Why You Can't Stop Playing With Your Hair

My friend and former colleague Caroline, a woman I respect immensely, announced one day in the office that she had a problem with hair-touchers. You know, those women who can't stop playing with their hair; fluffing it, twiddling it, swinging it into the middle of your conversation. Or your lunch. In fact, she considers tying your hair up before you eat to be the hallmark of cool womanhood – because nobody can fully commit to something as important as food with a load of hair flopping in their face.

Everyone made noises of agreement. And I might have nodded along too, had the truth not dawned on me right in the middle of her rant that I was, in fact, the hair-toucher she was referring to.

I use my hair like a security blanket, a fidget-spinner and a scarf. I fiddle with it constantly. I stroke it fondly. I don’t tie it up to eat, or ever, really; I’d generally rather risk littering it with crumbs or trapping it in complex machinery than be seen in public with a ponytail. I’ve devoted myself to its growth and grooming with more energy than I’ve ever given to a pet or a plant – but I suspect the reason goes much deeper than simple vanity. Or at least, I hope it does. So what makes a person a hair-toucher?

One theory, old as time, says we touch our hair as a way of flirting. “Playing with hair – ie. smoothing, stroking, twirling, pulling back, throwing back (the strongest display) is also known as preening,” notes that iron-clad scientific source, a dude on a Quora thread. “When a cluster of multiple preening gestures are observed there is a strong likelihood that the female subject is exhibiting sexual interest.” As someone whose only seduction tactic until I was about 21 was to glower from behind a wall of fringe in what I imagined was a sultry manner, I know there’s truth in this. Hair is aesthetic currency. A friend told me the other day that her dad, despite being bald since the age of 23, still shakes out an invisible mane when he’s trying to be charming to a lady. She finds this hilarious; I find it relatable.

But while preening might be an evolutionary, animal urge, humans also have society to contend with – and these subconscious habits can say as much about our feelings towards ourselves as those we have for other people. I don’t think I wear my hair down so I can flutter it at boys like a Regency fan; it’s more because I believe I need it to balance out my big potato of a face. Besides, lovely though they are, I’m pretty sure I’m not flirting with my colleagues, or the beer-breathed man at the bus stop who calls me "Lady Godiva". So what else?

"We often play with our hair unconsciously. It can be when we are bored, deep in thought, nervous or stressed – hence the term ‘tearing out your hair’,” says Anabel Kingsley, trichologist at Philip Kingsley. “Hair pulling may be used as a coping mechanism, and as a way to initially alleviate feelings of anxiety.”

Touching our hair can provide moments of harmless relief when we feel frazzled, but more seriously, stress can spawn what’s known as Body-Focused Repetitive Behaviours (BFRB): compulsive habits which include pulling hair out (trichotillomania) and nibbling on it (trichophagia), as well as skin-picking, nose-picking and lip and cheek-biting. At its most extreme, trichotillomania is a miserable, debilitating condition and can result in permanent hair loss – and female adult sufferers outnumber men by three to one.

Then there’s social appearance anxiety; a strain of anxiety that stems from the fear of negative evaluation of your appearance (aka, one might say, being a human woman). Research is limited but it doesn’t take a PhD to see that for many of us, hair-touching is more a sign of physical self-consciousness than it is a sassy mating call. Like nervous parents calling a babysitter, we’re just checking it’s doing okay. Is it behaving itself? Has it gone rogue?

The added kicker to all of this is that anxious hair-touching could be making us appear less confident, not more. “Any time someone touches their head, their hair, or their neck, it's actually a very high discomfort cue,” says behavioural expert Vanessa Van Edwards. “Even if they're not anxious, it still comes across as low self-esteem.” A retro French twist for a job interview might not be such a bad plan...

So we touch our hair when we feel sexy, and we touch our hair when we feel stressed – but don’t we also touch it sometimes just to, well, feel? Hair can hold the same tactile pleasure as velvet, silk or a cosy woollen jumper. "Hand in hair syndrome" is a running joke in the natural hair community, and describes the constant urge to pat, touch, tease and play with your Afro curls (while probably having to deal with strangers who want to touch them too). And science tells us that stroking animals fills us with oxytocin (the "cuddle hormone"), while being touched by others has a similar calming effect – so doesn’t it stand to reason that caressing ourselves like a pet would deliver an extra lovely burst of feelgood chemicals?

But whether hair-touching is an act of self-harm, self-consciousness or just self-love, there’s still the worry that it could be doing your ends some harm. “Swishing, lightly stroking and flicking your hair isn’t going to do any damage,” Anabel reassures me. “However, if your hands are dirty or oily, they can transfer grime onto your hair and scalp. Twirling can be damaging as it can tangle hairs – and if done roughly, can snap them and even pull them out. Picking at split ends is another no-no.” There goes my favourite hobby.

Try wearing your hair up or in a loose braid,” she adds. “Playing with worry beads or a stress ball can also be helpful as they provide a distraction.”

So maybe, with a little mindfulness, I can train myself to break the habit and curb my hair-touching. Perhaps I need to get a stress ball, or a cat. Or maybe, like so many things in life, the answer just comes back to confidence – confidence, or a really good conditioner.

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