I was enjoying a goofball movie called Spork — worth watching for the soundtrack alone – when I became fixated on a singular feature of the main character’s trailer park badass of a brother. The dude’s hair, a sort of mullet with racing stripes, struck a chord with me. I found myself daydreaming about rocking that ‘do and a wifebeater while wrenching on a battered (but fast) Trans-Am, right up to the point that my girlfriend smartly put the kibosh on the whole idea.
This whole telling-a-story-through-hair thing reminded me of a brief chat I had with a former colleague about Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown: Sorry, Senator Brown, but you’ve got some seriously spiky, playboy hair for a politician. Look at anyone else in office and they’ve all got this lightly gelled, swoopy old white dude coif. Meanwhile, Brown looks like one of those aging guys in Affliction shirts that lurk with bottle service around Vegas pools.
I have to wonder: why? Why do politicians all rock politician hair, and why do Trans-Am owners have Trans-Am hair? What’s up with all this emphasis we put on those dead strands of cells we have on our head?
Dude loves to party.
There are myriad reasons why we might have evolved to keep our head hair, and lose a lot of the rest, in the first place: To keep our brains warm in the winter, or to keep us cool from the beating heat of the sun in summer (count in the evaporative effect of sweat-logged hair), or even maybe as a deterrent or protection against predators trying to chomp on our skulls, like how some dogs have thick fur around their necks.
Wherever it came from, our hair is certainly important to us, as evidenced by the wealth of hair product advertising, hair-loss treatments, and studies that show that men losing hair also lose self-esteem. A root cause of all this hair-centricity is the fact that our hair is an excellent signaling device.
If you don’t think hair is important, explain to me why someone would suffer through this.
Hair’s importance may have arisen because it’s a true indicator of one’s health; nowadays there are products galore, but for much of our history, a sickly person would be unable to grow healthy hair. Hair is also a great indicator of age; aside from going grey, or falling out, hair loses its luster as we age. Test it for yourself, try to guess someone’s age just based off of their tresses next time you’re walking around.
In that sense, our hair is like a mink’s coat or a hummingbird’s iridescent plumage: It’s an excellent indicator of genetic quality, because it’s something one can’t really fake (wigs notwithstanding). And that right there is why we care more about hair than all of the Boehner-like tans and other easily-faked attributes out there.
The thing is, when we wrap our culture and individuality into the mix, all of this obsession with hair results in our identifying ourselves – and others – via our locks. The hummingbirds are a good analog. If you look at the silhouette of most hummingbirds, the most obvious thing differentiating them would be variations in their bills. But when you add in the wild palettes of their plumages, it’s easy to tell different birds apart.
Think of your dumb hair as separating your from the normals. Via.
Now, there’s no way in hell I’d claim that a guy with a Mohawk and a guy with a power slickback are different species. We’re all people, but the emphasis that we’ve always put on our hair as a valuable marker of our health means that we pay a lot of attention to everybody’s cuts.
With all of those eyes on your hairstyle, it’s become one of the easiest ways to advertise who your are. So when my lady rightfully dissuades me from a (seriously bitchin’) trailer park mane, it’s because I can’t walk around without people assuming I’m seriously. And, at the same time, we’ve come to expect our politicians to have a certain type of well-kempt, conservative haircut, which is exactly why Scott Brown’s spiky boy band look looks so dumb.
Evolution Explains is a periodical investigation into the human-animal (humanimal?) condition through the powerful scientific lenses of ecology and evolution. Previously on Evolution Explains: We’re Biologically Programmed to Love Hogwash in Political Debates.
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