Splitting Hairs is our monthlong exploration of hair based on a survey of women across America. It’s like you brought a photo to the salon — we’re giving you exactly what you want.

By Nora Zelevansky
Aug 31, 2018 @ 3:30 pm
Getty Images

On most mornings, Noor, 26, fastens her hair into a neat, mid-level bun. You’ll never see it, though. That’s because the New Jersey-based working mother covers it with a Poppy-patterned hijab in observance of her Muslim faith — and personal style.

“I tie my hair back at mid-level, so it looks even — and you can tell I have hair,” she says. “Then, I like to wrap one piece of the hijab around my neck and let the other end hang at the front or back.”

Noor and her sister Iman, 24, began covering their hair in the eighth and sixth grades, respectively, at first mimicking the more traditional fashion in which their mother had always worn hers — folding a square hijab into a triangle shape, crossing it over to frame the face, then pinning it at the bottom. As they grew older, they began to experiment with different ways to style their own head coverings and the hair beneath it. “The styling of our hijabs is similar to styling your hair, with a middle or side part,” says Iman, a middle school math teacher, explaining that she, like many fashion-conscious Muslim women, chooses coverings based on how they flatter her face. She likes to tuck her relatively short hair into an undercap that’s visible beneath the scarf. Others find style inspiration in YouTube’s vast community of hijab-wearing beauty and lifestyle influencers like Dina Tokio, Manal Chinutay, Nadira Abdul Quddus, and Amena Khan, whose channels garner millions of views.

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Courtesy. Nora.

Hair, for women, is deeply wrapped up with the concepts of identity, beauty, sexuality, and power — and that’s the case whether it’s on display or reserved for few eyes. So for women who cover their hair daily, the way their tresses are styled underneath is not haphazard. Nor is the choice of covering, whose nuances — in material, design, exposure, and styling — send subtle messages about modernity, devoutness, cultural specificity, and personal style.

“As a woman who covers her hair, you are doing different” — but not less — “beauty work,” says Liz Bucar, associate professor of religion at Northeastern University and author of the book Pious Fashion. “Maybe you’re not always getting a blowout, but you are working it so it works for you.” There’s sometimes a misconception that religious women who cover their hair do not care about beauty and style. But that’s rarely the case, she corrects. For most hair-obscuring women, it’s about finding a mode of self-expression that satisfies both your sense of style and your beliefs. “There’s no contradiction between looking good and being good.”

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Which is why, just like with any accessory, you'll find plenty of variety in the head-covering fashion space. “My friends and I all wear [hijabs] in different ways and in different materials,” says Iman. Noor, who works as community manager at the apparel company Haute Hijab, notes that the company’s site features a “Definitive Hijab Style Guide” specific to face shapes and styles, the way a secular magazine would for hairstyles; one popular trend right now is wearing a wrap thrown over your shoulder and letting it drape loosely. Neutrals are big with influencers online.

Hairstyling trends for the hair beneath the hijab vary too, says Bucar. “There’s a lot of careful work done underneath the headscarf to make it look like a certain shape. When I researched in Iran, Turkey, and Indonesia, the style of headscarves were all different, but there were always ways to create volume and symmetry underneath: padded bonnet, bun ciput [a tight cap], or these sort of fake hair scrunchies. It’s really an art form.”

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Courtesy. Noor and Iman with their little sister, Alaa.

Geography plays a big role in dictating head-covering trends, as does culture and race. Dr. Kayla Wheeler, professor of African-American and digital studies at Grand Valley State University points out, for example, that popular hair-covering options among black Muslim women and non-black Muslim women tend to differ, in part because women’s hair textures and hair traditions are often closely connected to race and heritage. “You have to consider the role that hair plays in African-American and broader black communities," she says, noting that hair takes on a different cultural meaning for every woman, so covering your hair is a matter of "balancing that with your definitions of modesty."

Some religious women can, and do, remove their hair coverings in front of other women, immediate family members, and their husbands, which is one motivation to style both the covering and the hair beneath it so meticulously. But that requires double beauty duty.

Many Orthodox Jewish women cover their hair with hats, scarves (called mitpachats or tichels), or wigs once they get married but still style their hair as rigorously as the wigs themselves. (In Hasidic Jewish communities, some women take another route, shaving their heads to ensure that not a strand can be seen peeking through a head covering.)

“I style both my hair and wigs at a salon,” says Hadassah, 57, an Orthodox Jewish mother living in Lawrence, New York. “It’s an endless endeavor and quite pricey. Something always needs to be colored, set, washed, or cut. It can be quite time-consuming.”

While Hadassah wears a full-coverage wig called a sheitel, her daughter, Michelle, 31, a modern Orthodox interior designer in Manhattan, favors a “fall,” which covers three-quarters of the hair and answers the call of young, progressive women who want to show some hair but still observe tradition (in some sects, this would not be considered ample). Since Michelle shows a portion of her actual hair, she still gets it highlighted and styled at a salon, “just as I did when I was single,” she says. “Because I still love to celebrate the beauty of my hair.”

For her fall, she swears by Dini Wigs, whose products are made with unprocessed European hair, custom antibacterial caps with silvered materials for hygiene, and a lace front for a natural-looking hairline. The best of them don’t appear to be wigs at all; they look like natural, voluminous, just-walked-out-of-a-salon blowouts. A wig like this can be washed, colored, and styled like real hair and can cost up to $10,000 (Dini’s lower-end wigs start at $1,500). It’s a painful price, Michelle says, but she wears hers every day. “My fall from Dini mimics my own hair and makes me feel most like myself pre-marriage. And I love being creative with different looks.”

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Courtesy. Michelle, wearing a fall. 

That said, a wig is still a wig — and, no matter how good or fractional, it doesn’t feel the same as being uncovered.

“Even if my wig looks like my hair, I know that it is not,” says Daniella, 29, a Modern Orthodox mother and math tutor in New York City, who began donning a full sheitel wig with bangs when she got married at 22. “In the beginning, it was hard for me. I loved — and still love — my hair,” she says. “But covering it is a constant reminder of my dedication to God, which has a meaningful impact.” Daniella chooses to keep her own hair long, revealing it at home when she’s alone with her husband, but she’s careful not to display it outside of the house. When she runs outdoors or goes to the gym, she tucks it up into a baseball cap so that it remains mostly hidden. As Daniella sees it, she covers her hair, an intimate part of herself, to keep it “sacred” for her husband — so why wouldn’t she still style it beautifully for just the two of them to enjoy?

Of course, anyone who’s worn a wig knows that there are practical differences that set them apart from your natural hair, says Michelle. “When the wind is blowing and it’s your own hair, it’s glorious. But, when you’re wearing a wig, you’re holding on for dear life! No matter how realistic and unnoticeable, you’re always hyper-aware that your hair is covered.” What motivates her to spend the time caring for her hair when most people will never see it? Ultimately, she says, “We do it for ourselves, not for others.”

That’s not to say that the pull of fads isn’t real, though. “The trends change all the time,” Kate Stoltz, who grew up in a Pennsylvania Amish community, says of Amish hair-covering and -styling traditions. Starting at age 13, Stoltz was required to cover her hair with a kopp, which resembles a lightweight bonnet, on Sundays (the shape of the covering depends on the doctrine of the community’s bishop). Now a fashion designer and onetime star of the reality show Breaking Amish, she was expected to follow the community’s best practices for styling: hair is to be parted in the center and brushed down, then rolled, front-to-back, behind the ears. It’s placed into a ponytail and gathered into a neat bun at the nape of the neck. “The hair needs to be kept sleek with no flyaways,” she explains. “The appearance of a woman’s hair is considered to be an outward representation of how organized she is.”

Stoltz rarely put much thought into her hair until her teens, when she got into trouble for not combing it precisely, she says. That's one way Amish women mount small rebellions and personal style statements, she says; adolescent girls might comb their hair back behind their ears instead of rolling it, wear silver barrettes behind their ears, or cut their hair, as a smaller bun is considered fashionable. “It takes an insider to spot who the ‘cool’ girls are,” says Stoltz.

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Courtesy. Sarah Yasin

For Nora, 30, who recently left her job at a think tank to start a master’s program focused on reimagining systems for supporting refugees, what’s cool is what’s socially responsible. Nora was raised in Greenwich, Conn., by progressive parents for whom being Muslim was more cultural than religious. Though her mother never wore a hijab, Nora chose to start covering her hair a few years ago, after realizing that she liked the experience during prayer, which made her feel grounded. She shops for hijabs that are ethically sourced, sustainably made, and artisanal, with non-toxic dyes. For her, “it’s all about the story behind” the brand.

Though styling her hair is less important to Nora than styling her head-coverings, her haircare routine to maintain hair health will never take a backseat, she says. “Our hair is like a crown for us — it’s super important. I do weekly conditioning treatments with oil, or I braid it or wear a silk scarf at night. I definitely maintain it for it’s health.”

Sarah Yasin, 70, a retired guidance counselor who converted to Islam shortly after her 25th birthday, has a similar approach. After realizing that silk scarves don’t break her hair like cotton ones sometimes do from the friction, she made the switch.

Unlike many of the women who commented for this article, though, her styling routine took a back seat once she started covering her hair. Yasin seems to think that an increased focus on hairstyling, even when it’s unseen, is a trend primarily among younger generations of women who cover their hair. “I notice young people just doing a fantastic job of whirling and twirling, but I don’t have the patience now,” she says. “In my younger years, my hair almost totally defined me. I went through phases of wearing an afro or wearing it straight. And that’s why it was so difficult for me initially to cover it. But, in Islam, we’re taught to look at the inner qualities of a person, and I’m sure other religions are about that too.”

One thing women across belief systems, ages, and sects seem to agree on is that their reasons for covering their hair are deeply individual, ranging from modesty and increased marital intimacy to spiritual connection and the expression of personal identity. For Yasin, it’s several of these reasons, she says. But, after a while, streamlining her hairstyling process? That was a welcome perk too.