Skip to main content

‘If I look old, I will be treated old’: hair and later-life image dilemmas


This paper considers the social symbolism of hair, how it is managed and styled in later life, and what attitudes to appearance in general and hairstyling in particular reveal about ageism in contemporary culture. The paper draws on findings from a two-year, nationwide, participative study of age discrimination in the United Kingdom, the Research on Age Discrimination (RoAD) project. Using data collected by qualitative methods, including participant diaries and interviews undertaken by older field-workers, the paper explores narratives of image and appearance related to hair and associated social responses. The paper focuses on older people's accounts of the dual processes of the production of an image and consumption of a service with reference to hairdressing – and the dilemmas these pose in later life. The findings are considered in the context of the emerging debate on the ageing body. The discussion underlines how the bodies of older people are central to their experience of discrimination and social marginalisation, and examines the relevance of the body and embodiment to the debate on discrimination. A case is made for further scrutiny of the significance of hairdressing to the lives of older people and for the need to challenge the assumption that everyday aspects of daily life are irrelevant to the policies and interventions that counter age discrimination and promote equality.

Corresponding author
Address for correspondence: Richard Ward, School of Nursing, Midwifery and Social Work, University of Manchester, The Jean McFarlane Building, University Place, Oxford Road, Manchester M13 9PT, UK. E-mail:
Hide All
Age Concern England 2006. Haircuts, Books and a Winter Coat: The Real Cost of Dignity in Care. Age Concern England, London.
Ahmed, S. 2004. The Cultural Politics of Emotion. Routledge, New York.
Anderson, K. A., Cimbal, A. M. and Maile, J. J. 2010. Hairstylists' relationships and helping behaviors with older adult clients. Journal of Applied Gerontology, 29, 3, 371–80.
Batchelor, D. 2001. Hair and cancer chemotherapy: consequences and nursing care: a literature study. European Journal of Cancer Care, 10, 3, 147–63.
Bennett, A. 2005. Untold Stories. Faber and Faber, London.
Brownmiller, S. 1984. Femininity. Linden/Simon and Schuster, New York.
Bytheway, B. 2005. Ageism. In Johnson, M. L., Bengston, V. L., Coleman, P. G. and Kirkwood, T. B. L. (eds), Cambridge Handbook of Age and Ageing. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 338–45.
Bytheway, B., Ward, R., Holland, C. and Peace, S. 2007. Too Old: Older People's Accounts of Discrimination, Exclusion and Rejection. Help the Aged, London.
Cohen, R. L. 2010. When it pays to be friendly: employment relations and emotional labour in hairstyling. Sociological Review, 58, 2, 197218.
Connell, R. W. 1987. Gender and Power: Society, the Person and Sexual Politics. Polity, Cambridge.
Coupland, J. 2003. Ageist ideology and discourses of control in skin care product marketing. In Coupland, J. and Gwyn, R. (eds), Discourse, the Body and Identity. Macmillan Palgrave, London, 127–50.
Coupland, J. 2007. Gendered discourses on the ‘problem’ of ageing: consumerized solutions. Discourse and Communication, 1, 1, 3761.
Cowen, E. L., Gesten, E. L., Boike, M., Norton, P., Wilson, A. B. and DeStefano, M. A. 1979. Hairdressers as caregivers. 1: A descriptive profile of interpersonal help-giving involvements. American Journal of Community Psychology, 7, 6, 633–48.
Faircloth, C. A. 2003. Different bodies and the paradox of aging: locating aging bodies in images and everyday experiences. In Faircloth, C. A. (ed.), Aging Bodies: Images and Everyday Experience. Altamira, Walnut Creek, California, 126.
Featherstone, M. and Hepworth, M. 1991. The mask of ageing and the post-modern life course. In Featherstone, M., Hepworth, M. and Turner, B. (eds), The Body: Social Process and Cultural Theory. Sage, London, 371–89.
Featherstone, M. and Hepworth, M. 2005. Images of ageing: cultural representations of later life. In Johnson, M. L., Bengston, V. L., Coleman, P. G. and Kirkwood, T. B. L. (eds), Cambridge Handbook of Age and Ageing. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 354–62.
Featherstone, M. and Wernick, A. 1995. Introduction. In Featherstone, M. and Wernick, A. (eds), Images of Ageing: Cultural Representations of Later Life. Routledge, London, 116.
Fraser, M. and Greco, M. (eds)2004. The Body: A Reader. Routledge, London.
Furman, F. K. 1997. Facing the Mirror: Older Women and Beauty Shop Culture. Sage, New York.
Gerike, A. E. 1990. On gray hair and oppressed brains. In Rosenthal, E. R. (ed.), Women, Aging and Ageism. Harrington Park, New York, 3546.
Gilman, S. L. 1996. Seeing the Insane. University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, Nebraska.
Gimlin, D. 1996. Pamela's place: power and negotiation in the hair salon. Gender and Society, 10, 5, 505–26.
Gullette, M. M. 1997. Declining to Decline: Cultural Combat and the Politics of the Midlife. University Press of Virginia, Charlottesville, Virginia.
Hall, A., Hockey, J. and Robinson, V. 2007. Occupational cultures and the embodiment of masculinity: hairdressing, estate agency and firefighting. Gender, Work and Organization, 14, 6, 534–51.
Harvey, A. M. 2005. Becoming entrepreneurs: intersections of race, class and gender at the black beauty salon. Gender and Society, 19, 6, 789808.
Hepworth, M. 2003. Ageing bodies: aged by culture. In Coupland, J. and Gwyn, R. (eds), Discourse, the Body and Identities. Palgrave, London, 89106.
Higginson, I., Hearn, J. and Myers, K. 2000. Palliative day care: what do services do? Palliative Medicine, 14, 4, 277–86.
Hubbard, G., Cook, A., Tester, S. and Downs, M. 2003. Sexual Expression in Institutional Care Settings: An Interactive Multi-media CDROM. Department of Applied Social Science, University of Stirling, Stirling, UK.
Hurd Clarke, L. and Griffin, M. 2008. Visible and invisible ageing: beauty work as a response to ageism. Ageing & Society, 28, 5, 653–74.
Hurd Clarke, L. and Korotchenko, A. 2010. Shades of grey: to dye or not to dye one's hair in later life. Ageing and Society, 30, 6, 1011–26.
Kang, M. 2003. The managed hand: the commercialization of bodies and emotions in Korean immigrant-owned nail salons. Gender and Society, 17, 6, 820–39.
Katz, S. 1996. Disciplining Old Age: The Formation of Gerontological Knowledge. University Press of Virginia, Charlottesville, Virginia.
Lee, T., Jewson, N., Bishop, D., Felstead, A., Fuller, A., Kakavelakis, K. and Unwin, L. 2007. ‘There's a Lot More to it Than Just Cutting Hair You Know’: Managerial Controls, Work Practices and Identity Narratives Among Hair Stylists. Learning as Work Research Paper 8, School of Social Sciences, Cardiff University, Cardiff, UK. Available online at [Accessed 6 November 2009].
Lee-Treweek, G. 1997. Women, resistance and care: an ethnographic study of nursing auxiliary work. Work, Employment and Society, 11, 1, 4763.
Levenson, R. 2003. Auditing Age Discrimination: A Practical Approach to Promoting Age Equality in Health and Social Care. King's Fund, London.
Lincoln, Y. S. and Guba, E. G. 1985. Naturalistic Inquiry. Sage, Newbury Park, California.
Macdonald, B. and Rich, C. 1983. Look Me in the Eye: Old Women, Aging and Ageism. Spinster Ink Books, Denver, Colorado.
McCarthy, M. 2000. Mututally captive audiences: small talk and the genre of close-contact service encounters. In Coupland, J. (ed.), Small Talk. Longman, London, 84109.
McFarquhar, C. and Lowis, M. 2000. The effect of hairdressing on the self-esteem of men and women. Mankind Quarterly, 41, 2, 181–92.
Nettleton, S. and Watson, J. (eds)1998. The Body in Everyday Life. Routledge, London.
Nordberg, M. 2005. ‘It's important to make him look and feel masculine’: constructing and designing men, masculinity, heteronormativity and ethnicity in hairdressing. Paper presented to the Interdisciplinary Conference of Fashion and Dress Cultures, Danish School of Design, Copenhagen, 2628 October.
Oberg, P. 2003. Image versus experience of the aging body. In Faircloth, C. A. (ed.), Aging Bodies: Images and Everyday Experience. Altamira, Walnut Creek, California, 103–39.
Paulson, S. 2008. ‘Beauty is more than skin deep’: an ethnographic study of beauty therapists and older women. Journal of Aging Studies, 22, 3, 256–65.
Reed-Danahay, D. 2001. ‘This is your home now’: conceptualizing location and dislocation in a dementia unit. Qualitative Research, 1, 1, 4764.
Renteln, A. D. 2004. Visual religious symbols and the law. American Behavioral Scientist, 47, 2, 1573–96.
Rosado, S. D. 2003. No Nubian knots or nappy locks: discussing the politics of hair among women of African decent in the diaspora: a report on research in progress. Transforming Anthropology, 11, 2, 60–3.
Shilling, C. 1993. The Body and Social Theory. Sage, London.
Shilling, C. 2008. Changing Bodies: Habit, Crisis and Creativity. Sage, London.
Sontag, S. 1972. The double standard of aging. Saturday Review of Literature, 55, 39, 2538.
Stevenson, K. 2001. Hairy business: organising the gendered self. In Hassard, J. and Holiday, R. (eds), Contested Bodies. Routledge, London, 137–52.
Symonds, A. and Holland, C. 2008. The same hairdo: the production of the stereotyped image of the older woman. In Ward, R. and Bytheway, B. (eds), Researching Age and Multiple Discrimination. Centre for Policy on Ageing, London, 2644.
Synott, A. 1987. Shame and glory: a sociology of hair. British Journal of Sociology, 38, 3, 381483.
Synott, A. 1993. The Body Social: Symbolism, Self and Society. Routledge, London.
Tate, S. A. 2009. Black Beauty: Aesthetics, Stylization, Politics. Ashgate, Farnham, UK.
Toerien, M. and Wilkinson, S. 2003. Gender and body hair: constructing the feminine woman. Women's International Forum, 26, 4, 333–44.
Twigg, J. 2006. The Body in Health and Social Care. Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke, UK.
Twigg, J. 2007. Clothing, age and the body: a critical review. Ageing & Society, 27, 2, 285305.
Ward, R., Jones, R., Hughes, J., Humberstone, N. and Pearson, R. 2008 a. Intersections of ageing and sexuality: accounts from older people. In Ward, R. and Bytheway, B. (eds), Researching Age and Multiple Discrimination. Centre for Policy on Ageing, London, 4572.
Ward, R., Vass, A. A., Aggarwal, N., Garfield, C. and Cybyk, B. 2008 b. A different story: exploring patterns of communication in residential dementia care. Ageing & Society, 28, 5, 629–51.
Weitz, R. 2001. Women and their hair: seeking power through resistance and accommodation. Gender and Society, 15, 5, 667–86.
White, S. B. 2005. Releasing the pursuit of bouncin' and behavin' hair: natural hair as an Afrocentric aesthetic for beauty. International Journal of Media and Cultural Politics, 1, 3, 295308.
Wiesenfeld, A. R. and Weis, H. M. 1979. Hairdressers and helping: influencing the behaviour of informal caregivers. Professional Psychology, 10, 6, 786–92.
Wolkowitz, C. 2002. The social relations of body work. Work, Employment and Society, 16, 3, 497510.
Wolkowitz, C. 2006. Bodies at Work. Sage, London.
Woodward, K. 1999. Figuring Age: Women, Bodies and Generations. Indiana University Press, Indiana.
Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

Ageing & Society
  • ISSN: 0144-686X
  • EISSN: 1469-1779
  • URL: /core/journals/ageing-and-society
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *



Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed