In the hairdresser's chair: negotiating an appropriate image in later life

Caroline Anne Holland, Richard Ward

The Open University, UK, Queen Margaret University, UK

WS171: Age, image, identity: Exploring ageing and ageism in contemporary Britain

The social sciences have witnessed an explosion of interest in the body as a site of cultural meaning. It has been described as central to the experience of ageing: a place where individuals can recognise their own ageing, and from where this recognition can be reflected or rejected in the expression of identity. Yet to date few commentators have acknowledged the signifying quality of hair as one of the more malleable aspects to image and identity. Hairstyles, whether intentionally styled or not, invite judgements of the person to which they belong. They provide information about social class, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation and age. For both men and women the physical effects of ageing hair have social consequences in placing the individual within the category of ‘older’. For women in particular, details such as the length of hair and decisions about whether or not to apply colour become complicated by cultural norms concerning appropriateness and ‘growing old gracefully’. How an individual deals with their ageing hair makes a de facto statement about their ageing and their attitude to it.

The paper draws on data gathered for a national study of older people’s experiences of age discrimination (the RoAD Project), which involved older people as co-researchers. The project revealed the different forms of bias that older people face in contemporary Britain across a wide range of situations. Interest in experiences at the hairdressers stemmed from how well these particular service encounters illustrated the everyday forms of discrimination revealed by the project. Fieldwork carried out in a local salon investigated how older (female) clients and hairdressers negotiated the styling and colouring of hair. Age was shown to be salient to these encounters with notions of age appropriateness a topic of active negotiation and sometimes pressure and coercion between worker and client.

The paper is organised around a series of questions that arise from the RoAD data: How is a hairstyle selected and produced and what meanings are attached to it? What language do hairdressers and customers use to describe appropriateness? How does the hairdressing salon function as a site where images of old age are constructed and reproduced? And, what do hairstyles and styling tell us about the broader issue of image and appearance in later life?

Session: Workshop
Age, image, identity: Exploring ageing and ageism in contemporary Britain
Saturday, April 5, 2008, 09:00-10:30
room: 02