Whose Hair Is It, Anyway?

Post Author: Sarah Kinney Gaventa

Ah, hair. Who knew the collection of threads growing out of our heads could be the source of such contemplation and consternation! Nearly every young clergy woman I know has had at least several conversations with herself and others about what her hair means both to her and her congregation. Here are a few of the dilemmas:

Long or Short?

A woman’s long hair may or may not be her crowning glory, but it is certainly an object of interest. Long hair is associated with youth, with femininity, with fertility. One YCW (young clergy woman) in Maryland with long, straight hair has been asked by a parishioner, “When are you going to get a grown up haircut?” For her, long hair is an expression of who she is, which is a young woman. Should she adopt a shorter haircut because it would give her a more “adult” appearance? Would she, should she be respected more with a bob or Hillary Clinton ‘do?’
Another YCW has unusually long hair, but never wears it down when working. For her, long hair gives her something that is purely her own. She writes, “Having long hair is kind of a private thing. It has become something that is mine, and something that I can reveal only to those I want to. It’s one part of my life that is still my own. I like how, when I do take my hair down, it reveals this whole other side of me. Maybe it’s a projected or wished-for mystique.” For this YCW, having two hairstyles helps her separate her personal and professional life. When so much is demanded of a clergyperson, hair can help root us in our own identity, as a symbol of who we are as a person, not just as a minister.

The Frump Factor

I grew my own hair long for my wedding, and often pulled it back for work, into what I thought was a sleek ponytail. Last summer, one of my favorite parishioners, a woman only a few years older than I am, said completely sincerely, “You know what I like about you? Your hair isn’t perfect.” I laughed, went to the bathroom to look in a mirror, and sure enough, my “sleek ponytail” was complemented by a crown of wispy frizz outlining my face. Soon thereafter, I had my hairdresser cut my hair into a graduated bob. My hair may never be perfect, but it certainly doesn’t have to look frumpy.
Most YCWs I know consciously fight against the frump factor. The clerical life lends itself to a certain harried sloppiness. Most clergywomen dress modestly, as befits their position, and many wear clerical shirts, limiting their fashion choices. However, in order to save themselves from the slow descent into wearing aubergine jumpers and holiday themed sweaters, many YCWs try to wear well-fitting clothes, eye catching shoes, and a chic haircut.
This anti-frump fight may be about vanity, but it is also about identity, I think. Part of being a young woman in America in 2008 is to be confronted with fashion magazines, a glut of J. Crew catalogs in your mailbox, and the ever-present makeover shows on Oprah and TLC. (I’ve been known to lose an entire evening held captive by “What Not to Wear”.) The idea of expressing yourself through your clothing, hair and makeup is as ingrained in us as needlepoint techniques were ingrained in our great-grandmothers. Knowing how to flatiron hair successfully has replaced knowing how to iron a shirt as a mark of adult femininity.
On the other hand, as ministers we are called to represent Christ to others, which involves some degree of letting go of our own image (and perhaps our flatirons) in order to be a window to the Kingdom of God around us. Whether we like it or not, we are the public face of the Church.

The Public Face

While our parishioners do not own our hair, they are affected by it. And thus our final hair dilemma is born. When do those we serve get a vote on how we wear our hair? Sometimes appropriate boundaries are firmly crossed.

A YCW shares this story: The funniest/scariest story I have about preaching and hair took place in a
very small, rural congregation that must have worked up quite a bit of courage to invite me in the first place. I had not yet learned about hairspray and bobby pins for unruly bangs. I did know not to fidget with them, though, and they were slightly longer than they should have been. So, mea culpa. There. I’ve said it. BUT this does not justify the 50-year-old man who, instead of shaking my hand in the germiest ritual of pastoral life, the end of service receiving line, reached up and TUCKED MY HAIR BEHIND MY EAR FOR ME saying, ‘There. Isn’t that better?’ I wasn’t sure whether to feel like a five-year-old or a trollop.”

Thankfully, sometimes our parishioners are able to articulate how our haircuts affect their ability to hear the word of God through us, rather than repositioning our hair themselves. Being either stupid or
incredibly narcissistic, I got my own hair cut into the aforementioned bob the day our parish left for our parish weekend at a local retreat center. I spent two days basking in the glow of parishioners’ compliments, as my husband rolled his eyes.

The first Sunday I preached with the haircut, though, a handful of parishioners complained that my hair fell in my eyes and distracted them. Some offered helpful suggestions like, “You need a hair clip!” While at first I was irritated that they would offend my glorious new haircut, after I caught myself brushing my hair out of my eyes for the third time one sermon, I thought perhaps they were onto something. Now, I keep a headband in the vesting room and I try to remember to put it on immediately before preaching.

Making adjustments to adapt to our congregations’ needs can be done with resentment or with a sense of fun. The niece of a YCW may have the answer to this dilemma of balancing our congregation’s needs with our own. This YCW in New England writes, “My oldest niece played with my Clergy Barbie doll all week. It was hilarious, because she kept doing all these little plays about worship. She went out to Old Navy and came home with these tiny barrettes for Clergy Barbie. Someone made a comment about getting her (Barbie’s) hair out of her eyes to preach, and Stephanie said, “These are NOT to get her hair out of her eyes. These are Jesus bling barrettes.”

For me, this image of Jesus bling barrettes captures both the fundamental silliness of this whole conversation about hair, and also the joy of serving God as young women in the 21st century. We have the luxury of being allowed to participate in ordained ministry and the luxury of worrying about our hair. We have the freedom to do work only men were allowed to do for many years, while still wrestling with a fundamental feminine issue. We have the gift of working out what it means to be serve Christ, while being fully ourselves. What joy. What freedom. What a gift.

The Rev. Sarah Kinney Gaventa is the Associate Rector at Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Greenwood, Virginia. She continues to enjoy her new haircut, but is distressed by the seeming multiplication of grey hairs that is occurring in it.

Image by: Jo_Johnson, lexie janney, Milada Vigerova, Hust Wilson
Used with permission
18 replies
  1. Ellen L-D
    Ellen L-D says:

    Fantastic article! I have been struggling with the appropriate hairstyle for naturally curly hair. I’ve done long and short. For services, especially baptisms (grabby little hands love hair), I try to pin my hair up in a way that allows my curls to look their best and for people to think I had my hair done by a professional.
    On another note, I had a friend at university said to me before I went to seminary, that I couldn’t become a minister because my hair was long and curly. I’m not quite sure where that stipulation is in the “Called or Not Handbook.” Thank you so much for the article and the image of Jesus bling barrettes!

  2. Heather Culuris
    Heather Culuris says:

    Make-up or not make-up, nail polish or not nail polish?
    Long hair or short hair…..
    What kind of shoes to wear…
    Jewelry or no jewelry…. Too skinny? Too heavy?
    How many of our male colleagues even ask themselves any of these questions before worship on Sunday morning?

  3. Cardelia
    Cardelia says:

    Heather, I ask my hubbie this quite often. (We co-pastor a small church) At first he would just laugh, but as of late the comments about style have been directed towards him. He’s 33 and several members feel he is too old and a little too heavy for jeans and t-shirts. So he has, reluctantly made the move to slacks and a sport coat. He even has me approve his tie and haircuts now!
    I run into the hair problem every Sunday. I have wave to my hair, not real curl unless I puta lot of product in. I am expecting our second child and my hair has rapidly grown out of its grown-up bob and my bangs fall into my face every time I preach. I can’t help tucking them back 4 to 5 times at least! sigh. I keep reminding myself to be glad that I don’t have to wear a hat or veil to hide myself. Praise be to God for little things like that!(yes even for the greys that are overtaking my 29 year old hair)

  4. Teri
    Teri says:

    I have actually been told (a few years ago now) that I’d have to straighten my (long, curly) hair in order to be taken seriously.
    I refused.
    People seem to be taking me at least relatively seriously here, though I do occasionally get comments about how cute I am.
    I love my hair. I have a great stylist. I’m tired of the stereotype that curly hair = sexuality or that long hair = young. So I am simply refusing to bow to those pressures, and, in this community, it seems to be going okay–thank goodness!
    Thanks for a great article…I know the YCM I work with doesn’t think about these issues at all…

  5. Elizabeth
    Elizabeth says:

    I too have the long hair, and I refuse to cut it short. I notice how far too many of my colleagues have gotten stuck in the “female clergy boy hair” look. I have also found my hair changing: as a child, it was straight as a bone. When I hit puberty, it went into these long, loose ringlets. In the last few years, it’s been falling back into straight as a bone. And all along, it’s been very thick and heavy.
    Recently, my hair was behaving in the morning. I had it down and straight. By the time the funeral service came along, the Connecticut post-storm humidity had my long hair growing into a giant mop twice its normal size. The Altar Guild directoress helped me tie it back, using a prayer book ribbon from Lent. (The shame!)
    Sometimes I consider cutting it back, but I am afraid of ending up in the “mom rut”, especially since I don’t have kids! I want hair that is fun… also hair I can tie back when I am running around in the trauma room at the hospital… also hair that says “professional, take me seriously”… also hair that says “Not your grandkid!”.
    The things our male colleagues never have to think about, eh? The directoress did quite accurately state that she never had to help Fr. Whatshisname with his braids!

  6. Susan O
    Susan O says:

    I’m curious, too, about short hair. I had short hair for the first 10 years of ministry (when I was young). I was constantly told it wasn’t “feminine” enough. I remember one woman saying to me, “just because you have a boy’s job doesn’t mean you have to have boy’s hair.” (I loved my haircut, by the way!) I’m a bit older than y’all, but wondered if the comments against short hair are still alive and kicking, or if this is something that has died out?

  7. ann
    ann says:

    susan, the comments still exist. some occasionally ask me when i’m going to grow my hair back out, because it’s more girly. i honestly think my parishioners would prefer it more traditionally “feminine,” so it’s interesting to read the long-haired comments. i try to ignore all hair-related comments (with varying degrees of success). i don’t feel like i’ve succumbed to any pressure to cut it short but rather am maintaining delusions of hipness with my short, trendy ‘do.

  8. Meaghan
    Meaghan says:

    Just this morning I was approached by one of the women that comes to our 7:30am service. She informed me that a group of women go out for breakfast after the service, and after last week the topic of my hair came up in conversation. One woman said to the woman who shared the comment with me “Do we have to be the ones to tell Meaghan she has to wear her hair up?”
    I’m not sure if they said this because my hair looked particularly bad this past Sunday (which it did. My hair goes straight and curly. Both look nice, but this past week it was in between, which just looks gross.) If that’s why they mentioned it, I would be okay. I always appreciate that honest friend that says “uh, you might want to do something with your hair.” They are always right. I’m afraid, however, that this comment came with different motivation and intent. Am I too feminine? Do I threaten them? Truth be told I wear my hair down most weeks on purpose so that I can have a slim grasp on my femininity, otherwise lost in my clergy potato-sack shirt.
    My boss, and thank God for him, upon hearing this story demanded that I wear my hair down this Sunday.
    Mostly I just want to tell these women to find something more important to talk about at breakfast.
    Thanks for this article Sarah!

  9. Elsa
    Elsa says:

    I cut my hair in seminary. I had spent two years growing my hair 13 inches for Locks of Love. I wanted it to be longer so that I could have the girlish long hair I had always loved. When my hair became a snarled not (I was serving a church as an intern), I chopped it short and have never gone back.
    I started to feel bad about this until last summer. I went to the YCW Preacher Conference in DC and had so many compliments. Sometimes I think the support of our peers is more important.

  10. Heidi
    Heidi says:

    My hair has always made up a significant part of my identity. Since being a sophomore and high school, I’ve had long, straight hair – as long as waist-length. Every time I cut it, I regret it… so I let it grow long again. Once I had it cut to shoulder length in order to appear more professional (this was upon the advice of a consultant who came to talk to female seminarians about professional attire) and regretted it my first Sunday in the pulpit. It was my fault – the cut was too blunt… I felt like a clergy-woman neck-down and a second-grader neck up.
    One difficult thing about having long hair as a preacher or worship leader is that it can migrate from my back to my front and get in the way of my lapel mic. For that reason, my husband and I have a little system in place. If he notices that my hair is getting in the way of the mic, he takes his glasses off until I move my hair. 🙂

  11. Amy S
    Amy S says:

    Ah! I’m so relieved to read this! I have curly/straight hair, and just don’t seem to have a talent with layer management. It’s amazing how much thought-time the hair can take up. Need to find a good stylist, probably.

  12. Sharon
    Sharon says:

    THANK YOU for this article. I have been so frustrated by my experiences with church members who speak with such proprietary rudeness about *my* hair – but this article and all the responses help me feel not as alone. Hopefully I’ll be able to laugh it off a little more!

  13. Laura
    Laura says:

    I recently decided to (shock!) have my hair colored. I’ve always kept my hair shoulder lenght or shorter (because I live in a cold winter climate and when its too long it takes too long to blow dry). Sometimes I get comments when I go from shoulder lengthback to a chin-length bob, but I’ve never gotten as many comments as I did a few months ago as when I decided to put auburn and blonde highlights in my hair. It was like I had defiled my hair or something (I personally thought it looked great – AND I even got a few dates because, well it made me feel good about myself). But my congregation (in particular the women) really went spaz about it. Great article!

  14. Melissa Lynn D
    Melissa Lynn D says:

    I love how many respond to a post about hair. For me, hair has so much to do with hwo good I feel about myself. When I start feeling like life is out of control and I am at the bottom of the pile, I cut my hair. My hairdresser is very use to those days I walk in and say “make me beautiful.” Make me feel better about who I am and my life at this moment. It seems to work… for a little while. When I gave birth to my second daughter (they are only 19 months apart) my hair went shorter than it ever has, all in some feeble attempt to feel better about myself (post baby body) and gain some control over, somthing. And when most of my hair is cut short, then I get into color. You know my life is not so good when my hair is shorter than my husbands and some bizzare shade of red (natural color is dark blonde). Thank goodness my congregation knows none of this… actaully I can’t believe I just made this confession here!!

  15. Rob Andrew
    Rob Andrew says:

    Since when does “imperfect” equal “frumpy”? Frankly, I think highly of women in every walk of life who have the courage to wear feminine long hair. the Bible does call a woman’s hair her “glory”, and while I think it’s silly to believe that hair length has anything to do with salvation, the cropped Joyce Meyer looks stiff and androgynous to me.
    My thought: Grow it and be grateful that God made you a woman. I’m with your husband, Sarah!

  16. Edward Green
    Edward Green says:

    As a male Priest with longer (straightened) hair I frequently get comments about my hair after the service. Not in general about how I should get it cut shorter (most folks round here don’t find it a huge issue, and some have told me never to have it cut) but how it looks that morning.
    At a recent Clergy bash I did realise that my hair was longer than not only nearly all of the men’s, but longer than most of the women’s too.

  17. Short Hairstyles
    Short Hairstyles says:

    Hey, great article. Although I personally do not believe it is a sin for women to have short hair, I know that many people do, and taken literally from the bible it could be construed as that. I have listed a website where you can get some great short hairstlye ideas, however, if you want some. Keep up the good work on this site! Love it!


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