New Zealand’s hair and beauty industry is worth a cool $1 billion, while in the US, the male hair industry alone raises $1.45 billion. But all that pales into insignificance when compared with the staggering $80,000 women will hand over for haircare in their lifetime.
Humans have been obsessed with all things hirsute for millennia. For men it characterizes masculinity, while for women luxurious locks represent the peak of femininity. Some aspects of religions such as Islam, Sikhism and Judaism encourage men to don facial hair, and one of the bible’s most famous fables concerns Samson, a legendary Israelite warrior whose strength was obliterated when his lover, Delilah, had his locks chopped off while he slept. According to the book of Corinthians, a woman’s abundant hair “is a glory to her”.
But why do we even have so much of it, or not, depending on your perspective? As always, Verve has the answers. Read on to find out, along with some more, er, hair raising facts….
The Evolution of our Hair, or Lack of It
Humans are the only primate that lacks any real bodily hair of note. In fact, you need to go a long way (like the ocean) to find other large mammals with such a dearth of fur. According to Charles Darwin in The Descent of Man: “No one supposes that the nakedness of the body skin is any direct advantage to man; his body, therefore, cannot have been divested of hair through natural selection.” The scientist proposed shedding our fluff was down to sexual selection, but that’s unlikely the end of it. Our hominin ancestors were most certainly covered in hair, but as they moved from the shade of the forest to the searing savannahs it became burdensome. Not only would the excess hair-trapped heat have impaired physical hunting abilities, but mental agility too—an overheated brain doesn’t think so well. Now, humans aren’t just the most hairless of all apes, but the sweatiest too, producing up to 12 litres a day, thanks to some finely tuned sweat glands.
The Science Behind Curls
While some may blame (or thank) everything from products to their predecessors to humidity to their hairdresser for their kinks and curls, those waves are actually down to cellular makeup. As recently as this year, scientists were still unable to come to any concrete conclusion as to the causation of curls—and it was New Zealand merino sheep that helped solve the mystery. Hair is mainly made of the protective protein keratin (also found in our skin and nails) that comprises two cell types: paracortical cells of parallel keratin fibres; and the longer orthocortical cells of twisted keratin fibres. With human hair too course to analyse its cell structure, researchers for cosmetics company Kao Corporation and AgResearch studied the structurally-similar but finer merino wool and discovered that the curls were caused by the alignment of the cells, with the longer orthocortical cells forming the outside of the strand, and the shorter paracortical ones squeezed inside. The findings could help with the development of hair products to tame, or encourage, those curls.
Hair & Identity
Hair can be used to demonstrate everything from religion—think some Orthodox Jewish men and their peyot (those lustrous, spiralling sideburns)—to gang affiliation—think Teddy boys and their monstrous quiffs—but at its most rudimentary can serve as an indication of sex, and has done since at least the time of Ancient Greece. According to Kurt Stenn, author of Hair: A Human History, our hair is “highly communicative” and, at a glance, can impart “messages of health, sexuality, religiosity, power”. Lori Tharps, co-author of Hair Story about the history of black hair, tells the BBC that in early African cultures hairstyles were used to indicate “everything about a person’s identity”. Later, the afro hair style represented rebellion during the civil rights movements of the 1960s, and though dreadlocks are closely associated with black culture there are references to them in the Old Testament and Hindu imagery, while anthropologists have also found evidence of the style in cultures as varied as the Vikings, Pacific Islanders and Australian Aborigines.
Diet & Criminal Haircuts
Hair author Kurt Stenn, also a former professor of pathology and dermatology at Yale University, tells Time that long hair is historically an indicator of healthiness, with its owner having had to “eat well, have no diseases, no infectious organisms” and benefited from “good rest and exercise”. Trichologist Jane Davies tells the Daily Mail how hair can serve as a marker for our health, with thinning or brittleness a sign of stress or poor diet, while excess shedding may indicate iron deficiency. Hair can also serve as a marker for the ingestion of illegal substances, with drugs making their way, then binding to, follicles via the bloodstream. It takes around week for most drugs to reach the surface of the scalp with strands of hair then able to be analysed by technicians. Hair microscopy concerns the forensic examination of hair samples using a microscope to place someone at a crime scene—an older, cheaper and less reliable technique than DNA testing.
Words: Jamie Christian Desplaces