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New York Folklore Vol. 12. Nos. 3-4, 1986
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NEW YORK FOLKLORE
Vol. 12, Nos. 3-4, 1986

“Your Hair is Your Glory”: Public and Private Symbology of Long Hair
for Pentecostal Women
by Elaine J. Lawless

It seems fairly remarkable to state that in 1986 strictly religious Pentecostal women in southern Indiana are not allowed to ever cut their hair and upon their maturity must bind it tightly on top of their head. Remarkable, because religious symbolism associated with head hair conjures up notions of primitive magical and ritual prescriptions for bodily excretions and symbology associated with body parts that continue to grow, such as nails and hair (Douglas 1966). What does it mean that a Pentecostal woman in this century in mid-south America must allow her hair to grow unrestrained, while at the same time she must bind it carefully on her head? Examining this religious symbol in several of its various manipulations can help us to understand how symbols operate in both social and cultural ways and allow us to evaluate how symbols can function on public and personal levels at the same time. This essay will focus on long, uncut hair on Pentecostal women as both sign and symbol, examining the communicating function of long hair as a sign which demarcates cultural boundaries as well as the meaning of the symbol for the religious group and for individual members of the group. As part of a larger set of symbols that denote ‘holiness,’ the symbology of long hair can be shown to extend far beyond what the other dress codes for Pentecostals signify (see Lawless 1983a). The Pentecostal female body has come to represent sexuality and the temptations of the world; since much of the Pentecostal focus centers on avoidance of these “worldly” vices, it makes sense that the restrictions focus on the covering of that representation.

Religious symbology for long, uncut hair can be compared to secular notions of unrestrained hair, although the symbolic meaning of cut or uncut hair may differ radically (cf. Corson 1965; de Courtais 1973). The history of women’s hair fashion in this country illustrates the potential head hair has for sending public messages. After centuries of wearing their hair long but concealed, women in the 20th century made a public statement about their new-found freedom by bobbing their hair. Breaking with such a long-standing tradition was no easy step for women in the 1920s; the power of this symbolic act was directly related to the weight of the tradition. The short, mannish cuts of the time pointed to the emergence of a woman determined to be the equal of the man and signified her refusal to allow herself to be regarded merely as a sexual object or her husband’s possession. Her cut hair, however, did not signify a loss of sexuality; rather, her shorn locks offered a daring, new sexual being for all the world to view....


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