vancouver. Right now she cuts her hair but will stop if she decides to take the Amrit ceremony of initiation.
South Asian women have a very interesting relationship with hair. Within our culture, it’s the ultimate identifier of beauty: Globally, our hair is sought after for wigs. (Read: “The Cost of Sourcing Real Hair Extensions Around the World.”)Extensions are usually made from Indian hair, that black, beautiful hair. I think my parents tried to instill in me that having long hair was beautiful.
We’re Sikh, and keeping your hair long is also part of five specific principles that are connected to the religion. It’s very important for people who have undergone Amrit, which is a ceremony of initiation and marks a deeper commitment to Sikhism. When you are going through that process, you are asked to abide by these rules by not cutting your hair, not eating meat, not drinking, and being a good human. When people are in need, it is your responsibility to help. In taking Amrit, you are taking an oath to align yourself with that way of life. You essentially become a role model for the religion.
Both my parents, now that they have taken Amrit, they don’t cut their hair. But they haven’t said, “You need to do this in your life.” Their mind-set is: Live your life, and when you feel ready to take those steps and that responsibility, then you make that choice. They didn’t take those steps until they were 50 years old. They decided at a later stage in life to embark on that journey together.
I was born and raised in a small town about three and a half hours from Vancouver. There wasn’t an acceptance of other ethnicities. When I was eight years old, girls tried to light my almost-waist-length hair on fire. My cousin and I had come back from our gurdwara, our religious temple, on a Sunday afternoon. She happened to be wearing her Indian outfit called a salwaar kameez, a long tunic over a pair of baggy trousers. We were playing on the school playground, next to my house. These girls came after us, running with lighters. We came home running, crying that these girls were trying to burn our hair. It was a way for them to scare us, control us, and it was overt racism.
Hair, and outward beauty, is a constant conversation that Sikh women are having, just like mainstream women are. Whether you have long hair or short hair, whether it’s under a turban or you wear a head scarf, a lot of women feel like they’re not good enough or there’s something wrong with them. There are some that are obviously joyful and happy with their choices, but so many are in that gray zone of not knowing where exactly they fit in.
I want Sikh women to have a space to talk about whatever they want to talk about: hair, religion, all the other conversations. I want them to feel safe and secure. The word “Sikh” means student. So I think I’m a student still.
Oakes is 38-year-old designer, activist, and high school volleyball and swim coach who wears her hair down to her waist as a means of connecting with the Mohawk tribe in which she was raised. Oakes grew up on the Akwesasne Mohawk Territory on the border of New York State and Canada and now lives in New York City.
My hair is a way for me to identify myself. People say, “Oh, what are you, Indian?” It’s a cliché. “Oh, you have long hair?” It’s like, yeah! I’m Mohawk. I’m not Indian; I’m not from India. I’m indigenous. A lot of our culture has been stripped away from us in the recent past. My hair is a way of me being proud of who I am.
Long hair is our tradition, our way of life. It’s beautiful. It adds strength to our spirit. A large part of our existence is resistance; the fact that we’re still even here means that we survived a lot. We’re not supposed to be here. For many years, Canada’s Indian Residential School system basically tried to strip native children of their identity and culture. The first thing they did in these residential schools is they chopped the kids’ hair off, and then they would burn it in front of them. They would tell the kids that it’s wrong and shame them. Now long hair is a representation of strength and pride in being indigenous. Which is something that we have been conditioned to not be proud of by society.
For us, long hair is kind of like our receptors. We are the roots of this land, so these are our receptors that are connecting us with the land. It’s an old saying: The longer your hair, the closer connection you have to the earth. That keeps me really grounded. I feel like it just gives me strength. When I play sports, I will tie my hair up, and I’ll put it in a braid. And then I feel balanced — almost like an animal with its tail.
Mohawk tradition says you should cut your hair when somebody passes away. But I feel like my hair has a story. So I don’t cut [it] when people pass. I keep my hair — that’s a part of me. It’s not physically another limb, but it’s beautiful. My body made it. Why would I cut my hair?