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Body Hair As a Political Statement

Story Filed: Monday, January 13, 2003 7:07 PM EST

Nairobi, Jan 13, 2003 (The Nation/All Africa Global Media via COMTEX) -- One of the most colourful aspects of the recent elections was the story of Narc MP for Subukia, Koigi wa Wamwere's gory dreadlocks.

They were a symbol of his enduring defiance of the Moi regime, and his determination to stick to his guns, metaphorically speaking, I hope.

This raised a good deal of debate and controversy about respectability and appearance, the general consensus being that dreadlocks would be out-of-place in the Ninth Parliament. He vowed, idealistically, in his very public ritualised act of shearing, that his act was a sign that "we are entering a new era. An era of freedom of expression."

Though a member of the winning party, he felt that he owed allegiance only to "quality, the Constitution, good laws, justice and freedom."

In truth, the shorn Mr Wamwere now resembles any old man on the Nairobi metrobus rather than a wild, eccentric Marley look-alike.

Here is the key question: will this independent spirit bow to the will of others or go on asserting his individuality? Most people are tamed by the process which leads to a parliamentary seat, or worse. Remember Orwell's "Power corrupts - absolute power corrupts absolutely"?

As other commentators have pointed out, hair has been a political statement for a long time. From Samson to Lucky Dube, people have used it to define themselves and their position in society.

But what has been puzzling me more and more is its relationship to the erotic; devout Muslim women are made to cover their heads and often their whole bodies, whilst Orthodox Jewish women must wear wigs. In both cases, only the husband and closest family have the right to see the woman's hair.

Fierce arguments have raged in countries with large Muslim minorities like France as to whether the hijab belongs to the category of free expression, or constitutes a limitation. In other words, is the woman being imprisoned or liberated by the scarf?

What is so compelling about hair? One reason is that it exists literally on the fringes of the public and private. In some societies, only hair on the head should show. Bodily hair is felt to be disgusting and not feminine - which is why so many hair removal creams and shaving devices exist, and women go to their beauticians to have the offending bits torn off by wax.

In societies which haven't adopted Western restrictions, lush underarm growth and its accompanying smells are considered appealing. In traditional societies, pubic hair is particularly significant. Being the most private of all, it is shaven to mark the departure of the spouse in parts of Zambia, or knitted together by some Kikuyu, I understand, in order to ensure that the woman stays faithful.

For men, vigorous hair growth suggests virility and sexual potency; by cutting his hair Delilah was castrating Samson, rendering him powerless and vulnerable.

In Europe, men are balding earlier and earlier, and turning to desperate remedies because they feel it ages them. All those toxins in the air and food they eat must be having an effect. Could there be some links between early hair loss, lowered sperm count and falling population numbers in those countries?

Some white men take control of the matter by opting to shave their heads completely because it makes them appear bolder and more aggressive.

Among black people, it has not had that connotation: shaven black women can look beautiful sporting differently shaped and very feminine heads. But women have had their heads shaved as punishment, too. Those suspected of collaborating with Nazis in wartime France had their hair removed and were paraded in public.

The young women featured on the MTV non-stop hits all have long hair which they use almost as a fifth limb, swirling it about in front of the camera. It might succeed in making them look wild were it not for the fact that they all look exactly the same, with long blonde straight hair and bland featureless faces. Madonna still stands out as a true original, not only because of her appearance, but because of the intelligence she shows in numbers like Papa Don't Preach.

An important part of the colonisation process dealt with appearance, and encouraged imitation. The "pili-pili" hair of the native African was to be replaced with the "Nuele ya Singa" of the white. Thus women felt they must straighten their hair and crop it or wear long braids. This was the equivalent to the face-lightening creams which are still being used even though they are highly toxic.

Facial hair draws a strict dividing line between male and female: the wicked surrealist artist Salvador Dali painted a moustache and beard on the great icon of classical art, Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa. It was funny and very meaningful; facial hair is never tolerated on women. Annoyingly, it increases as you get older. Male bodily hair is greatly admired by some peoples - on the chest, legs, and even on the backs of hands.

It's not just the style of the hair but its colour which have meaning: punk rockers made a splash when they first appeared in the 1980s because they chose the most violent, fake colours of all - green, purple, yellow. They teased their hair into huge spikes which stood erect rather like the quills of the porcupine. They were angry and hostile to the mores of the society and they needed to show it.

Hair colour has been manipulated in many ways: in the 1950s and 1960s, a whole rash of Hollywood stars appeared with dyed, platinum blonde hair: Diana Dors, Sabrina, and of course, Marilyn Monroe. They affected a kind of innocence which gave them the title of "dumb blondes."

After Monroe's early death, there was a change in cultural attitudes, and an academic subject, "cultural studies," appeared which, closely allied to gender studies, began to look critically at popular culture and images. Monroe began to be seen as a very gifted artist whose projection of herself as innocent was extremely skilful.

Do "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes"? If you look at Monroe or Princess Di as teenagers, you'll see that neither was outstandingly beautiful. Having someone work on their hair, lightening it as much as possible and changing their image totally was what made the difference. Mrs Margaret Thatcher's 'coif', was also transformed by PR experts into a permanent, sticky brown bird's nest.

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