How did I happen to study hairdressing and what is it that interests me about the hairdressing salon? Let me answer the first part of the question very briefly. I haven’t always planned to work at a hairdressing salon to do ethnographic fieldwork. During my master’s, I considered several topics that were all related to the body and bodily practices. Amongst others, I thought about studying chemsex – the use of chemical substances to enhance sensual experiences during sexual intercourse – and “proving” practices of homosexuality in Turkey (see “Enacting the homosexual body”). A wonderful husband in Berlin and political developments in Turkey lead me to do fieldwork at home, in Berlin. Now, let me tell you what’s so interesting about hairdressing.
What’s so interesting about hairdressing?
“What kind of hairstyle do you have in mind?”, my hairdresser asks while I am sitting in a comfortable chair in a branch of a higher-priced hairdresser’s in Berlin. My body covered by a kimono-like black cape, I look at her through the mirror. I explain that having had a “regular” men’s haircut for a while now, I want something more special. A sharp line dividing the longer top section of hair from the back and the sides maybe? Sort of an undercut? I point at her colleague: “More or less like his haircut.”
My hairdresser frowns and runs her fingers through my hair while explaining that the “natural movement” of my hair does not match the sharp lines of an undercut. Additionally, have I had a look at her colleague’s hair? He has much thicker and darker hair, making it easier for the line to come to the fore. She could cut it, though, but for the hairstyle to look “well-cut” rather than “untidy” I must blow-dry and style my hair every morning.
While cutting and styling my hair, she explains which kind of products she is using. First, she applies a sea salt spray which is supposed to give more structure to my hair. After blow-drying, she uses another spray – “no hairspray!”, she emphasizes – that gives my hair an extremely dull and wiry texture. I don’t like it because the particles falling from my head look like dandruff and so I decide to wash it out at home.
So, what happened in the hairdressing salon? – A lot, and a lot of different things. I went into the salon and came out as a more styled version of myself. Bodies are modified in the salon through working on and with hair. And by modifying hair, style and styled bodies are being crafted. Therefore, I ask in my research how specifically styled bodies emerge in the hairdressing salon through modifying hair. So, here are four points that make hairdressing an interesting topic to study.
1 – Body modifications: “An anthropological classic”
In the Berlin hairdressing salon, attention is focused on the body and how it can be modified. Yet, it is not the body as a whole – remember that most of the body is hidden under a cape – but hair that is put center stage. The materiality of hair – its structure, texture, color – is talked about, but also touched, cut, trimmed and more. The shape of hair is modified by putting work into it, including the use of products, techniques of applying dye or cutting hair, and tools such as scissors, blow-dryers and brushes.
With my focus on body modifications I resort to an “anthropological classic”. Tattoos in Polynesia (Gell 1993), in Mozambique (Gengenbach 2003), or in Papua New Guinea (Barker and Tietjen 1990), body paint, coiffure, lip plugs, and penis sheaths in the Brazilian Amazon (Turner 1995) or self-decoration among the people of Mount Hagen (Strathern 1979) have drawn anthropologists’ interest for some decades. But practices of altering the body’s appearance also became a focus of feminist scholars. Especially beauty surgeries have been discussed thoroughly. Do they provide a possibility for feminist utopias (Davis 1997) or is it just another way to control women’s bodies (Balsamo 1992)?
With my research, I want to draw on the diverse scholarship on body modifications by transferring their focus on “extreme” and “exotic alterations” to the rather mundane activity of hairdressing. That’s the first cool thing about hairdressing: I take a classic, but change its focus.
2 – Bodies are not out-there, but done
And here’s the second thing. In many studies on body modifications, one gets the impression that there are three separate entities – culture/society, the body, and the self. Approaches seem to assume that (1) there are social structures which may subjugate the self by inscribing the body, (2) there is the self that may express itself and work upon an out-there world using the body as a tool, (3) and there is the body which seems to serve as a transhistorical and transcultural medium for either culture or the self. It is just there. Always and everywhere the same – a matter of fact that is unquestioned.
I want to take another stance on the body in my research. It is not just there, a given that needs no further explanation. No, the body is done. In this claim, I draw on the scholarship in Science and Technology Studies (STS) that emphasizes the enactment of reality in situated practices and heterogenous constellations. This means that a body becomes different things in different situations. M’charek (2010), for instance, tells the story of how her long, dark, curly hair became Arab hair in the climate of the Iraq War, making her an Arab woman. As a consequence, she cut her hair short. But when walking next to a veiled friend on an “oriental market” in the Netherlands, her hair, the head scarf of her friend, and the setting of the market turned her body into the body of an immigrant man, wrongly accused of touching the buttocks of a Dutch woman. Due to this instability of bodies – they become different things in different constellations and practices – Haraway (1991, 208) concludes that “Bodies as objects of knowledge are material-semiotic generative nodes. Their boundaries materialize in social interaction; ‘objects’ like bodies do not pre-exist as such”.
So, that’s my second point taken from feminist STS: Bodies are enacted in “materializing practices” (Taylor 2005). With respect to my topic, this means that bodies are not a raw material that is worked upon in the salon. Only in specific practices and relations that include the use of tools and products, but also talk about hair structure, styled bodies are being done. They are enacted. Remember how the materiality of my hair only came to matter during my visit at the hairdresser’s: The hairdresser had to feel my hair with her own fingers and evaluated my hair with regard to my preferred cut. And there it was: my hair’s natural movement. Then she compared my hair structure and color with her colleague’s and used a sea salt spray for more structure. And my hair became thin and blond hair. I came into the salon wanting a new stylish haircut and in the salon, my hair’s natural movement, its blond color and thin structure came to matter.
3 – Crafting style
I further attend to the hairdressing salon as a site in which style is crafted as quality of the body and deployed to perform (gendered) identities. Note that I did not go to the hairdresser out of pure necessity. I wanted to have a new style as I was bored with my “regular men’s cut”. For a hip new hairstyle, I did not choose any salon, but came from Potsdam to Berlin and went to a higher-priced salon that is well known for its trendy styles. On the one hand, this observation shows that style is used to distinguish oneself from others (“regular” men, in my case) and to express one’s belonging to a certain group (hip, young, urban Berliners).
On the other hand, my experience at the hairdresser’s points out that a style is not easily achieved. Style not only expresses meaning and belonging. First, skilled work has to be put into hair and certain conditions have to be provided in order to craft and maintain a specific style. When my hairdresser suggested that I need to blow-dry my hair every morning, she assumed that I have a blow-dryer at home, a reliable energy supply for this appliance, a space where to blow-dry my hair, and – most importantly – the knowledge of how to do it (see “The hows and whys in hairdressing”). That’s number three: Style means something to people and it requires a lot of things (knowledge, products, tools…) to craft style and let a styled body emerge.
4 – Performing gendered bodies
As described above, my hair – its color, structure, thinness – was not just there, but it was enacted in the hairdressing salon. My hairdresser felt the natural movement of my hair, she compared it to her colleague’s hair, she modified its structure with products. Hair is done while it also takes an active role in the doing of styled, but also gendered bodies. A haircut forms part of making a “regular man” or a hip urban Berliner. That’s what Butler (1999) terms gender performance: A man is not a man once and for all. Gender identities have to be performed, over and over again, for instance with the help of a specific haircut.
Hair may be conceptualized as a material attribute – a “prop” (Mol 2002, 39) – that can support (or contradict) a gender performance. But we have to keep in mind my own and M’charek’s above mentioned examples. My experience shows that hair as an object is not just out-there, but it is also performed – often as part of the body. Additionally, M’charek’s example shows that hair can be a quite unreliable prop in that it doesn’t always stabilize the role one is playing. In one moment, M’charek was a short-haired woman walking next to a friend on a market. In the next, her short hair in relation to a lot of other circumstances turned her body into the body of an immigrant man.
Here’s my last point why hairdressing is an interesting topic to study: Hair can make a woman, a man or a person who defies either category. But it is much more complicated than this. When does hair help to make a man’s body and which kind of a man – “regular” or hip? This is one question which I will further investigate during my fieldwork.
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Cover picture: © Max Schnepf