Don’t let the hair fool you |

Don’t let the hair fool you

Alan Braunholtz

It’s easy for many year-round residents with our regular jobs, children and other demands to forget that opening day once controlled our lives. For the migrating hordes of seasonal workers it still does, as they struggle to time their arrival in time to find housing but not too early that there’s no work.

Now I’m on the other side of that work/hiring process and trying hard to remember what the transient ski job lifestyle felt like so I can at least be “somewhat cool” and not make too many “my lifestyle” judgments in the interview process. While hard to ever totally control those appearance-based prejudices, it’s easy to be aware that they’re there and challenge them.

Hairstyles are weird in how powerful they are, but then human hair is strange. Apart from the musk ox no mammals have hair that continually grows. A cat’s hair gets to its desired length then stops. Our head hair grows from about 4 to 7 years at 1-1.5 cm per month, rests for a brief while, then falls out before the cycle starts again.

Though we have more hair follicles on our body than a furry cat, most of us have very fine vellus hair with short growing periods so we’re naked, not fluffy. The explanations for this are varied: Our ancestor Homo erectus moving into the hot savannah where less hair allows better thermoregulation; an adaptation to when they lived in swamps or rivers; cultural developments created new selection pressures, i.e. once someone started burning fires and using skins etc. for extra warmth, then dense body hair would be less useful or a handicap as it’s a nice home for parasites and taking off a coat allows one to deal with hot days much better than panting in the shade with your dog.

While our body hair disappeared, the hair on our heads went the other way. Left alone, most of us would have locks down to our waist, which isn’t that practical hence the invention of hairdressers – probably a very ancient trade. Gorillas, bonobos, etc. don’t need haircuts though many apes do possess natural “hairstyles” with tufts, moustaches, beards etc.

Being well fed is key to growing hair. Long, lustrous locks are a good advertisement to how well you’re doing. The Fabio style could be the end result of Fisherian runaway natural selection. Runaway selection explains things like peacocks tails; a female pre-peacock develops a genetic trait that prefers males with longer tails. Any lucky male with a longer tail is more likely to have babies from her because of that. Their offspring will inherit genes for both the trait and the longer male tail. The longer tail will give those males a slight advantage (due to the presence of some chicks who dig cute tails) and they’ll have more babies etc. This’ll keep going and going with tails getting longer and longer until the cost of such a tail (getting eaten more often as you stand out to predators) equals the sexual advantage it gives you.

For humans, long hair isn’t enough; it has to look good, which shows social standing as someone cares enough to groom it, wash it, cut it, etc. Apes spend a lot of time grooming each other with the social outcasts looking a bit ratty. Perhaps that’s why we tend to portray lunatics and outcasts ” like Jack Nicholson in “The Shining.” He’d be less scary with a nicely coiffed ‘do.

If our hair is only there to be cared for we’re probably very attuned to how it looks and we use it as a display. The first thing kids do when asserting independence? Change their hairstyle. Rastafarians, Punks, Roundheads, Ronin with top knots; we’ve been doing it for 200,000 years, ever since modern humans evolved. The 2,300-year-old man found preserved in a peat bog in Ireland had hair gel for that spiky look. Blondes are a relatively new feature, only showing up about 11,000 years ago.

Fortunately, businesses now tolerate more varied tribal hairstyles than the generic corporate one, but it may be how healthy and groomed the hair looks rather the style itself that matters. Something to consider when pushing that trade-off between sexual advantage in the bars versus potential cost in the employment sector.

See how interesting interviewing can be!

Alan Braunholtz of Vail writes a weekly column for the Daily.

Vail Daily, Vail, Colorado

Support Local Journalism