Tuesday, July 24, 2012

On Dyed Hair

In all the commentary about the Aurora, Colorado shooting this week, I wanted to reflect on what nobody else seems to be talking about - James Holmes' flaming orange hair.

Nobody really knows much about the motivation of James Holmes at this point; presumably this will become clear in the coming weeks. A few people have made comments about how "crazy" he looks with his wide eyes and orange hair. I don't know how and if his orange hair was any indication of underlying disorders or anything like that. In this case it seems clear that this individual was severely unbalanced and that the crazy way he wore his hair is indicative of his craziness in general.

Dyed hair is becoming more common in our culture, even among Christians. Is it always the case that dying one's hair a bizarre color is an indication that something is "wrong" with a person? While I admit this may be the case many times, I do not think dyed hair is always indicative of any sort of disordered life.

Many people I know take the opposite opinion. My own parish priest, whom I respect very much, takes the position that any well-balanced individual with properly ordered passions would never want to dye their hair orange or blue or green, etc. Therefore, according to this opinion, dyed hair is always a sign of something amiss with the person's interior life. There are several other folks I know who take this opinion, all good Catholics. However, I do have to disagree with this blanket assertion.

Certain behaviors can sometimes be indicative of underlying problems. A man who gets a vulgar word tattooed across his forehead has some issues; same with people that slice their own flesh with razor blades; ditto at girls who think it is attractive to take pictures of themselves making a duck face. But not all personal behaviors that go against social norms indicate a disordered life. Certainly a man may spend all his time alone in his room with the drapes pulled down because he is psychotic immersed in perverse fantasies; he may also do so because he is a saint with his mind on the kingdom to come. A man may wear a skirt because he a transvestite; he might also do so because he is a Scotsman (burn!). 

So it is with dyed hair, in my opinion. A boy or girl may choose to dye their hair because they want to shock and offend people, maybe because they are not properly integrated with their peers and do not really understand or know themselves and are disordered in many ways. I admit this can happen, and in the case of James Holmes, this probably is true. But a person may also dye their hair precisely because they do know themselves, and are very well-balanced. They may do so because they find it beautiful or because they want to be artistic. And why not? Blue hair may not be normal, but it is certainly not "ugly."

If we are to universally be against dying hair of blue, green or pink, I must ask why do we not react the same way against women whose hair is dyed blonde or brown? What about when someone going grey dyes their hair to its original color? If hair-dying is wrong then it is wrong and let's argue about why it is wrong, but let's not make a foolish stand on the colors themselves: brown is okay but green is not, blue is terrible but blond is stylish, dying gray hair black makes you look younger but dying black hair pink makes you look like a freak. If we start arguing about which colors are and are not acceptable, we have clearly moved into the realm of social norms, not absolute morality.

We should never mistake societal norms for absolute morality. Even in the best of cultures, societal norms can be reflections of absolute morality, but aren't synonymous with it. Even in a Christian culture, there are many behaviors that are social conventions that are in themselves of neutral or a least of debatable merit: hairstyles, types of commonly accepted dress, table etiquette, locations of piercings, taboos about what topic you can and can't talk about in polite conversation (in America this is politics, religion, and how much money you make). These are the norms of our society, the "average" of how people behave and talk, but they themselves are not morality, and we should never talk of manners, etiquette and social conventions as if practicing them constituted virtue. We can certainly explain their relevance in terms of politeness, but not morality. We do not want to be like the English teacher Thomas Merton talks about in Seven Storey Mountain who taught his students to recite 1 Corinthians 13 with the word "love" swapped out for the word "gentleman", replacing supernatural charity for mere natural gentility ("A gentleman is patient; a gentleman is kind. A gentleman does not envy...").

Besides, as Catholics we should be implicitly suspicious of prevailing societal norms. It does not matter if we live in a secular society or a Catholic one. The devout Catholic will always find himself going against the grain. It could be Benedict XVI condemning the immorality of the modern age, Fulton Sheen speaking out against the crass materialism of the 1950s, or St. Francis of Assisi protesting the lax Catholicism of his own century - we can never confuse the societal status quo with how it should be, nor conflate cultural protocol with morality absolutely, even if the two occasionally line up. Catholics of all people ought to know better.

In my own experience, a majority of these folks with dyed hair are just really creative people. They are not disordered, unbalanced or suffering from underlying emotional issues. They are just people who like the idea of blue hair and think it looks neat. And I agree with them. I would never dye my hair blue at this juncture in my life, but I do confess that I think hair dyed vibrant colors can be beautiful in its own way. Usually the people who do it are some of the most unique and thoughtful people I have ever met. In their case, the green or blue hair is not an expression of their disorder, but of their uniqueness. And though desire for uniqueness can be a form of pride, uniqueness itself is not. Remember, according to the Scholastics every angel in heaven is its own unique species.

So, while James Holmes' act was horrific and in his case the orange hair is probably an indicator that he was an unbalanced individual, let's not presume that we can always read so much about the state of people's souls by the color of their hair. 


Common Sense said...

No, pink hair is freakish.

Boniface said...

It can mean something, but it need not mean something every time.

David said...

Dear Boniface,

I would say that there is a little bit more nuance regarding social conventions. I would say that acting in accordance with such social conventions could indeed be argued to be a part of the virtue of prudence and the virtue of piety (in the sense of love for community).

That does not mean we should be "door mats" in regard to our surrounding culture, but we should not disdain it out of hand either. As I think St. Thomas says at one point, if one virtue is lacking all are. So if an excess of the virtues of piety or prudence make us lack in the virtue of fortitude or charity, then they are not in fact virtues but vices.

Let me quote from the Doctor of Charity, Saint Francis de Sales, on propriety in dress which I think intimates the subject at hand:

"St. Paul desires Christian women (and he undoubtedly includes men) to adorn themselves in decent apparel with modesty and sobriety (1 Tim. ii. 9). Now propriety in dress and its appearances consists in material, fashion, and cleanliness. As to the latter, it should be invariable; and as far as possible you should avoid all dirt or untidiness. Outward purity is as it were a type of that which is within; and God Himself specially required personal cleanliness of those who ministered at His altars, and took the chief part in devotion. As to the material and fashion of clothes, propriety in these respects depends upon various circumstances, such as time, age, rank, those with whom you associate; and it varies with different occasions. Most people dress better on festival days according to the season, and in penitential seasons, such as Lent, just the reverse. So at a wedding we wear marriage garments and at a funeral the garb of mourning, and when going into the presence of princes we dress differently from what we do at home. The wife may adorn herself to please her husband, and it is lawful for maidens to desire to be pleasing in the eyes of their friends. But every one despises old age when it would affect to adorn itself; such trifling can only be tolerated in youth.

Study to be neat, and let nothing about you be slovenly or disorderly. It is an affront to those with whom you associate to be unsuitably dressed, but avoid all conceits, vanities, finery, and affectation. Adhere as far as possible to modesty and simplicity, which, doubtless, are the best ornaments of beauty, and the best atonement for its deficiency. St. Peter admonishes women not to adorn themselves, with plaiting the hair and putting on apparel (1 St. Peter iii. 3), and such follies in men are altogether disgusting. We are apt to suppose that vain women are but weak in virtue, at any rate it is smothered in their ornaments and finery. They excuse themselves, saying that they see no harm; but I say, as I have said before, that the devil rejoices in such things. I would have my spiritual children always suitably attired, but without show or affectation. Theirs should be the incorruptible ornament of a meek and quiet spirit (1 Peter iii. 4). St. Louis summed up all in saying that every one should dress according to his station, so that wise men may not say, you are too fine, nor the young, you are too homely. But if the latter are not content with what is suitable, you must adhere to the counsel of the wise."

Now, in my opinion I think it a vanity to dye the hair in almost any case. Maybe there are exceptions that I can't think of, but it seems like an excess of attachment to earthly things.

In the Precious Blood,

David said...

The quote of Saint Francis was from Philothea by the way.


Boniface said...


Agreed, overall. But where I do not agree is in arguments like

Blonde hair = attractive
Blue hair = ugly

Of course we should all be neat, clean, etc., but I don't think blue or green hair equates to not being neat, clean, etc. It does mean one is different. But if dying hair is vanity, why is not dying it brown or blonde bad also? Are dredlocks vanity, too?

It seems there is no other criteria to judge this other than what is normal out in society, which I am uncomfortable basing this judgment on. It's really an etiquette issue.

Don't get me started on etiquette...

David said...

Dear Boniface, brother in Christ,

I think it a vanity to dye it brown or blonde as well, maybe even more so than green or blue, since brown and blonde are considered attractive and green or blue are not in general considered to be attractive. I say in general, but of course it can be done in a way that is neat and clean and even attractive.

I would say that green or blue hair in the way most people do it is rather the contrary of vanity, more of a shunning of the community's norms and etiquette. And that can be a vice, contrary in that case as I said to the virtue of piety and love for the community which feeds me.

There are changing circumstances which would render one act which is in and of itself neutral to be evil in one setting and good in another setting. To take an example from another field, distributive justice, the value afforded a certain labor, say engineering, can differ from culture to culture without making it in and of itself sinful to pay a low wage for an engineer (as long as the wage is just), but sinful in regards to the norms of the society.


Amateur Brain Surgeon said...

There may be any number of reason why an individual desires to change the natural color of their hair but I don't recall any Saints doing that.

But in an age of sublime superficiality, it is no surprise to see women and men with green hair, and chunks of metal sticking out of their eyebrows and lips but if anyone were to find a woman at an FSSP Mass who has dyed their hair green, you'd have a scoop :)

Dear Boniface. Does your wife hair green hair? ...your daughter?

Boniface said...

Haha, my wife and daughter have red hair, but it is natural.

But, if my daughter wanted to dye her hair green, I would not have any objection to it. I think it is colorful hair is beautiful. Besides, its not like they would keep it their whole life. Most of these people get rid of it when they actually have to go get a job.

I personally don't give a damn about society's conventions. In keeping with prudence and piety, we ought not go out of our way to offend people's sensibilities, but there is nothing particularly offensive about blue hair, and so long as a person is not doing it for the purpose of being offensive, I don't see any problem with it.

Vanity is always a problem, but there is a large continuum over where this factors in to the degree that an activity should not happen. For example, I have argued that women wearing makeup is vanity. Or could it be just wanting to look "nice"? Where is the dividing line? My thesis is that we cannot draw a dividing line here, it is up to the individual to judge, and in lieu of that, we should refrain from assuming that a hair color means something negative automatically.

Amateur Brain Surgeon said...

Dear Boniface. My Bride has strawberry blonde hair and our Daughter has stunningly beautiful auburn-red hair and if either of them told me they were going to dye their hair green, I'd threaten to use the rusty pop-top from an old Billy Carter can of beer to drain fluid from my optical nerve.

Sure, it makes no sense but it might be enough to stop them from doing something stupid.

And so, on to Cornelius a Lapide:

Fr. Cornelius a Lapide, S.J.

The attire of the body and the laughter of the teeth and the gait of the man
show what he is. (Ecclesiasticus 19:27)

"Interpreting this verse, Siracides gives four ways by which one can see, as through windows of the soul, the hidden virtues or vices, the simplicity or hypocrisy of a person.

"The first quite clear way is the outward appearance and the expression of the face, principally the eyes. The nature of a person shows and reveals itself by the eyes. For if the lamp of the body is the eyes, why is it surprising if that lamp should reveal the body? So, when one first meets a ferocious man, his eyes seem to spread terror; when one meets a pious man, his eyes spread joy. Just as wisdom and sanctity shine in the face of the wise and the holy, (Eccles, 8:1), so also foolishness and evil darken the face of the stupid and wicked.

"St. Ambrose (Book on Elias, chap. 10) admirably says: “The face is a witness of the thoughts and is a silent interpreter of the heart. The outward appearance is often a sign of the conscience and the unspoken words of the mind.”

"St. Augustine (Rule for the Servants of God, at the end) says: “Do not say that you have pure souls if you have impure eyes, because impure eyes are messengers of an impure heart.”

"The second way is the clothing or dress: overbearing apparel reveals interior pride, false dress reveals falsity; dissolute dress, dissolution; capricious apparel, capriciousness; grave clothing, gravity; sensual dress indicates and represents sensuality of spirit. Hence St. Augustine (Letter 73 to Possidium) says: “The true adornment of the Christian is not false make up, nor opulent and ostentatious dress, but rather good customs.”

"By means of the face, dress, and dissolute customs of Julian the Apostate, St. Gregory Nazianzen discerned his hidden impiety. He refers to it (Speech 2, in Julian) with these words: “Nor does it speak of any good to me to see a man with a weak neck, stooping shoulders, a constantly agitated bearing, insolent eyes and a roving and furious gaze, unstable and tottering feet, an offensive nose breathing contempt, and an arrogant and unrestrained laugh.” After describing his dissolute soul with other similar observations, he argues: “Hence his bearing speaks clearly: What a great evil the Roman land has nourished!” ….

"The third way is the laugh. Indeed, the sincere and regular laugh reveals a sincere, constant and open heart. The short, twisted, sardonic, and arrogant laugh reveals a narrow, twisted, fraudulent, and arrogant spirit and signifies an imbued hatred. In this respect Rabanus says that by the bearing of the body one demonstrates the quality of the will. ….

"The fourth way is the manner of walking. The fast and precipitate way of walking is a symptom of the impulsive spirit, just as the slow step reveals slowness of spirit; the light step, lightness of spirit; the arrogant step, an arrogant spirit; the furious step, an angry spirit; and an affected or feigned step, falseness of spirit.

"For this reason, Bede (in Proverbs) says: “The movement of the body demonstrates the habit of the mind.”

"And St. Bernard (On the Way to Live Well, chap. 9) says: “Let your way of walking be simple, and your step honest. No shame, no sensuality, no arrogance, no insolence, no frivolity should appear in your way of walking. Indeed, the spirit shows itself in the movement of the body, the carriage of the body is a signal of the soul.”

(Commentaria in Scripturam Sacram, Paris 1875, vol. 9, pp. 542-542)

Boniface said...

Look, I am admitting that it can mean the things you say, but not all the time. The equivalence is just not there.

"The second way is the clothing or dress: overbearing apparel reveals interior pride, false dress reveals falsity; dissolute dress, dissolution; capricious apparel, capriciousness; grave clothing, gravity; sensual dress indicates and represents sensuality of spirit. Hence St. Augustine (Letter 73 to Possidium) says: “The true adornment of the Christian is not false make up, nor opulent and ostentatious dress, but rather good customs.”

Okay, so dyed hair is not overbearing, dissolute...I suppose you could say it is "false", but so is make-up, silver fillings in teeth, earrings and any hair due at all (styling your hair would be "false" because that's not the way it naturally sits).

No shame, no sensuality, no arrogance, no insolence, no frivolity should appear in your way of walking. Indeed, the spirit shows itself in the movement of the body, the carriage of the body is a signal of the soul.”

Can you say that dyed hair always equals arrogance? Is it insolent? Again, I think you are inferring an equivalence here that is not as strong as you suppose. Sure, we all agree that the body reveals the soul, but we disagree on what is being revealed.

Boniface said...


I am not saying I am absolutely pro-people dying their hair; if my daughter wanted to dye hers, I would really question her motives. I don't think its a positive good always, only that it need not be a positive evil.

But I think we are too judgmental about it. I heard about an area priest who kicked a young boy out of youth group because he had bleach blond dyed hair. The boy was praying in the sanctuary and the pastor told him that he "didn't belong" in that group. When the youth director asked why the kid was kicked out, the pastor said, "Just look at him" or something like that...and it was only blonde hair.

Noah Moerbeek said...

"In keeping with prudence and piety, we ought not go out of our way to offend people's sensibilities"

That to me is the correct spirit.

I think part of the problem is that people expect others to seek after a high level of perfection.

A Holy Fool might very well change his hair green just so people would not think he was Holy, Just like how St Symeon the Holy Fool at meat on Good Friday right outside the door of the church (after a perfect fast of no food for 40 days) or how St Philip Neri used to wear a Fur Coat in the Heat of Summer and dance around the street (because a Cardinal Ordered him to wear it in his old age).

We can argue all day over perfection, the question is if it is a Sin. I would say that it is not a sin unless it entailed something like disobedience (to a Father who forbid you too) or if would cause you to lose your job or if it was done for Vanity. However the act of dying a persons hair is not in and of itself sinful and we are not allowed to judge peoples interior and say this is why he or she did this.

Anonymous said...

"if anyone were to find a woman at an FSSP Mass who has dyed their hair green, you'd have a scoop"

That's funny as both of the SSPX chapels I have attended have had at least a couple young ladies with their hair dyed unusual colors, and I don't think I've ever heard anyone say anything about it one way or another. We of course have a universal standard of dress in the chapels-- women wearing dresses/skirts and covering their heads and shoulders, men wearing slacks and collared shirts-- so it would be a bit silly to say any of these people just think that how one appears to the public (and before God) does not matter. In most cases it is someone's teenage daughter, but at least one was a young 20 something mother. I would tend to be skeptical of odd colored hair simply because I know when my sister and I did it in middle school and high school it was because of our great confusion, but I can hardly hold my personal experience as a general rule. The young ladies at our chapel seem to be rather more interested in fashion than I normally think is appropriate, but a young lady interested in fashion but who maintains modesty is hardly worth causing an uproar about.

Amateur Brain Surgeon said...

Dear Boniface. I wonder if you were told the whole truth about the boy with the dyed hair..

In any event, it has been an interesting, and pacific, exchange and I thank you for that.

Baron Korf said...

I agree. I think your make-up comparison is a perfectly fair one. Both can be used reasonably or be used to offend/scare. Likewise it can be used in an unconventional but tasteful manner.

Dymphna said...

I've had both pink and blue streaks. I just happen to like it. I wanted all blue for years but never had the nerve to do it. Judging someone on their hair color -- (and by the way, pink, canary yellow, blue were hot wig colors in the Georgian era, Martha Washington may have owned one)is silly and indicates something about the inner life of the person doing the judging.

Jimmy said...

My wife in her teens had every color under the rainbow. While her spiritual life was not impeccable, she was a regular traditional Catholic at the time. She grew out of that, but it was a way for her to be expressive. Why wear any clothing that isn't boring Communist grey? Don't fault the artistic folks because you're not like that. Let people be creative if they want. Luckily hair color is not permanent!

CyberAngel said...

Pro 20:29 The joy of young men is their strength: and the dignity of old men, their grey hairs.

Lev 19:32 Rise up before the hoary head, and honour the person of the aged man: and fear the Lord thy God. I am the Lord.

Rich said...

When you buy a sweater at the store, do you not choose the colour you like? Maybe people just like colour and want it in their hair. Nothing inherently wrong with that. People like colours. Some want to wear it as clothing, others want it in their hair.