Hair and Philippine culture (1)
“What happened to your hair?”
For the first time in months, I was visiting my long-time barber, Roger Rivera. A fellow mountaineer, Mr. Roger has been my barber since I was a graduate student, and whenever I would go back from long trips, he would immediately spot changes in my hair as surely he did when I arrived at Jing Monis Salon a few weeks ago, wearing a face mask.
Sheepishly, I admitted that I tried to cut my own hair, and while it seemed to have worked for my Viber friends and Zoom colleagues, Mr. Roger was not impressed.
“I tried to have a haircut once, but when the barber found out I was a doctor, he backed out,” I explained.
More than most, he knew what was going on: People felt compelled to do something about their hair during the lockdown. He recounted how some clients had begged him to go to their homes, while others resorted to cutting their own hair or having their loved ones do it.
Since June 7, barbershops and salons have been allowed to operate in GCQ areas, but the threat of the coronavirus remains. Are people coming for haircuts?
“It’s not just about being seen by others; people also care about what they see in the mirror every day,” Mr. Roger replied. “Filipinos really love their hair.”
His observations remind me of the rich “hair culture” we have as Filipinos—by which I mean the multiple meanings and practices that have surrounded hair throughout the centuries.
In the first place, hair has always signified identity and beauty. The folklorist Damiana Eugenio (2001) notes that across the archipelago, the typical epic hero “wears his hair long, and this has to be oiled, combed, and tied into a knot before he goes out of a journey or a battle.” The historian William Henry Scott (1994) adds that in the Visayas, such was the value of long hair that the word alot — “closely-cropped hair” — was used as an insult.
As further signs of the meaningfulness of hair in the past, the act of cutting one’s hair was associated with mourning or punishment, and locks of hair served as intimate souvenirs. Moreover, for a man to touch a woman’s hair was, as Scott writes, a “terrible offense.”
Related to the above, hair was also linked with gender. The Spanish priests found the long hair of men “uncivilized”; by force or desire, many men would adopt European hairstyles over the longue durée of colonial rule. Hair, after all, also signaled conformity to social norms—as we still see today when Catholic schools continue to safeguard their “hair policies,” many of which reflect gender ideologies.
Of course, there’s always resistance to such rules—which is why, when Marcos tried to regulate men’s hair during martial law, long hair became a sign of resistance. Famously, Zamboanga mayor Cesar Climaco vowed not to cut his hair until the country was “free.” In fact, hair has always symbolized rebelliousness, from Jose Rizal depicting Elias as having long hair in the 1880s to Weedd asking “Anong pake mo sa long hair ko?” in the 1990s.
Hair has also interlocked with notions of race and racial identity. The Aetas, for instance, call themselves “kulot” and refer to non-Aetas as “unat”; unfortunately, hair texture was associated not just with difference but also discrimination here and in other parts of the world. Note how Jeremy Lin’s dreadlocks ruffled the “cultural appropriation” conundrum, leading commentators to point out that “black hair, like blackness itself, is inherently political.”
Finally, hair also signifies age and good health—in what could be a cultural universal. Given how people associate beauty with youthfulness, it is understandable that people would seek to preserve black and abundant hair, but these desires, in turn, dovetail into our attitudes toward aging.
All these meanings of hair continue to be engaged today, as when people judge if a hairstyle is “bagay” with one’s body and personality; when Vice President Leni Robredo’s hair flip becomes a meme; and when people rejoice over their “quarantine haircut.” The appeal of FaceApp, despite privacy issues, also partly lies in these multiple meanings, and how by altering one’s hair, one is able to imagine alternate identities.
Beyond virtually editing — and regularly cutting — our hair, we have been modifying it over the centuries in manifold ways. In my next column, I will discuss some of these practices, including those that involve facial and body hair.
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