Are you having "a good hair day"? Seems like a simple, even silly, question coming from a psychologist whose work is about getting underneath the surface. But in all honesty -- superficial or not -- I have to say I'm familiar with that feeling. And having recently been asked to consult for a company about their new line of hair care products, I began thinking about the psychology behind "a good hair day."
Most of us accept that looks matter. We know that our appearance impacts our personal, social and professional lives. We also know that how we feel influences how we look and vice versa -- a phenomena I call beauty self-esteem. Although we'd like to believe "what is inside counts most," scientific evidence, as well as common sense, tells us that an appealing appearance, good health and hygiene positively impacts our lives.
So, what role does hair play in our self-esteem? Does the attention focused on quarterback Tom Brady or actress Jennifer Aniston, say something about the psychological power behind this particular physical asset? To answer this question, I approach it from several different perspectives.
1) Historically -- Keep in mind that the role hair has played in people's self-image goes way back to ancient history. As long ago as Greek and Roman times, elaborate wigs were signs of status and wealth. Beautiful hair was associated with royalty, worn like a crown. Cleopatra was famous for her thick, black locks. Samson's long hair symbolized supernatural strength. During American Colonial times, upper class men and women wore white, curly wigs. Political figures and judges also adorned them as a sign of wisdom and sophistication. With decorative, attractive hair being highly valued throughout history, it's likely it will continue to impact how we view ourselves today.
2) Developmentally -- Another way to understand the psychology behind hair is to note its role biologically. For example, we instinctively view babies born with thick hair as heartier than those are with little or none. As children grow, we continue to see hair growth as a signal of good health. For adolescent boys, early facial hair is associated with virility, and on teen girls with signs of fecundity. Luscious thick hair is often equated with female sensuality and sexuality. Likewise, as we enter midlife, thinning or losing hair is associated with aging, loss of health, decreased fertility and virility.
3) Aesthetically -- Hair frames the face, the feature considered most important in terms of first impressions. Faces generally are viewed as playing a greater role than bodies when it comes to attraction between people. Following a person's smile, eyes and skin, their hair is often the next feature people notice on first encounters. It is among the top three features -- along with height and weight -- used when describing others and one of the feature most often recalled after a social interaction occurs.
4) Self-Esteem -- Our sense of attractiveness is strongly connected to confidence and positive self-esteem. Many men and women associate confidence with feeling in control, and hair is one way most of us can be in charge. For example, hair can be altered through cutting, coloring and highlighting, but controlled through straightening, curling and styling. Styled, well-kept hair gives us the external appearance of being well managed and it can contribute to feeling that way internally. Some people say that a manicure or pedicure creates a similar sense of feeling in control.
5) Beauty for the Ages -- As people get older, they inevitably feel loss in a number of ways -- decrease in strength, flexibility, height, cognition and acuity. Even people in very good health are faced with dealing with changes that are inevitable. Although hair loss, thinning and graying are natural consequences for most aging people, a lot can be done, without too much time, effort or money to enhance hair style. Unlike surgical and cosmetic interventions that are used to update other physical features (e.g., lasers, face lifts, tummy tucks, teeth implants), enhancements to our hair are much less radical, and yet they can make a huge difference in how we feel about our aging appearance.
So, why does a "good hair day" matter? The answer lies in all the reasons above. Our looks matter and hair matters a lot in our general sense of attractiveness. With so many unknowns surrounding us in today's complicated world, it is nice to know that a good hair day is a simple, yet deeply "rooted' solution to our desire to look and feel good at any age.
Tell us what a "good hair day" means to you.
Vivian Diller, Ph.D. is a psychologist in private practice in New York City. She serves as a media expert on various psychological topics and as a consultant to companies promoting health, beauty and cosmetic products. Her book, "Face It: What Women Really Feel As Their Looks Change" (2010), edited by Michele Willens, is a psychological guide to help women deal with the emotions brought on by their changing appearances.
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