“I’m having a bad hair day!”

Alexander Image/Shutterstock
Source: Alexander Image/Shutterstock

We've all said it. Although people have primped themselves for millennia, hair products have sharply risen in popularity over the past decade, as have hair-based controversies: Presidential candidate John Edwards was ridiculed for spending $400 on a haircut in 2007. Ordinary citizens may spend $75 (women) or $40 (men) on every a trip to the salon or barber. What is the reason for the high interest in maintaining our tresses?

Research suggests the prime reason is that hair maintenance helps us control how we appear to age. 

In a conversation, people’s eyes are directed toward the other's heads. The hair on that head (or the lack of it) becomes one of a person’s most prominent features. There is also a great deal of mythology surrounding blondes, redheads and those brunettes, based largely on which “have more fun.” Much of this stereotyping has been applied to women but, increasingly—as the Edwards case showed—it can affect men as well.

Hair is also relatively easy to subjugate to one’s will (but only relatively). You can alter your hair in a myriad of ways, limited only by your willingness to spend time and money on the project. If all else fails, you can don a hairpiece or wig, and the job is done in an instant.

Because it is so visible, though, hair also becomes a part of a person’s identity. It helps define the persona you aim to create to impress others, whether as an intellectual, a sexual being, a rebel, or some combination of the above. Hair can also influence the way you define yourself to yourself, as an extension of your identity. During adolescence, your hair matures to its more or less final form, leaving childhood texture and even color behind. As your adult identity forms, it develops around this image.

This developmental aspect of hair is perhaps the most interesting. Unlike the features of your face and body that bear the stamp of time’s passage, your hair could theoretically remain unaltered for decades with relatively little effort. You can cover up the gray; you don’t need to give hair Botox to help it remain “young.”

The idea that our hair can define us as young or old may be at the heart of our society’s current preoccupation with not only having a "good" hair day, but a hair day in which your tresses resemble those of a much younger person. It's possible that by manipulating the way your hair looks, you can manipulate your apparent age.

As described by University of Kent sociologist Julia Twigg and Gakashuin University’s (Japan) Shinobu Majima (2014), the reconstitution of aging thesis argues that old age underwent a shift in the late-20th century, impacted by changes in relation to work, the family, and personal identity (p. 23). So-called “normative” age patterns no longer exist, and expectations for what’s appropriate at what ages are now highly individualized. You age the way you want to now, not the way you’ve been told to—and this extends to your appearance.

Age and gender norms interact when it comes to what’s considered okay for the aging locks of women. As Twigg and Shinobu point out, “Controlled, clearly managed hair is particularly significant for older women in avoiding the status of dereliction or derangement, signaled by wild or neglected locks” (p. 25).

In other words, society says that older women have to disguise and keep in check their naturally graying hair. 

Twigg and Shinobu examined a large data set of purchasing patterns from the U.K.’s Expenditures and Food Survey, which surveyed 10,000 households each year (with a 60% response rate), divided into 20-year age groups. The earliest survey was conducted in 1961 and the most recent in 2011. Participants kept an expenditure diary for a two-week period, spread out among different respondents over an entire year to average out seasonal variations. The researchers focused particularly on women 55 and older, grouping that cohort into 5-year age categories, each of which contained 100-150 participants. 

Taking into account expenditures on clothing, hairdressing, and cosmetics, Twigg and Shinobu’s analysis shows 3 distinct patterns for the cohorts of women in their mid-50s and beyond. All cohorts of women were more likely to spend money on clothing across the 50 years of the study. Among the older women, those born between 1916 and 1920 were most likely to visit hairdressers throughout their lives, including their later years. There wasn’t a general rise in spending on hairdresser visits among older women—only for this group. For cosmetics, though, women are steadily spending more both on makeup and anti-aging products as they get older.

Interpreting the findings, Twigg and Shinobu point to several reasons for a peak in the spending on hair for women who came of age in the 1930s and 1940s. At that time, people were far less likely to take care of their own hairstyling but instead relied on weekly visits for shampoos and sets. As these women grew older, they remained loyal to their earlier grooming rituals, and the styles that went with them.

Hair salons, however, may be important for older women because they find it difficult to do their own hair which, like their bodies, has become a bit less flexible. Salon visits, then, allow older women to stave off “accusations of self-neglect.” They’re also places where women can socialize and receive some pampering. It feels good to have your hair washed by someone else, and definitely better than having the “bodily interventions that many older people are forced to endure as a part of declining health” (p. 29).

Putting these trends together: It's clear that older women are becoming more conscious of their appearance and more likely to spend money on maintaining it. They’re increasingly prey to advertisers who purvey products that will allow not only their hair, but their faces and bodies, to stay youthful.

Interestingly, Trigg and Shinobu didn’t find that anything special stood out about Baby Boomers and hair, finding no evidence that “the claimed features of this generation” emerge in the way that older people spend money (p. 30). There would be much that marketers in the U.S. could learn from reading the findings described in this paper, which suggest that we may be too transfixed by the labels that we slap on different generations (such as Millennials, Gen-Y, and so on). 

What do these findings mean for you as you contemplate your own appearance? First, they suggest that many people do carry over their patterns from their 20s and 30s into later adult years. The way you prepare the face and hair you present to the outside world may reflect cultural conventions prevalent in your own transition to adulthood. Second, the findings should provide you with a warning about your own vulnerability to manipulation by the media: Advertisers and manufacturers are betting heavily on the growing desire people have to remain youthful on both the outside and inside.

The next time you consider plopping down a chunk of hard-earned cash on the latest “miracle” age-reverser, pause and think about what it is you’re seeking. Your inner self-worth and value are far more likely to benefit your feelings of fulfillment than the image you project to the outside world. 

Follow me on Twitter @swhitbo for daily updates on psychology, health, and aging. Feel free to join my Facebook group, "Fulfillment at Any Age," to discuss today's blog, or to ask further questions about this posting.

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2015

Reference

Twigg, J., & Majima, S. (2014). Consumption and the constitution of age: Expenditure patterns on clothing, hair and cosmetics among post-war 'baby boomers'. Journal of Aging Studies, 3023-32. doi:10.1016/j.jaging.2014.03.003

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