Tag Archives: hair

Indian Custom: Hair Cutting on First Birthday

--Informant Info--
Nationality: American
Age: 18
Occupation: Student
Residence: Thousand Oaks, CA
Date of Performance/Collection: April 21, 2020
Primary Language: English
Other Language(s):

Background: 

My informant, NS, is an eighteen year old student at Tufts University. She was born and raised in Southern California. Her mother was born and raised in the Philippines, and her father is Indian but grew up in Scotland and Southern California. While her mother is the only member of her family to have moved away from the Philippines, much of her father’s family, including his father, siblings, and nieces and nephews, are also in Southern California, meaning lots of family time between NS and her extended family, especially her cousins. Her father’s side of the family continues many traditional Indian and Hindu practices in day to day life, and NS is also greatly influenced by her heritage. (I’ll be referring to myself as SW in the actual performance). 

Performance:

NS: Indian people will shave the head of their baby when they turn 1, on their first birthday, because it’s believed that that means that their hair will come back stronger. My mom didn’t do it to me, but almost all my cousins and my dad did. 

SW: So is there greater significance to that or it’s more aesthetic? 

NS: It’s tradition. Thicker hair makes you beautiful, especially like, long, thick hair on girls. There are hair rituals, like before you go to bed your mom will oil your hair.  It’s like the longer your hair is, the more beautiful you are because it’s associated with wealth. So like if you have super long well-kept hair that’s a sign that you can afford it. I remember when I cut my hair short my grandpa was like devastated and I didn’t understand why until my dad told me about it.

Thoughts:

I think it’s super interesting how we as humans can come to associate different things with beauty for reasons other than pure aesthetics. Sure, long and thick hair looks nice, but the fact that it can be associated with wealth and status as a subconscious trait of beauty or attractiveness is interesting. It reminds of the way that the “ideal” body shape for women has changed over time. Centuries ago, it was not trendy to be thin, as thinner bodies were associated with not being able to afford food. Consequently, people who were a bit more curvy were considered more desirable, such a body type implied a certain level of wealth and status that could afford more than the bare minimum amount of food required to stay alive. 

Swim Team Bleaches Their Hair

--Informant Info--
Nationality:
Age:
Occupation:
Residence:
Date of Performance/Collection:
Primary Language:
Other Language(s):

Background: 

My informant, AK, is a 19 year old student at the University of Michigan. She was born and raised in Southern California and is studying engineering. While in high school, AK was an active member and team captain of her school’s swim team. She attended the school from kindergarten until she graduated and knew the place inside and out. (I’ll be referring to myself as SW in the actual performance).

Performance: 

AK: Every year, the guys on the swim team would bleach their hair. I’m not really sure why, but no one ever questioned it, it was just kind of what they did. Maybe it was so they looked more unified before league finals. 

Thoughts:

I hadn’t realized until after I came to college, but the swim team bleaching their hair at the end of the season was not unique to AK and I’s high school. In fact, it was common practice all across the country. Others I’ve spoken to about this can’t explain the reasoning either, but they all do it. While I would like to know the reason why, I think it’s kind of special for this tradition to be so widespread. This is something that anyone who swam in high school can relate to and remember and bond over. This is an excellent example of how folklore connects people who may not connect otherwise. 

Socks are DIY hair curlers.

--Informant Info--
Nationality: Italian American
Age: 54
Occupation: entrepreneur
Residence: Los Angeles
Date of Performance/Collection: April 27
Primary Language: English
Other Language(s):

Grandma used to curl my hair with socks. They have to be nylon knee socks so that they can be crushed and tied, and you sleep in it. When your hair is just a tiny bit wet out of the shower, you stick all those socks in, and you wake up very curly. I think I did it to you, remember? I kept doing it, because it stayed so much better than regular curlers, it would stay for days. I would do it all the way until I got married. I don’t know anyone else who would do that. I learned it from grams.

Background and context: This was told to me by my mother, who is a white baby boomer. She is close with her mom, who is from the Great Generation. My mom grew up in Pittsburgh.

Thoughts: This is likely from before hair curlers’ existence. I have seen the style, and it looks more old-fashioned. I think this is people figuring out a way to curl before they had the technology, and it could be swapped out easily for another method.

Playoff Haircuts

--Informant Info--
Nationality: American
Age: 20
Occupation: Student
Residence:
Date of Performance/Collection: April 28
Primary Language: English
Other Language(s):

In high school sports, playoffs are consistently a big deal and represent a payoff for hard work and a good record during the sports season. This form folklore is both a folk practice and afterward, a folk object. The practice is giving certain haircuts during the time after the regular season but before playoffs begin. These are not normal haircuts but wild ones with different patterns and styles. Some of them include mohawks, bald heads, bowl cuts, words shaved into heads, monk haircuts, old man haircuts, and a plethora of others. They are not set haircuts but rather up to the imagination. This practice is similarly performed in other high schools across the United States, sometimes with other variations.

This folk practice is traditionally done by the upperclassmen within a team. The lowerclassmen get worse haircuts while the upperclassmen get better ones. In this way, it is a form of hazing. The informant said that the haircuts are typically shaved off or bettered once the playoff streak end because they are only to remain during the postseason. They learned it from the upperclassmen when they were younger and then performed this practice as an upperclassman. This is only typically done on varsity sports. The sports observed to do this include baseball, football, lacrosse, and some others. They remember it wholly fondly, even as a lower classman. It is not meant to be malicious but more a harmless rite of passage because it makes the kids feel like more of a coherent group. Another instance of this at different schools include bleaching the team’s hair during playoff time.

It seems to me that this sometimes is about a dynamic of power. Younger kids may be intimidated into doing this, but other kids may enjoy it because they are a part of a larger group and help self-identify with that. It is a physical way of making teammates more similar and improves as the kids get older, causing interest to do it for the first time.

Hair in a Bird’s Nest

--Informant Info--
Nationality: American
Age: 50
Occupation: Civil Engineer
Residence: Oswego, Illinois
Date of Performance/Collection: 4/29/2020
Primary Language: English
Other Language(s):

Main piece:

(The following is transcribed from a conversation between the informant and interviewer.)

Informant: So my – so my grandmother, on my moms side… was a…. Old German lady. She had German – half German, but anyway. She was staunch Catholic but, my mom would tell me this story that, you know, she would never – she yelled at her once because she was cleaning out her brush and she was gonna throw it out like the window of the car. She told – cleaning out – gonna throw her hair out the window, that is, not the brush. And she said you know, you never – never throw your hair away, you gotta burn it, like if you clean out your brush or anything like that, because if you throw it away and a bird gets it, puts it in their nest, build their nest with it you’ll have headaches for the rest of you life.

Interviewer: Do you know why?

Informant: Nope. Just something to do with the birds and bad luck, I guess.

Interviewer: And did your mom enforce this on you, or like, tell it as a joke?

Informant: No, no! My mom told me the same story, so…

Interviewer: Wait so you did have to follow it.

Informant: No, she just-

Interviewer: Oh. So for your grandma it was a belief but for your mom it was just a saying.

Informant: Yeah, yep.

Background: My informant was raised by a very religious but not too strict Catholic family. They were not very wealthy growing up, and he has heard a great deal of sayings like these growing up in a rural area on a farm.

Context: This piece of folklore was collected when I asked the informant to tell me about the stories and sayings they remembered from their mother. The informant is my father, and he is a very outspoken person so the setting was relaxed.

Thoughts: I enjoy collecting pieces of folklore that reveal contradictory aspects of a person. That a staunchly religious person would believe and enforce a superstition – a bit of magic – in this way is funny to me. The concept of this is directly tied to contagious magic, and it even evokes classic cliches of voodoo. It is a good example of the nature of belief being flexible and form fitting.

Cutting Hair for Chinese New Year

--Informant Info--
Nationality: Chinese
Age: 78
Occupation: Retired
Residence: San Mateo
Date of Performance/Collection: 2/15/2019
Primary Language: Chinese
Other Language(s): English

[The subject is MW. Her words are bolded, mine are not.]

ME: Can you tell me about a Chinese New Year tradition?

MW: Chinese New Year, or Chinese New Year eve, we will put the whole table. Mother cook, or have the servant cook, all kinds of goodies, but we cannot eat first. But they still put the wine and the chopstick, and the whole table, but that’s let the ancestor come, ancestor, I mean we don’t see them- the people already pass away like my grandma, or grandma, you know? My mother always, we cannot- the kids eat later, just have to let them, still, put the best food, all warm, but we cannot touch the chair. It’s grand-grandpa, and grand-grandma, let them eat first. And after the time, bring the food back to the kitchen, and then bring it back and then we can eat.

And then also, in Chinese New Year, we have to go to have a haircut, the kids all have to go have a haircut.

ME: Why is that?

MW: It’s like for a new year, then you have to clean up the whole thing. And the next day, we have to go to, for our auntie, and grandma, those kowtow. And then they give us a red envelope.

Context: MW is my grandmother, who was born in Shanghai and then lived in Hong Kong later on in her youth. She moved to San Francisco as a young adult and has lived in the Bay Area for the last six decades. She is a native Mandarin speaker, but is also fluent in English. I sat down with her and asked her to talk about some traditions and stories she remembers from living in China.

Thoughts: I am half-Chinese and have lived in the United States for my entire life, so while the tradition of eating a big dinner on Chinese New Year is familiar to me, but the less common tradition of getting a haircut for the new year was not. I believe that this tradition could be associated with Frazer’s concept of homeopathic magic, because the chopping of the hair seems to represent chopping off what you no longer want to hold onto from the last year, and creates good luck going forward.

Signs of Drug Addicts Among Hairdressers

--Informant Info--
Nationality: Mexican
Age: 33
Occupation: Hairdresser
Residence: Highland Park, CA
Date of Performance/Collection: February 22, 2019
Primary Language: English
Other Language(s): Spanish

” *whispering* You can totally tell if someone does hard drugs just by bleaching their hair. Like your hair is processing normally and if I leave it in long enough, all the color will come out and you will have this fabulous platinum. But, like for example, I had this one client who clearly seemed out of it– like could not make eye contact and was slurring his words. Ok, first, I was worried and we got him some cookies. We only have sugar-free cookies here so I’m not sure it helped much. *laughs* But his hair, and this is true for anyone who takes hard drugs, not like marijuana, but like real drugs, just would not bleach out. It gets to this highlighter yellow color and no matter how long the bleach is in there, it stays this horrible color. Like, I’m not saying he was using drugs, but like… It can also happen on certain types of strong antibiotics.”

Context: This piece of folk science was collected at a hair salon in Studio City during the collector’s experience bleaching their hair with their regular hairdresser. This information was brought up while the hairdresser, who identifies as gay and has been living in Los Angeles his whole life, looked at the processing of the bleach in the hair to note how much longer the bleach had to stay on. After hearing the folk science from the informant, the piece was then asked to be recorded.

 

Informant Analysis: He said that this is common knowledge among any hairdresser who has dyed hair for sometime, noting that he had experienced a handful of clients who were upset with the final bleached color when the brassy highlighter yellow color was the lightest color they could achieve. The hairdresser did not know the science behind why the color would not lift from the hair, only that it is hairdresser’s gossip about their clients if the color does not lift.

Collector Analysis: Although I cannot speak to the science behind hard drugs or antibiotics effecting the bleaching process of hair, I can say that there are two main reasons I can think of that may be the reason for this piece of folk science to be carried on between hairdressers. The first reason is the perhaps unacknowledged botched up hair dying job of a hairdresser. It seems possible, and I have seen in other hairdressers, that when the client becomes enraged with the end product of the hairdresser’s work, the blame will often go on the client instead of the hairdresser. Since these stories are often shared to different clients as entertaining gossip, it seems as though hairdresser’s would be more likely to tell new clients that it was not their fault, but perhaps some chemical problem in the other client’s hair. Another reason for this piece to be shared is in part do to the environment of a hair salon. Much of the talk at hair salons is gossip or hearsay that can either be racy or somehow make someone else look bad. A client will often hear their hairdresser gossip about the other hairdressers they work with, but the client will not usually hear the gossip the hairdressers speak to each other about the client.

 

Italian Witch Story

--Informant Info--
Nationality: Italian
Age: 18
Occupation: Student
Residence: New York
Date of Performance/Collection: 3/31/2019
Primary Language: English
Other Language(s): Italian

A story goes as follows: A young woman is known to have beautiful hair, black, silky, and shiny; it was so beautiful that it was something that every resident in the town knew about and admired. One day an unknown old lady came over to her house and started to stroke her hair, commenting on how gorgeous and rare it was. Her father found out what was happening and ordered that she go away. He was alarmed and struck with a protective fear, claiming that the old lady was a strega, or witch. Solely with the touch of her hands, she was able to curse the young woman and her hair ended up falling out day by day, eventually leaving her with no hair. She had to wear a hat for the rest of her life because of the powers of the witch.


The interlocutor recalled this story because of his personal recollection of the fear that it incited in him as a child. His father would occasionally tell this story, as he had heard it a few times; this was enough to make him wary of the power that strangers’ hands possess. By way of this, the story was usually directed at the interlocutor’s sister because of the value that is placed on particularly a female’s hair. The interlocutor mentioned that she still lives in fear of others touching her hair and is reluctant to even receive haircuts.

This story, while probably used at certain occasions to entertain youth, obtains even stronger undertones of a message of privacy and self-reliance. On the very surface, it seems to underline the value of hair in Italian society, especially hair that is kept in good health naturally, signifying a sort of blessing on people with beautiful hair. Yet, the general fear that this story incites demonstrates the value placed on privacy and reliance on oneself. The hands of a stranger have enough power to cause someone harm, and it is by way of this knowledge that young men and especially young women learn to be wary of the influence and malicious intent of others outside of the family. Their magic is contagious and has the power to infect anyone just by touch.

“Worms in Your Stomach”

--Informant Info--
Nationality: American/Indian
Age: 18
Occupation: Student
Residence: San Jose, CA
Date of Performance/Collection: 4/23/18
Primary Language: English
Other Language(s): Hindi

Context & Analysis

The subject used to swim competitively in high school and often had to deal with having wet hair. Her mother used to tell her the belief below to frighten her into keeping her hair down. Even though she recognizes that it is a folk belief, the thought of getting worms in her stomach was a deterrent to tying up her hair (and potentially damaging it). The subject stated that her mother most likely learned the saying from her grandmother, and she is uncertain if it is a belief that is shared by anyone outside of her family. I find it interesting that she continues to heed her mother’s warning despite not believing it herself.

Main Piece

“So my mom tells us that we’re going to get worms in our stomach if we tie our wet hair—not joking. Not joking. Yea. So when I was younger and started swimming I used to see all of the older girls in the locker room tie up their hair in really tight buns after swimming because obviously you don’t like the feeling of wet dripping hair on your back cuz it’s really gross. So I started doing it and my mom was like ‘[Subject’s Name] not only is this going to damage your hair, ‘cuz you’re going to rip it out—’cuz wet hair is weak hair or whatever— but you’re also going to get worms in your stomach’ and I didn’t believe her. But when my grandma was in town she started saying the same thing, and I thought ‘If this old lady is saying something, chances are she knows even more than my mom, so I probably shouldn’t tie it up anymore’ and I’ve never tied it up when it was wet since.

German Raver Cyborg Mohawks

--Informant Info--
Nationality: American
Age: n/a
Occupation: Professor at the University of Southern California
Residence: Los Angeles, CA
Date of Performance/Collection: April 24, 2018
Primary Language: English
Other Language(s):

Background: I interviewed Professor Nye to talk about his raving experiences. He discovered electronic music as an exchange student in 1995-96 in Germany. Clubs at this time in Germany were playing a lot of techno pop music, and he heard from friends about “underground” or unsanctioned dance events. He attended events like this his senior year of high school in the Bay area of California.

Context: This interview took place the Thornton School of Music faculty building at the University of Southern California during his office hours on a Tuesday afternoon. There was a flute playing in the background throughout the whole interview. As Professor Nye is describing the styles he saw in European dance events, he remembered a specific hairstyle he saw in Germany. 

“My favorite was probably in Germany these kind of very cyberpunk outfits with just full you know like everything plastic, full plastic cyborg dress. There was this style that ravers had back in the day, especially in Germany, was like shaved on all the side, neon hair, and then like cyberpunk spikes going down the side like this. Does that make sense? That was kind of more sci-fi imagery.”

 

As he is speaking he is gesturing to the center of his head where you would typically expect to see a mohawk and then gestured to both sides of the mohawk in a straight line to describe where the “spikes” would be.