Many of my friends tell me that they find haircuts,facials and pedicure very relaxing. One reason could be the feeling of well being that is born of looking good. Another could be the primitive sense of bonding that dates back to primate life.
“social grooming” is a common practice of primates. They “spend hours each day ruffling through each other’s fur, removing bits of loose skin or burrs caught in the fine hairs”The frequency with which any two individuals groom each other appears to be a reliable index of the closeness of the social bond between them--that is, the extent to which each can count on the other for support.

(source:article here.)

Reading this took me back in time to a long forgotten memory of women of the household combing each others hair, checking for lice and cleaning them in the days when beauty parlours were rare and expensive and even shampooing was considered harmful to the hair. Washing hair was a weekly ritual. Thick and long flowing tresses could not be handled on one's own and usually they helped each other in washing it off. Oiling and combing of hair was usually kept aside for the leisurely afternoons; Snarls would be delicately untangled with least damage and then the hair oiled with pure coconut oil or delicately perfumed Tata oil or the strong keshavardhini or cathredine for special occasions. Finally it would be carefully plaited ensuring that all the hair stayed in place and every plait was of equal tension resulting in a symmetric design. And the finishing touch would be a strand of fresh flowers. All of this was done with ritualistic care and involvement with women of the family helping each other in combing and plaiting. A lot passed between the women during these times - shared gossip, confidences and counsel and plenty of laughter. I had an aunt who would always insist on combing and plaiting my hair whenever she came visiting and my grandmother did this too - this was their way of showing that they cared. Any hair damage that they noticed would meet with severe disapproval and by the end of the stay they ensured that the damage was fixed.
It now occurs to me that they did this only for their favorites - not to all the women and children in the house. Grooming to express alliance!

Have you noticed that it makes you feel good when someone ruffles through your hair? In fact we even have an idiom in Tamil when two people bond closely they are described as scratching each other's backs - yet another allusion to grooming and bonding. With the break-up of joint families and opportunities within the family to bond, we seem to have found the closest alternative in parlours. A famous hairdresser had once said in an interview that a lot of his regular clients confide in him when he treats their hair. Not every one uses the hairdresser as their confidante but there may be a reason why they find grooming relaxing. And the article quoted above tells us why:
Being groomed is reported to be a very pleasurable experience. As Dunbar points out:
"In fact, we now know that grooming stimulates the production of the body’s natural opiates, the endorphins; in effect, being groomed produces mildly narcotic effects."

The article discusses the interesting theory that language evolved as an alternative for grooming in the effort to socialise and form alliances - as grooming was individual bonding and required more time. It seems that language evolved basically to fulfill the urge to gossip. Anthropologists at the Social Issues Research Centre (SIRC) in Oxford, UK, say chatting on the phone is the human equivalent of social grooming among chimpanzees and gorillas. Could it be that humans are constantly in search of an alternative to fulfill the early needs met by the act of grooming? perhaps there lies in the deep recesses of our subconscious an unsatisfied urge: ah,If only we could sit in groups and look for lice in each other's hair!!!
So next time you swipe your card at the parlour for that fat bill, don't be filled with guilt. You probably just gave in to a basic primitive instinct - blame it on our common ancestors:

(Pic source : via google images)
20 Responses
  1. Altoid Says:

    LOL, good enough explanation. Though, to tell you the truth- while I go for my regular hair trims etc, I find it painful to be bound in a chair for hours together. I hardly find it relaxing. But then I could just be a minority population that feels so.

  2. hillgrandmom Says:

    that sure helps deal with the guilt:)

  3. Anonymous Says:

    huh?what?sorry couldn't read the post to the last. The parlour lady spread some delicious feeling goo over my face and blobs of rose water cotton wool over my eyes that i had to stop reading!And as for my feet, they are receiving a lovely cream massage from the pedicurist.
    Maybe i ought to christen myself after the seminal comic strip in dina thanthi korangu kusala-the sari clad monkey lady. Monkey bliss this is lady.

  4. Anonymous Says:

    I'm with Altoid on this one-- I hardly find any of these outourced-grooming methods relaxing.

    I love the focus with which momma monkeys groom their babies. Isn't it adorable!!

  5. Anonymous Says:

    I am gonna think of that pic and laugh every time I go for a haircut now!

  6. Raj Says:

    "Primates spend hours each day ruffling through each other’s fur, removing bits of loose skin or burrs caught in the fine hairs". All lice.

  7. Anonymous Says:

    Interesting post. Thank god for language, otherwise we would have run after each others to pick lice, in the pretext of bonding with strangers.

  8. DotThoughts Says:

    what a great post usha! very interesting. never thought about it that way. now i feel a lot better about the manicure i got this weekend :)

  9. Anonymous Says:

    I read Dunbar awhile back and was impressed by the support he provided for his thesis. But the thing I most came away with was the notion the increasing size and complexity of the human brain probably evolved more to cope with larger social groups than to deal with tool use or with hunting.

    Of course, any theory that social interaction was the dominant force driving the evolution of human intelligence, places women in a central role.

  10. Anonymous Says:

    haha good one :)

    No wonder massage parlours are expensive. They must be aware of the deep human urge :D

  11. Mama - Mia Says:


    oh i love getting fingers run through my hair. i remember mom oiling my hair (though short) once in a week and i would keep pointing to the exact spot on my head that needed to be "maalished" to feel all the tension releasing and bliss being felt! :D

    i was never a parlour person, but my pati's foot fetish i do enjoy a pedicure every now and then and feel like a queen just reading a silly fashion magazine while someone makes my feet feel and look good! :p

    you know i always keeps saying if there is a machine that duplicates stroking of hair, back and legs, i will be the first one to buy it 'coz it never seems enough! :D

    and leme make an appointment this weekend! :D



  12. Unknown Says:

    I love people doing things to my hair and feet is why I go to the salon to get my hair massaged and my feet done . No one to do it at home

  13. Anonymous Says:

    This is so unfair! What about bald men-- how do they get their endorphin fix?
    Very interesting post, Usha! Incidentally, it is Cantharidine, is it not?

  14. Hip Grandma Says:

    Back from a wedding in the family and this was the topic of discussion.Elders sitting with comb and hair oil and youngsters dutifully sitting down to have their hair styled in different ways.We spoke fondly of a paternal aunt who'd see to it that each girl child's hair was parted and plaited differently.These were means of healthy social interaction.But these days it is always 'who has the time??'Good post as always. As for chimps grooming each others hair we have people using them commercially to rid lice.I hear they smack you on the back if you don't sit still.

  15. Anonymous Says:

    reminds of the days when my mum forced me to oil my hair and I didnt want to!!! and all the yelling that happened when my long hair had to detangled and oiled before plaiting for school!! that u have realised all this...a champi will much appreciated by me!

  16. hijabiamma Says:

    What a wonderful post; it evokes fond memories, as I grew up in a house full of girls, and pleating was a part of our everday life. Your entries always make me smile.

  17. Anonymous Says:

    @Ramboda:A back rub perhaps? ;)

  18. i still cant comb my hair properly- need mamma to do that

  19. Anonymous Says:

    LOL! Good one.
    I found your blog through lively and found it really interesting. Lovely post. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. Especially the part about how hair was groomed in the earlier days.
    Keep it going! :)

  20. Jane Turley Says:

    A great post! I love going to the hairdresser... I don't go enough though. All that pampering is wonderful and my hair always looks fantastic and not its usual rat's tails. I find it very fact I once saw a woman fall asleep having her hair dried...I guess she felt pretty relaxed too!

    On a statistical note I believe hairdressing (at least in the UK) is the career which provides the most job satisfaction. Social interaction is a big part of that- as is dealing with someone's hair which is a very intimate act.

    Ooo I feel all tingly!