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
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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