Monday, September 3, 2012

Women playing with their hair on approaching stoplights

In an Internet site where I banter with my classmates from my medical school, one of them raised the following question.

why women play with their hair when they approach stoplights ?

And he answered it himself, of course as a joke, Unlike men they do not have b---- to scratch.

While he meant it as a joke the fact that he had noticed this phenomena, and had found it humorous enough to quip on it, and then had associated it with - rather had  found equivalency with - touching of genitals, points to the presence of some psychological riddle here. 

First of all we have to decide whether it is a phenomena worthy of psychoanalytic investigation by which I mean that it is a distinct behavior present not just as a quirk in one particular person, which would be a manifestation of his or her individual neurosis, but a universal neurosis, present in all of us, ready to emerge as a defense mechanism if the circumstances demand; a repetitious behavior arising from our phylogenetic past as a response to the experiences of countless generations that have left genetic imprints in all of us, and whose raison d'etre remains shrouded in mystery because the underlying motives and processes of the phenomena have become unconscious due to repression

There is little doubt that some women under stress do reach for their hair - usually the frontal locks - and run their fingers through it as if searching for something hidden. On being questioned they dismiss it as just a habit or as simple straightening of hair and may even get irritated as to why one would nitpick over a little extra grooming.  

Now superfluous grooming is a sign of obsessional neurosis. In a subset, the compulsion to clean and groom reaches ridiculous proportions. The patient, especially in the mornings, may literally spend hours in front of the mirror, straightening hair, looking for flaws on the face, clothes and other aspects of one's appearance, as if one has to wipe out every trace of what may be construed as offensive by others, before leaving the house. Trying to put the hair in order seems to be a specially favored aspect of this ritual, as if these individuals are having a-bad-hair-day everyday, and they may accumulate an impressive array of shampoos, gels, conditioners, sprays, and shaving paraphernalia as counter measures against these (unconscious) harmful impulses. 

And here we cannot help but reflect whether patients who suffer from trichotillomania - a malady where the person compulsively pulls out her hair in clumps sometimes to the point of going completely bald - are not taking this fear to an extreme.

Now sometime back on this blog I discussed a case of trichotillomania: "A childhood screen memory of penis envy and its connection with trichotillomania" (April 16 2011). There we saw how the patient, under the sway of penis envy, wanted to pull out anything that reminded her of the difference between the sexes and the underlying motive was to equalize the playing field between the two.

Could it be possible that such apparently purposeless playing with hair under stress is just an embryonic trichotillomania?

We do know that trichotillomania is another manifestation of obsessive-compulsive disorder. To the patient the hair feels as something alien and hostile that one must get rid of. Anything out of place, anything not fitting in with rest of the pattern; littered pieces of papers, dirty linen dropped on the bathroom floor, magazines thrown haphazardly upon the coffee table, hair in the bathtub, they all have to be put in the general scheme or yanked out altogether, so goes the reasoning of the obsessive, and hair become another object in the series.

What surprises us, and fills us with not a little fascinated horror, is that here what the obsessive is finding incongruous is not something external but part of his own self. But a little reflection tells us that  feeling and treating part of oneself as a foreign object is perhaps not all that strange but quite common. We just do not see it that way and therefore it unpleasantly surprises us when somebody brings to our attention as to how we can treat part of our own body as something vile and foreign. In fact picking upon pimples and other flaws of complexion is almost a rite of passage in adolescence; women in throes of post partum depression may consider their own child - which just so recently was part of their body - as incarnate of evil, the devil himself and kill it;  and in psychotics it is not all that rare to actually castrate themselves or enucleate their eyes [where eyes symbolize the penis]. Those suffering from psychogenic pruritis can relentlessly dig their own skin convinced that under it lie bugs or other contaminants, and psychogenic poludipsics are known to gorge themselves with gallons of water in order to wash out the impurities of the environment that has got lodged inside their bodies. Recently a patient of mine, who for years had been digging her skin and her torso and arms were puddles of sores, stopped doing it, when her Remeron (Mirtazapine) was stopped. She was perhaps feeling the side effects of Mitrazapine as something foreign inside her. A mechanism that I will not be surprised is common across the board in causing psychogenic polydipsia in patients on psychotropic medications.  

Now coming back to the analysis of these obsessive patients who are forever trying to get rid of the incongruities in their environment or in themselves. At the deepest level they are fearful of contamination of others by the bad aspects of themselves. Incongruities in the environment is just a reminder of their own unacceptable impulses, and they are forever straightening out the environment to banish from their sight everything that will provoke further activation of their own incongruent/evil/extruding impulses. And these extruding impulses show themselves to be the intimate aspects of themselves that should be hidden from the environment. While immediate examination shows them to be arising from the anal-sadistic phase of sexuality - we recall here that the fear of leaving the house is associated with not being cleaned and groomed enough - at the deepest level they arise from the fear of the destructive power of the phallic impulses. The fear that one's anal-sadistic impulses will show is but a regression from the fear that one's phallic/genital impulses are out of control and will be seen by people/society. 

Why the penis and the impulses originating from it are felt to be destructive? 

Sexual drive is often felt as evil and incongruous with the rest of the self; an anomaly, something gross, physical, material, smelly, crude and not refined or spiritual enough. 

And with good reason. People who are so dignified in every other respect when under the sway of the sexual drive can behave most incongruously. A man huffing and puffing in the act of sex looks ridiculous if not outright animal. There is nothing dignified about one human being mounting and humping another. And the phallus/penis is the most visible manifestation of this drive which turns us into such a coarse being. In women there is further fear of it being a harbinger of cooties - diseases - if not outright pregnancy, which is the beginning of the destruction of one's own body and ultimately death. No wonder people often develop neurosis in order to suppress/escape from this coarse drive. We cannot help but reflect here that in the Hindu Trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva the latter is symbolized by the penis and is attributed the function of both the procreator and its exact opposite the destroyer.

But what exactly is the connection between women playing with their hair on crossroads, trichotillomania and fear of getting touched by the penis, you want to ask me. 

This question cannot be answered directly and instead I will take up two instructive cases. The first one is actually not even a case but someone I worked with 25 years ago. He was a Jewish doctor who stammered quite badly; a malady that I could see had arisen as a mean to control his inordinate ambition which must have begun as an excessively powerful aggressive drive. Coupled with this was his habit of relentlessly twirling and untwirling a lock of hair that he still had upon his balding head. The underlying psychological mechanism behind the obsession was easy to discern. His extreme competitiveness wished nothing less than castration for anyone who even hinted of crossing his path. But living in society and hampered by its rules  and unable to do anything of the sort even with words, for stammering would arise to block the discharge of aggression through speech, he wanted to do it with his bare hands. But the danger involved in laying his hands upon others had deflected the impulse to find discharge upon his own self and in the form of twirling and untwirling his hair - castrating and uncastrating himself, symbolically of course.

The second case is that of a woman who was in early thirties, eager to settle down but unable to do so because of undischarged anger towards men, stemming from growing up in a divorced household where the mother was absent and the girl was dumped with the responsibility of taking care of the father and her brother, both of whom had lorded over her because she was the girl. Her relationships were predictable. After a brief  period or romance, she would lapse into continuous arguments with whoever she was courting.  All her lovers after a few months of honeymoon would metamorphose into her brother behind which lay the image of her father. Her life was a series of her old battles with the new incarnations of her brother and father. 

And her brother gave her fresh justifications to do so. She had a regular job while her brother, older than her, was more or less of a bum. Whenever she talked about him she showed contempt for his inability to hold down a job and this would be followed up with expressions of outrage that he still remains their father's favorite. And she knew that the only reason  this was happening was because he was the boy and she was the girl. "If only I had a penis," in her unconscious she reasoned, "I would have been my father's favorite." 

Now whenever she talked about her brother in this fashion, and additionally whenever she felt I was putting her down through my 'interpretations' of her psychological conflicts, she would get excited and start playing with her hair. And the way she played it looked like as if she was searching for something there. The movement of her fingers through her hair would remind me of how homosexual hair dressers fiddle with their clients' hair fetishistically as if they are searching there for something as well.  Now one of the most common subtype of homosexuality occurs in those who cannot forgo the idea of the lack of penis in their love object. These homosexuals love everything about women and their beauty but cannot tolerate the dread of the missing penis in them. They often turn to feminine looking youthful boys for their love needs. And it is this type of homosexuality that marks the hair dressers who cannot give up the idea of finding the penis in the tresses of the hair while grooming and straightening it out. The facial expression and behavior of this girl was so similar to those homosexual hairdressers, the unconscious motives behind such playing with hair became easy to fathom. "You jerk," she wanted to say, "You are shoving those interpretations down my throat with such surety because being a man, and possessing a penis, you consider yourself naturally superior to me. Now I know that I too have a penis. It is hidden somewhere, deep inside me, perhaps hidden behind these lock of hair of mine. And if only I get hold of it, which will place both of us on a level field, I will teach you a lesson as to who is better between the two of us."

If we take the Jewish doctor who played with the hair to symbolically self-castrate, and this girl's search for the hidden penis which would put her on equal footing with men, then we can extrapolate that perhaps many women when stopped at crossroads experience the situation as stressful and also deal with the anxiety by reaching for the penis that would put them on equal footing with men and make them not feel so vulnerable. 

But why would a woman feel vulnerable on stoplights? 

Here we run into the psychology of agoraphobia. Agoraphobia - which literally means fear of the marketplace - arises from fear of coming to harm in interacting with others especially in public places. Analysis reveals that behind the fear of interaction lies fear that one would be tempted to exchange one's goods - displacement from exchanging one's sexual goods - and would come out a loser. In the agoraphobic the give and take of life has gone sour. Iron has entered the soul especially in the matter of the most pleasurable of all exchanges - the give and take of sex.

What causes this fear and sourness?

Throughout our existence we are in search for somebody with whom we can exchange our bodily goods. The very process of life depends upon such exchange. In this love exchange, only in the beginning we are generous, and this more so the case in women. In her, if the culture and men has taken advantage of her, and given as to how exploitative cultures are towards women it is invariably the case, she may show increasing ambivalence towards this search for love. She may rather not exchange 'her treasures' with that of a man, or do it in a manner where she gives less and takes more. She may even resort to deception, ruse and tricking. It is these negative impulses behind her love that makes folks lament at the femme fatale and her enigmatic and unfathomable nature.

The woman's inner conviction that she has been shortchanged in life adds a further twist to this search for love.  Her sense of lacking something which she must make good and complete by getting it from a man makes her approach him with poor self esteem and trepidation and leads her to adorn herself with all kinds of jewelery, make-up, and other shiny trinkets that she hopes will be a match for that one jewel that he possesses. Women's endless shopping is also the search for that jewel that would deflect attention from her  great defect/wound  and would make the man believe that he is getting more than what he is giving. The term "turning tricks" for the act of prostitution perhaps arose from this attitude of exchanging and tricking the man into giving what she wants without his getting anything in return. For the prostitute convinces herself that she feels nothing and gives nothing in the sexual exchange and gets the man's money through just tricking him.  

But the attitude of tricking, deceiving, stealing, and in the more spirited one pulling it out as a tuft of hair, provokes the fear of retaliation and subjection to physical harm and other dangers as getting the cooties (venereal diseases) and pregnancy. The  revolt at the thought of playing the passive sexual role and a stranger's dirty organ penetrating one's body adds to the disgust and provokes further withdrawal from the impulse.

No wonder at the stoplights, in a situation to meet somebody - for crossroads are like a marketplace offering choices as to which direction to take and who to choose from amongst all the other stopped passengers - tempted and yet fearing the retaliation for her evil intention, she reaches for her hair and searches for the penis, which she has a conviction she does possess, and it is only a matter of searching. For if she is successful this time in that eternal search, she does not have to bother exchanging her goods with another; for what she so ardently desires she already has.


  1. I think you touched on it slightly when you discussed penis envy and a woman's constant attempt to fill the lack which they feel they possess. But I think that the interpretation is simpler than you make out.

    For a woman playing with their hair is a sign of flirtation -- it is a sign of desire. Women's desire has a tendency to wander as it is not as tied down as a man's is (to his penis). The stop sign or red light is indicative of a halt to desire. But people have a tendency to not like their desire being trapped and so they will try to "go beyond it" in the face of adversity. A man will feel his penis, but a woman will make a more subtle, symbolic gesture -- one not wholly tied to the limits of the corporeal body.

    By the way, obsessions must be read in the opposite way. They provide a means by which to escape from a desire that has been repressed. By engaging in compulsive acts the underlying repressed fantasy is defended against. But the act of playing with one's hair (as a woman) is not an evasive act, it is precisely the opposite.

  2. Hmm very interesting. I found this from a google search. I have had a hair twirling obsession since I was around 13, so 10 years. Not just at the stop lights but anytime I am sitting down at the computer or TV alone, which is often! Many of the things you've written make sense in my case and I've noticed the envy before.. just never made such a connection..