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Thursday, 16 September 2004

"Letting your hair down"--what does it mean biblically?

The thought came to me today that I could use Google to research idiom usage in both formal and informal language; something that would have taken thousands of hours in a university library ten years ago can now be done in a couple of minutes at an Internet computer terminal anywhere in the world. I began by asking myself, "What are the social connotations of the idiom "let your hair down"?

This is what I discovered, and it opened a world of understanding to the interpretation of a very difficult passage of Scripture.

1) First of all, the phrase has a base literal meaning of taking long hair that had been artificially confined at the top or back of the head and releasing it to hang freely down the back of the neck and shoulders. Thus, the hair is restored to a natural state of being from a temporary state that was imposed on it for reasons not implicitly utilitarian. This meaning survives, but is only a tiny fraction of the uses. Most uses are idiomatic, but all are based primarily or secondarily on the basic literal meaning.

2) Closely tied to the literal meaning, the secondary usage of this idiom refers to literally changing from professional to casual attire. The idea behind this usage is that long hair is to be confined when in professional mode, but can be released for relaxation. This in turn leads to the third meaning, which is purely symbolic.

3) The tertiary usage of this idiom simply represents a change in demeanor, behavior, or relationship from the forced and professional to the natural and casual. Often the meaning is simply to give way to "being yourself" after struggling to meet someone else's expectations. This is something that can only be done when among friends, who are neither impressed nor fooled by such pretenses.

Now, the question is, how does this all relate to the notion that some people have that any woman without her hair up is, to whatever extent, not fully clothed? Let's look at the threefold implication of this threefold idiom:

1) Confining the hair is done for non-utilitarian reasons: that is, it serves a purpose beyond just that which benefits the hair itself. One must therefore ask, what are these reasons, and are they important? In First Corinthians Eleven, The Bible speaks of a woman's hair as a God-given covering, using the Greek prefix peri- which denotes that which wraps around. Some interpret this to mean that the hair must be wrapped up at the back of the head. If this were so, it would indicate that the natural, God-given purpose for women's hair is to be wrapped up at the back of the head. This idea is antithetical to the basic idiom, and seems to be purely the product of ad hoc reasoning. The logical interpretation of this use of the word seems to require that the usual state of a woman's hair be such that it is allowed to fall both forward and back, enveloping the shoulders as a covering--which, incidentally, is how Eve's hair is typically shown by biblical artists, literally serving as a modesty-covering in conjunction with strategically placed foliage. I don't know of any artist who has ever depicted our First Mother with her hair in a bun--either before or after she adopted clothing!
The Bible speaks elsewhere of a woman who obviously had her hair down--she used it to wipe Jesus' feet. That she was a prostitute and probably wore her hair that way professionally is a given, but the point is that Jesus commended her behavior, something he could not have done had some element of it been sinful. Her loose hair does hearken back to the trial of jealousy in Numbers 5, where something shameful is done to a woman's hair. Precisely what is not certain, as the hair itself is not mentioned, but the passage can be understood to refer to a forced, public uncovering of hair that is already down. Taken en toto, biblical references to woman's hair seem to indicate that there is nothing unnatural about woman's hair being down, thus lending credence to the inherent truism of the idiom. What is specifically noted as being unnatural is SHORT hair on a woman (1 Cor. 11:15), which reinforces the idea that visibly long (i.e., down and flowing) hair is the natural state. In contrast to this, a woman with moderately cropped hair can successfully conceal it by keeping her hair up and confined under an opaque covering, thus circumventing the shame that would otherwise be associated with cropped hair.

2) The above passages do hint at a symbolic reason for confining a woman's hair; the emphasis, however, is on confining it under a covering, rather than in a bun. An uncovered woman is said to be as shameful as a woman with no hair at all, which would seem to indicate that the hair itself, in its full length would be shamefully visible were the covering removed. The idiomatic meaning of "letting your hair down" always connotes casualness, never shame. The shamefulness of an uncovered woman, therefore, has nothing to do with whether her hair is up or down, but whether or not it is covered.

3) The idea of "just being yourself" has interesting implications. I have been in the homes of several women who treat putting up and covering their hair as a natural part of getting dressed. Should you catch them at home in the hour or so after they bathe, however, it becomes clear that they do not consider wearing their hair down as a modesty issue to the extent that they would consider running around the house in their underwear as a modesty issue. They remove their clothing, including the head covering, to bathe themselves, but they typically leave their heads uncovered when they emerge from the bath to dress, and continue to leave it loose while it dries, without any fear that they are exposing their nakedness to their guests.

What conclusions can I draw from this? First of all, while the Bible has nothing to say on the topic of whether or not a woman should wear her hair up or down, it does strongly discourage wearing it braided (I Timothy 2:9, I Peter 3:3), in a context of ostentatious adornment. While I do not understand exactly what Scripture means by such a seemingly senseless prohibition, I find this item interesting because when I joined the military, a decade after the regular military ratings began to open up to women, there was still a distinct difference in the way men and women were expected to dress, which included how they wore their hair. Women were allowed skirts; men weren't. Women were permitted to wear their coverings during prayer; men weren't. Women were even required to wear a distinctive covering which allowed for their volume of hair, a volume which was expected to be considerably greater than a man's. Women with long hair, however, were required to wear it up when in uniform. And braids were forbidden! Despite this item in the grooming standards, women typically braided their long hair, and inspectors were once heard to wonder, during a uniform inspection, why this would not be allowed, as it seemed to be the most sensible way to put hair up under a covering. In the military, then, "letting your hair down" could only be done off duty, out of uniform, whether or not the hair was braided. On a practical note, hair that is braided is not truly 'let down,' as this unnatural state will already have begun to unravel by the end of the day.

One of the principle by which we interpret Scripture is to test any interpretation of application by its universality. Since some women's hair is naturally short, and some naturally long, the shame mentioned in I Corinthians 11:6 must refer, not to the amount of hair that is showing, but to its nature: has it been cut, or allowed to grow to its full length? By wearing a woman's hair up and under a covering, it is impossible to expose one's hair to the scrutiny that would allow for such shame to occur.

It appears, then, that grooming style most fitting with the Scriptures is for a woman to wear her hair loose and down, but available at all times to be covered with a cloth that closely approximates the extent of the hair itself. In fact, the anti-braiding passages associate any arrangement of the hair beyond that which is purely natural with a level of ostentation totally unsuitable for a Christian woman. Having observed the practice of believers from India, I understand that this is how they have lived for centuries, except that they generally braid or otherwise confine their uncut hair which would otherwise become unmanageable at such a length. The major question in my mind is not whether or not they are less conservative then Scripture demands, but whether their practice will influence the rest of Christendom, or vice versa. It is not uncommon in my experience see the pastor's wife as the only woman in an Indian church not following this practice, if her husband has imbibed the draughts of Western Theological Education.

In Summary:

In General, a Christian woman can always feel free to have her hair down; she typically needs enter no situation where professional expectations on her require her to deport herself unnaturally. Her hair is to be covered while prophesying or praying, because then she has an audience of angels; at other times, she needs only to deport herself modestly, whether among friends or strangers. Even her obviously uncut hair, worn unostentatiously, is a constant reminder to her audience of her submission to Christ.

This, the first post, has continued to pull in viewers for a decade, averaging over two a month. I now offer the first update:
The difference between a Muslim woman and a Christian woman: the former can never let her hair down.

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