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Rapunzel's Daughters: What Women's Hair Tells Us About Women's Lives

Rapunzel's Daughters: What Women's Hair Tells Us About Women's Lives

5.0 2
by Rose Weitz

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The first book to explore the role of hair in women's lives and what it reveals about their identities, intimate relationships, and work lives

Hair is one of the first things other people notice about us--and is one of the primary ways we declare our identity to others. Both in our personal relationships and in relationships with the larger world, hair


The first book to explore the role of hair in women's lives and what it reveals about their identities, intimate relationships, and work lives

Hair is one of the first things other people notice about us--and is one of the primary ways we declare our identity to others. Both in our personal relationships and in relationships with the larger world, hair sends an immediate signal that conveys messages about our gender, age, social class, and more.
In Rapunzel's Daughters, Rose Weitz first surveys the history of women's hair, from the covered hair of the Middle Ages to the two-foot-high, wildly ornamented styles of pre-Revolutionary France to the purple dyes worn by some modern teens. In the remainder of the book, Weitz, a prominent sociologist, explores--through interviews with dozens of girls and women across the country--what hair means today, both to young girls and to women; what part it plays in adolescent (and adult) struggles with identity; how it can create conflicts in the workplace; and how women face the changes in their hair that illness and aging can bring. Rapunzel's Daughters is a work of deep scholarship as well as an eye-opening and personal look at a surprisingly complex-and fascinating-subject.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"This book is a fascinating read of the ways in which women have changed their identities by changing their appearance. Through in-depth interviews, Rose Weitz explores the cultural statements that different women make through their choice of hairstyle, which is a creative way to approach questions of identity, adolescence, and aging, changing cultural norms about appearance, and power dynamics." —Rosanna Hertz, Chair, Women's Studies, Wellesley College

"We spend so much time obsessing about our hair—and so little time understanding why we do it! This great, clever and insightful book gives new insight into our cultural fetish. A fascinating read." —Pepper Schwartz, Professor, Department of Sociology, University of Washington

Publishers Weekly
This earnest roundup of anecdotes, interviews, statistics and remarks about hair and self-image among women in postwar America is engaging enough, but there's not much news here. Apart from a short historical survey at the beginning that includes a few suggestive facts, the only really informative part of this book is the chapter called "At the Salon" where we learn a good deal about the profession of hairdressing: who does it, what its economics are, how its distinctive caste system works. To be fair, information is not really Arizona State University sociologist Weitz's aim. Her main goal is to authorize a common feminine obsession with hair (her own included, of course) as a subject of serious discussion. It is also, worthily enough, to make the discussion more inclusive than other books like this often are. Weitz interviews many minority women, children, lesbians and older women, but her analysis of this rich material suffers from insufficient depth of cultural perspective. Weitz avers that hair is a uniquely powerful medium of self-presentation, but makes no attempt to distinguish between hair and dress, say, or between head and facial or body hair. Observing that the typical black hair salon functions not as a feminine preserve but as a community meeting place, she finds little large-scale significance in its public and private constructions of the activity of coiffing. Similarly, she alludes to different meanings attached to long hair, short hair or hairlessness mostly in terms of different individual experiences. The overall effect is diverting, well-intentioned light reading (including 16 pages of b&w photos) that doesn't quite fulfill the subtitle's promise. (Jan.) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
From long blond curls to involuntary baldness, Weitz (sociology, Arizona State Univ.) considers the role that hair plays in women's lives. She opens with a brief history of women's hair and then offers views from women she interviewed from various ethnic groups, ages, and life situations to learn what their hair means to them and how it affects their self-esteem and relationships. Weitz also considers the role hair plays in employment, citing several women who either changed their hair in anticipation of job interviews or said that their appearance was regularly critiqued on the job. Though Weitz sees no problem with women enjoying their hair and changing it as they please, she wants women to challenge society's expectations about women's beauty and calls for women to be valued for their skills and accomplishments rather than their appearance. This is a very readable but more academic treatment of hair than Diane Simon's Hair: Public, Private, Extremely Personal (2000). Recommended for academic libraries.-Debra Moore, Cerritos Coll., Norwalk, CA Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A sociologist looks at why hair matters so much and what our concerns about hair have to say about who we are, as well as who we hope to be. In researching her subject, Weitz (Sociology/Arizona State; ed., The Politics of Women's Bodies, not reviewed) held two focus groups with women over 50 and two with teens-one of heterosexuals, one of both lesbians and bisexuals-and she interviewed 74 girls and women varying in age, ethnicity, social class, religion, sexual orientation, and, of course, hair color and style. After an all-too-brief introductory chapter on the history of women's hair, she turns to these conversations to examine what they reveal about the role hair plays at various stages of life, from childhood to old age. With liberal use of quotes, she demonstrates how young girls are taught to value hair, how the media affect teenagers' ideas about appearance, and how they use their hairstyles to explore their identities and make statements about their desire to fit in or stand out from the crowd. Subsequent chapters explore how hair figures in women's intimate relationships, sometimes becoming a battleground for power struggles, and how women adopt certain styles to compete in the job market. Weitz also looks at the camaraderie provided by hair salons, where women develop warm relationships with their stylists and with other women. Women who have lost their hair through illness share their feelings about baldness, revealing the impact that hair loss often has on one's self-image and self-esteem. Similarly, women whose hair has faded to gray or is thinning out discuss how these changes of aging affect their perceptions of themselves and the different ways they cope or elect not tocope with them. Weitz acknowledges the pleasure hair gives girls and women, but she is deeply concerned about the cultural expectations about female appearance that lead to obsessions about hair. Her aim is to free girls and women from what she calls "the bonds of the beauty culture," and her final chapter, aptly titled "No More Bad Hair Days," offers some advice on achieving this goal. Not much new here-at least for female readers-but should provide women's-studies classes with points for discussion. (16 pp. b&w photos, not seen)

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Rapunzel's Daughters

What Women's Hair Tells Us About Women's Lives

By Rose Weitz

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 2004 Rose Weitz
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4299-3113-7


The History of Women's Hair

Across cultures and down the centuries, women's hairstyles have varied wildly, from the ankle-length false braids worn in twelfth-century England to the chin-length "bobs" of 1920s flappers. But in each time and place, ideas about women's hair reflected ideas about women's nature and about how women should live their lives.


To understand ideas about women's hair in contemporary America, we need to begin with the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle, whose ideas about women's bodies dominated "scientific" thought from the fourth century B.C. through the nineteenth century A.D. Aristotle believed that women were merely "misbegotten men," formed when embryos lacked sufficient "heat" to become male. Lack of heat, he believed, caused women to be smaller, frailer, and less intelligent than men, with emotional and moral weaknesses that endangered any men who came under their spell.

Pre-modern Christian theologians, undoubtedly familiar with Aristotle's philosophy, used a different logic to arrive at similar conclusions. They believed that Eve, and all women after her, were inherently more susceptible than men to the passions of the flesh and the Devil's seductions. As a result, women posed constant dangers to men's souls, having the power to tempt men as Eve had tempted Adam. Meanwhile, folktales told of mermaids and sirens, like the Lorelei, who enchanted and entrapped sailors by singing while combing their long tresses.

Each of these philosophies, theologies, and folktales blamed women for tempting men rather than blaming men for tempting women or for succumbing to women's temptations. Because of this and because women's hair was considered especially seductive, for many centuries both Jewish and Christian law required married women (and, in some times and places, single women) to veil their hair; all nuns — "brides of Christ" — were required to veil their hair until the 1960s.

It's a short leap from these beliefs to ancient — and modern — Western marriage customs. The ancient Greeks, Romans, and Jews always veiled brides before their weddings. During the ceremony the bride would be unveiled for her husband and the audience, then re-veiled by her husband, her hair never again to be seen by another man. These traditions were reflected in language. The Hebrew word for bride, kalah, derives from a word meaning "to cover," and the Latin word for "to marry" — nubere, the source of the English word "nuptials" — literally means to veil, as clouds (nubes) cover the sky. Following the same logic, by the time of Jesus, Jewish law permitted a man to divorce a woman by uncovering her hair. In addition, if a woman ever uncovered her own hair in public, the law took this as evidence of her infidelity and permitted her husband to divorce her without returning her dowry or paying her alimony. For centuries thereafter, Christian and Jewish married women throughout most of Europe wore their hair long, bound, and covered. Most Muslim cultures, which share some of their roots with Christianity and Judaism, still require women to wear veils outside the home. Conversely, those who oppose either traditional Islamic ideas about women's status or the cultural and political power of Islamic groups often oppose hair covering. For example, the fiercely secular Turkish government — which from the nation's founding has feared the rise of Islamic militants — prohibits female students and government employees from wearing head scarves or veils in public schools and government buildings.


In Europe, the requirement that women cover their hair gradually loosened during the Middle Ages, as ideas about fashion began overriding ideas about female modesty. For a brief period in the mid-twelfth century, young, wealthy, married Englishwomen wore their hair uncovered, ornamented with ribbons, and down to their knees or longer, using false additions if needed. Although this fashion soon passed, head covering never regained its former position as an absolute requirement for female propriety. During the sixteenth century, long hair, too, became optional. Because Queen Elizabeth I kept her naturally curly hair relatively short, well-off Englishwomen began to wear their hair cut above their shoulders and curled with the help of awkward and temperamental curling devices. From that point on, increasing numbers of Western women would choose their hairstyles not because of custom but because of fashion, changing their hairstyles as fashions changed. The concept of a "fashionable hairstyle" would spread from the upper classes to the working classes by the 1700s.

But why, given prevailing religious ideas, would men allow their wives and daughters to wear these fashions? The answer lies at least in part in the growing importance of capitalism and the declining significance of religion. If, in a religion-driven world, men gained status by having a wife who appeared modest, in a market-driven world men gained status by displaying an attractive wife. In the emerging capitalist societies, men could help cement their social status by demonstrating that their women enjoyed the time and money needed to maintain fashionable hairstyles, and by demonstrating the market value of their women's beauty (in the same way that wealthy men now sport thin, young "trophy wives" on their arms). At the extreme, women's hair, like women's dress, could be used to turn women into ornaments, incapable of working or even of caring for themselves. "Conspicuous consumption" was perhaps the point of these fashions. Like the crippled, bound feet of wealthy Chinese women, elaborate hairstyles could show the world that the women in a family needn't work.

This tendency reached its apex in western Europe between 1770 and 1790, when wealthy, fashionable women wore their hair in ornate, sculpted arrangements, sometimes including such amazing ornaments as two-foot-high ships and birdcages. Women spent hours having their hair arranged. First the hairdresser would create a framework on the woman's head, made of large pads of rolled wool and horsehair. Then the woman's own hair would be brushed over this framework, pomaded with lard or beef tallow, augmented with purchased human hair, curled, powdered, and woven with jewels, feathers, or ribbons. At night, maids would remove any ornaments, roll any ringlets or sidecurls, and secure the whole arrangement with netting. In the morning, they would unroll and arrange the curls, then pomade and powder the hair again. Once arranged, the hair would not be combed (let alone washed) for several weeks, making wooden head-scratchers a popular accessory. (Not until the twentieth century would even monthly hair washing become the norm.) These elaborate hairstyles were abandoned around the time of — and perhaps because of — the French Revolution.


In the new U.S. republic, meanwhile, ideas about women's hair divided along racial lines. American Indian women, black women, and white women faced very different expectations and constraints in making decisions about their hair.


Among American Indians before European conquest, each tribe had its own idea of how girls and women should wear their hair. Although numerous tribes expected women to wear their hair in the long braids that white Americans now associate with Indians, other tribes took pride in their own distinctive styles. Seminole girls and women created a smooth canopy of hair by brushing their long hair first toward and then straight out from their foreheads, then drawing it up, back, and under a hatbrim-shaped frame. Hopi women of marriageable age parted their hair in the middle and pulled it tightly into two ponytails, one above each ear. The first three inches of each ponytail were wrapped tightly with colored twine. The remaining hair was woven around a curved wooden stick, then twisted into a bun-like whorl.

As each tribe in turn was subdued by the U.S. Army — and then, to varying degrees, by U.S. culture — these tribal distinctions faded. Much of this process of cultural homogenization was accomplished by federally run boarding schools, which, from 1879 until the mid-twentieth century, most Indian children were forced to attend. Taken from their families as young as age four, unable to return for months or years at a time, and often housed with children from other tribes who had different languages and customs, these children were both physically and psychologically compelled to adopt the clothing and hairstyles of white Americans.

Those who established these boarding schools believed that Indians would only survive if they abandoned Indian culture, a philosophy summarized in the popular slogan "Kill the Indian to save the man [or woman]." From the 1880s on, one photograph after another of children arriving at boarding schools for the first time shows the children's physical transformation. Although the particulars differed from tribe to tribe, in the "before" pictures, the children wear loose, traditional clothes and are often wrapped in blankets or shawls. Most of the girls wear their hair falling haphazardly to their shoulders or below, covering their ears and a sliver of their foreheads and cheeks. The rest wear their hair in two braids, one falling in front of each shoulder (perhaps by choice, perhaps because the photographer instructed them to pull their braids forward for the camera to record their "exotic" nature).

In the "after" pictures, all traces of tribal distinctions are gone and the girls' (and boys') hair — considered by school administrators an especially important marker of Indian "savagery" — is subdued. The girls are dressed in starched and fitted dresses, often wearing or carrying bonnets. Most have their hair tightly pulled back from a center part, exposing their ears. In most cases it's impossible to tell whether the hair is contained in a bun, a braid, or a ponytail, but it certainly is contained.

More rarely, school officials had girls' hair cut (as was the norm for boys). Zitkala-Sa, a Sioux Indian, recalls how she felt when she realized that the teachers intended to cut her hair. The prospect particularly horrified her because among the Sioux short hair was worn only by mourners or those shamed as cowards. To avoid having her hair cut, she hid under a bed, but was soon discovered:

I remember being dragged out, though I resisted by kicking and scratching wildly. In spite of myself, I was carried downstairs and tied fast to a chair. I cried aloud, shaking my head all the while, until I felt the cold blade of the scissors against my neck, and heard them gnaw off one of my thick braids. Then I lost my spirit.

Once children returned home from school, their families might restyle their hair traditionally — if the children still had enough hair to do so, and were not now ashamed of tribal ways. Over the generations, traditional styles faded from use, appearing only among the most isolated groups or on special ceremonial occasions.


For American blacks, as for American Indians, hairstyles could indicate either freedom from or suppression by white American culture. Until the early nineteenth century, hairstyling offered one of the few means available to black slaves for expressing pride and identity. Both men and women seized this opportunity, varying their hair's length and texture to create an enormous range of idiosyncratic styles drawing on African, Indian, and white fashions. After this point, however, new machines that increased the productivity of cotton plantations also lengthened slaves' workdays and made it nearly impossible for them to maintain such styles. To keep their hair from matting or tangling, women cut their hair short, braided it in small sections, and wrapped it in rags covered by brightly colored bandannas. Those bandannas now offered them their only opportunity for self-expression. Only on Sundays, their one day off, could women brush out and style their hair.

Yet hair remained central to black women's self-identity. Over the generations, sexual intercourse (usually involuntary) between black women slaves and their white masters and overseers contributed to creating a panoply of hair textures among blacks, from straight to tightly curled. Because the logic of racism taught both blacks and whites that those who looked most white were most beautiful, black women with straighter hair (and "whiter" features) were often coveted as sexual prizes. Plantation records testify to the importance attached to black women's hair: In virtually every recorded incident in which a slave was punished by having his or her head shaved, the punished slave was a woman with straight hair and the person who ordered the punishment was a white woman. By so doing, white women could reduce the threat these slaves posed to their marriages while punishing both the slaves and the white men who found them attractive. In the few recorded instances in which a male slave owner used shaving as a punishment, the sexual allure of straight-haired female slaves also played a pivotal role. In one instance, a light-skinned, long-haired female slave accepted a white man from a neighboring plantation as her lover in hopes of gaining his protection against her owner's sexual advances. Her owner gained vengeance by shaving her head — an action that, he surely expected, would punish both her and her lover.


Throughout the nineteenth century, white women's status was far higher than that of American Indian or black women, but still far below that of white men. Not until the 1830s did white women begin gaining the rights to own property or keep their own wages, and not until 1920 would they win the right to vote. What's more, only a few low-paying jobs (primarily in teaching and nursing) were open to them, and most jobs required women to resign once they married. As a result, contracting a good marriage remained women's surest route to financial security.

During these decades, poor white women had little time or money to devote to their hair, and so wore very simple hairstyles. Middle- and upper-class white women, on the other hand, devoted considerable effort to arranging their hair in ways that would emphasize feminine allure. Although fashions evolved continuously, most required long, straight hair, pulled back or pinned up, and ornamented with curls, ringlets, or purchased additions. Each night, women would braid the long sections of their hair and then either pin up their curls or wrap them in rags. In the morning they used flat irons to straighten the uncurled portions of their hair, used heated curling irons (if they had them) to curl the other portions, and then arranged their curls, ringlets, and additions. Given the time and effort required to create these hairstyles, women avoided any activities that might damage them.

Beginning in the 1850s, periodic calls from feminists for simpler hairstyles that wouldn't press women to restrict their activities found few takers, even among feminists. Those calls, at any rate, were only a footnote in the larger struggle for "dress reform," which primarily — and, for decades, unsuccessfully — aimed to free women from incapacitating corsets, heavy skirts, multiple petticoats, and floor-length dresses. Instead of adopting simpler hairstyles, from the 1870s into the early twentieth century women turned to styles that were even more difficult to maintain, requiring thick masses of hair pinned in intricate arrangements. Women could achieve this look only by hiring professional hairstylists and purchasing false hair; advertisements for hair additions took up three pages in the 1905 Sears, Roebuck catalog. Although these expenses could strain a family's budget, maintaining these hairstyles was essential, for hair was considered central to feminine beauty (so central that Louisa May Alcott, in her still-popular 1868 book Little Women, could use Jo's decision to sell her hair to aid her impoverished family as a pivotal scene, knowing that her readers would understand the importance of Jo's sacrifice).


Hairstyles for white women changed dramatically with the rise of the "bob" — in which the hair fell straight to about mid-neck and then curled under at the ends — and the even shorter "shingle." Not only were both styles shockingly short, but they also lacked any feminizing ringlets or curls. These hairstyles first appeared on both sides of the Atlantic during World War I, and within a decade became the norm for fashionable young women.

The bob and the shingle were roundly attacked by many who considered them evidence of female vanity, "loose" morals, or dangerous feminist ideas. Newspaper articles from the time describe employers who refused to hire women with bobbed hair on the grounds that such women were "not thinking about business, but only about having a good time." Other articles tell of men who beat or abandoned their wives or fiancées for having their hair bobbed. These hairstyles — and public dismay over them — quickly spread around the world. In Japan, a speaker at a national hairdressers' convention declared, "All bobbers are not dissolute women, but all dissolute women are bobbers."


Excerpted from Rapunzel's Daughters by Rose Weitz. Copyright © 2004 Rose Weitz. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Rose Weitz is a professor of sociology at Arizona State University and is past president of Sociologists for Women in Society. She is the author of several books and the editor of The Politics of Women's Bodies.

Rose Weitz is a professor of sociology at Arizona State University and is past president of Sociologists for Women in Society. She is the author of several books and the editor of The Politics of Women's Bodies.

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Rapunzel's Daughters: What Women's Hair Tells Us About Women's Lives 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Haley OSU Comp student spring 2013. Hair is one of the first things people notice about us and it is something that has always been known to play a big role in our lives. Rose Weitz does an exceptional job at exploring the role that hair plays in our lives, and what it reveals about us. She explores the many struggles women face with bad hair days, intimate reationships, work lives, and much more. She provides a great collection of pictures revealing secrets of the hair industry throughout the decades and countless interviews. 
Anonymous More than 1 year ago