Is There a Message in My Grandson’s Brushed Up Hair

by | Sep 6, 2023 | Blog, Jewish Family Life

Is There a Message in My Grandson’s Brushed Up Hair
Rabbi Barbara Aiello

Helen couldn’t help but smile when she received a scan of her grandson Jake’s graduation picture.  “I’m printing this out,” she said aloud. “Jake is handsome as all get out and I’m taking this to my bridge club to show the girls.”

Later, around the bridge table, four bubbys “scheped nachus”, extoling the accomplishments of their grandsons, that is, until Grandma Ginny brought the compliments to a halt.

“Look at your photos and notice the hair style that’s the rage for all boys,” Ginny urged.  “This brush up thing is troubling. Boys, not only Jewish boys, but lots of boys have it rough right now. I think they’re trying to tell us something by deliberately making their hair stand on end!”

The bridge table went silent, indicating that Ginny’s comments hit home. Could it be that the current rage in men’s hairstyles, sometimes called the “brush up,” is symbolic of the fear men experience as they try to navigate the minefield that has become modern society?  Could it be that this fear of saying or doing the wrong thing, this terror of being labeled “toxic,” is played out in the new hairstyle of the modern man – hair that is literally standing on end.

Although the Tanak references hair and hair styles dozens of times (Ezekiel is only one example: “And you, O son of man, take a sharp sword. Use it as a barber’s razor and pass it over your head and your beard. Then take balances for weighing and divide the hair.”)  a phrase like  “a hair raising event” derives from what observers  have always known – that a physical reaction  to raw fear is nothing new. In fact the UK’s Gary Martin, founder of the web-based archive, “Phrasefinder,” tells us that “The phrase ‘make your hair stand on end’ first appeared in 1602 in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, when he wrote, “I could a tale unfold, whose lightest word would harrow up thy soul … thy knotted and combined locks to part and each particular hair to stand an end, like quills upon the fretful porpentine.”

The “porpentine” is the ancient word for “porcupine” but the phenomenon of abject hair-raising fear was not confined to The Bard of Avon. In fact it was Thomas Blount, another 17th century scribe, a lexicographer actually, who included the word “horripilation” in his dictionary of “hard words.” Blount describes the hair-raising phenomenon as, “Horripilation, the standing up of the hair for fear.”

So if a man’s hairstyle indicates fear-based “horripilation,” what’s scaring the “Bee-Moses” out of young men?  Journalist Maya Salam thinks she knows when she writes in the New York Times that “the concept (of toxic masculinity) has been around forever but suddenly the term seems to be everywhere.”

In fact dozens of articles give credence to what might promote male misery. Consider journalist Akola Thompson who writes that “Men are not inherently toxic. However, all men do benefit to some extent from the patriarchal system that was set up to serve them.”  Ouch!  Get out the hair gel, guys.  No matter what you do or say, for some, you’re guilty as charged.

Harry Bruinius writes in the Christian Science Monitor (CSM Jan. 2022) in an article whose title nails the problem, “Why these men find the phrase ‘toxic masculinity,’ well, toxic.”  He writes that “Amid spiking suicide and overdose rates and plummeting college enrollment, are men being held hostage by culture war labels and stereotypes that blame them rather than help them?”

Or more to the point could this constant blaming cause such profound fear that men can’t help but maintain an in-your-face symbol of what’s going on inside. The hairstyle seems to symbolize a kind of autonomic reaction to existential fear.

Ryan Carillo, who was interviewed at length for the CSM piece, is a power lifter and self-described “big man” who recently published the Big Man Bible.  Carillo, who emphasizes that his self-help memoir is designed “for the big men of the world who are silently struggling to transform their lives,” notes that large, husky men are often victimized by the stereotype that their looks belie a violent nature.

Over the past few years, there have been wide-ranging discussions about a purported “crisis in masculinity,” another front in the nation’s on going political battles over the meaning of sex, gender, and the social roles of men and women.  Ryan Carrillo has a different take. He describes the situation as a “silent pandemic” of men who live in fear because they wrongly believe that are not worthy to exist as they are.

I grew up in America and I now live in Europe and I notice that there are many men on both continents who seem to be immobilized by fear. Which makes me wonder, could it be that brushed up hair indicates something deeper than a fashion statement?  Could it be that “hair standing on end” is a plea for understanding and compassion from a society that is often too quick to demonize men as toxic, uncaring and brutish and then, without getting to know the individual man, dismiss them as such?

NOTE: This article first appeared in the August issue of the Sarasota Manatee Jewish News.