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When it comes to hair and the religions: similar strokes for similar folks.

For most religions, long well kept hair signifies full-bodied sexuality. Given the ambivalent relation between holiness and sex, it stands to reason that the religions would insist upon certain dulling arrangements for hair.

Holy hairstyles for men

For some sects of Hinduism and for Rastafarianism, long, unkempt dreadlocks signify stout spirituality.

For some sects of Buddhism, long hair that is tightly wound into a topknot signifies sexual, and therefore spiritual, control.

For other sects of Buddhism, completely shaving the head indicates spiritual commitment of the highest order.

For Christian monks,  just the top of the head may be shaved while a circle of bangs is left all around in similitude to the crown of thorns Jesus was made to wear at his crucifixion.

Most of these are customs and not authoritative pronouncements made in sacred scriptures, but in some cases hair legislation comes from the highest authority.

In the third book of the Jewish Bible God commands that male hair not be cut from the back of the ears all the way to the temples at the edge of the forehead. And so we get the forelocks. Imagine a God who created the Spider Nebula caring about how Jewish boys and men style their hair.

In sacred Islamic Hadith relating the habits of Muhammad, after someone told Muhammad he’d look better if he cut his hair shorter and trim his beard, the Prophet is reported to have said that God told him to let his hair grow to the shoulders and let his beard grow as long as it may. This is reminiscent of the Jewish injunction above. God is a God of detail: heavy elements for the Spider Nebula and precise instructions for the Prophet’s hairline.

Holy hairstyles for women

Since hair is considered a sexual adornment by most religions and thereby potentially tempting to men, many religions require women to cover their hair completely by veiling. In some religions, laywomen may wear their hair as they wish, but holy women veil their heads or even shave their heads. St. Paul in the New Testament forbids the braiding of women’s hair, and he insists on veiling.

Why no saints at the hair salon?  

Conjure in your mind’s eye any holy person of any sect of any religion. You cannot picture them caped in a trendy Manhattan hair salon pondering highlights, lowlights, and the silver sheen of thinning shears. But why? If you answer that such a scenario would be unseemly for the holy, we can simply repeat the query: Why?

Interpretations from men and women on the street

Johnny V:  “It’s like all parents presenting their child in the public forum. They feel their own good breeding is reflected in their child’s pasted-down locks. God is that way too.”

Penelope R: “It’s a strategy to routinize religion by attaching religion to everyday activities like grooming.”

Blaise Q:  “It’s a means to deepen the sense of societal separation that one’s religion has already effected. It keeps the saints apart from the crowd.”

Parnell J: “It’s meant to suffocate vanity.”

Queenie B: “Control, baby. It’s a religion thing. Food, drink, grooming, clothing, sex. Religions want a say in all that stuff, baby doll. It’s pure control.”

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J. H. McKenna (Ph.D.) has taught the history of religion since 1999 at the University of California, where he has won teaching awards. He has published in academic journals and the LA Times, Huffington...