Article courtesy of The Conversation, written by Sarah Gold McBride
In 2004, the North Korean government launched one of the oddest television campaigns in recent history: “Let’s trim our hair in accordance with the socialist lifestyle.”
Accompanied by radio and print ads, the five-part TV series urged North Korean men to wear their hair short. State-approved haircuts, the campaign explained, ranged in length from one to five centimeters, with seven centimeters permitted for men over 50 who sought to hide a balding scalp.
Why, exactly, did the government care so much about how North Korean men chose to wear their hair? Long hair, the campaign argued, “consumes a great deal of nutrition” and thus threatened “human intelligence development” by depriving the brain of necessary energy.
Pseudoscientific ideas aside, state media also suggested that hair represented something deeper. The newspaper Minju Choson claimed that hair is a “very important issue that shows the people’s cultural standards and mental and moral state.”
This bizarre campaign might strike a Western reader as just another idiosyncratic North Korean story. But the idea that hair can reflect someone’s character didn’t originate with Kim Jong-il.
Until the early 20th century, people across the United States believed that hair could expose the truth about the person from whose head it sprouted. Hair was not just a means of creative self-expression or political affiliation, as it became in the middle of the 20th century – when it could signal to others that you were a hippie, a company man or a black nationalist. Nor was it simply a subject of ridicule, like Donald Trump’s hair – a source of endless speculation and mockery.
Instead, hair was understood to be a reliable – even scientific – method for quickly classifying a stranger. Hair, many 19th-century Americans believed, could reveal qualities like courage, ambition or criminal inclinations.
It also held exceptional weight in conversations about race.