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5 Questions For Kurt Stenn, Author of Hair: A Human History

Maggie Mulhern | March 7, 2016 | 8:56 AM

When the book Hair: A Human History (by Kurt Stenn, Pegasus Books) arrived to our offices, we were thrilled. We LOVE any observation of hair, from the professional, consumer and even academic point of view. Stenn has been studying hair for more than 30 years and has had a distinguished twenty-year academic career as a Professor of Pathology and Dermatology at the Yale University School of Medicine. For 10 years he served as the Director of Skin Biology at Johnson & Johnson. We checked in with the author with five questions:

MODERN SALON: Why did you write this book?
KURT STENN: I wrote this book because it was my impression and experience that most people take the rather limited view that hair is just what’s on your head. But in fact, hair has played a role in many aspects of human life. Of course, the most important role of hair in modern society centers around the messages sent by different hairstyles—who you are or who you what other to believe you are—but it’s also played a role in world exploration (as tied to the fur trade), in the arts (where it’s used to make artist’s brushes and the bows of musical instruments), as a cover for tennis balls and as an absorbent to clean up oil spills. We take hair for granted, but it’s actually had a major impact on the course of human history.

MS: Why should hairdressers read this book?
KS: I hope hairdressers will enjoy the descriptions in the book —first of the various personal messages hair can help project (such as health, sexiness, authority, status, wealth, or happiness), and secondly  of the many ways hair has been used throughout history to better human life.

Hair is a really remarkable fiber. Not only is it one of the strongest fibers in nature—so strong that a lock of hair can lift a human person—but it is also a great heat insulator, an electrical resistor, a fire retardant, and a means of sensation. In the day-to-day business of hair, it can sometimes be easy to forget the chemical and structural properties that make all of our manipulation—curling, straightening, dyeing, and the like—possible.

And, of course, I hope that hairdressers will be interested in the parts of the book where I talk about the life of hair apart from being on the body at all:  as a medium for sculpture, as a token to remember the dead, and as evidence in criminal investigation.

MS: What was the most interesting thing you learned while researching this book?
KS: My particular study of hair focuses on the follicle and follicular diseases, so it was fun to spend more time researching historical hairstyles. It was fascinating to see how fickle styles can be; they can persist for years or decades and then suddenly become dated or irrelevant. For example, the 18th century American religious community considered young women sporting long flowing hair to be dangerous and seductive, but in the late 19th century when the bobbed hairdo became stylish, the same religious community thought that short hair was now the dangerous and seductive hair style. I am fascinated by the kaleidoscopic nature of hairstyles and their interpretation over time, place, culture and situation.

MS: Have YOU changed how you care for your hair as a result of the research?
KS: My own hair hasn’t changed although I learned to respect new hairstyles and their origins. In fact, I’ve slowly come to embrace the completely-shaved head as an acceptable—even attractive —style for men. I did some research specifically into Yul Brynner and his influential role in the cultural acceptance of shaven-baldness. Throughout history, baldness has been associated with illness, decrepitude, or religious sacrifice, but in the 1950’s when Brynner took on the role of king in “The King and I, ”he shaved his head. The audience associated Brynner’s bald head with the character who projected authority, sexuality and success. With time, this fashion became the grounds for our now-famous cue-ball celebrities like Bruce Willis, Pitbull, and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.

MS: What is the most important take-away lesson from this book from a professional point of view? 
KS: I hope that hairdressers will get out of the book a greater understanding of the potential messages hair can send—that hair plays a crucial role in how we present ourselves and how we understand each other.  A specific hairdo can elicit romantic embraces, deferential respect, religious inspiration, or ,under extreme conditions, even abrupt rejection. The overarching take-away lesson is that managing hair is no trivial matter.

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