What Brushed Up Hair Says about Toxic Masculinity and Fear

Not long ago a stray cat pranced into my garden, something my own cat, Tomasino was not too happy about. As the interloper approached, I watched as Tomasino reacted. He was terrified and like many animals faced with a threat, either real or perceived, his fur stood on end.

Which got me thinking – 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.

The 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, freeze thy young blood, make thy two eyes, like stars, start from their spheres, 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 Jan2022) in an article whose title nails the problem, “Why these men find the phrase ‘toxic masculinity,’ well, toxic.” He asks, “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 Carrillo, 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. Carrillo emphasizes that his self-help memoir is designed “for the big men of the world who are silently struggling to transform their lives.”

Over the past few years, there have been wide-ranging discussions about a purported “crisis in masculinity,” while pundits on the left, the right and in the center grapple with changing social roles for 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 believe that are not worthy to exist as they are.

Where men are concerned, all is not well. 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 is more than a fashion statement? Could it be that hair standing on end is a plea for understanding and compassion or maybe a cry for help?

About the Author
Rabbi Barbara Aiello is the first woman and first non-orthodox rabbi in Italy. She opened the first active synagogue in Calabria since Inquisition times and is the founder of the B'nei Anousim movement in Calabria and Sicily that helps Italians discover and embrace their Jewish roots
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