Tawny and Done to Look Undone: Beach Hair

The New York Times recently published an article by Bee-Shyuan Chang titled “Beach Hair is Riding the Wave” (May 23, 2013) that assessed the ever-popular hair style across the country; that “tousled, tawny and done to look undone” look that “has had staying power all year round.”


                      Source: New York Times

Chang seems aware of the ironies of beach hair. That people pay eighty-five dollars to have their hair professionally styled to get that “I was surfing in Costa Rica for a month look.” But even if he possesses this self-awareness, the focus of the article is the industry that has developed around beach hair. He tracks the trend back to model Gisele Bündchen, who’s hair apparently naturally possesses such a sexy, tousled quality. For those who don’t naturally possess such follicular magnificence but still want the Gisele or the Gidget look, one need only look into buying Bumble and Bumble Surf Spray, Organix Moroccan Surf Paste or Sachajuan Ocean Mist.


Retails for over fifty dollars a bottle

While the look is as summer as flip flops and tanning beds, its main appeal is that it caters to the culture of “chill.” No matter where you are, you want to be the person who has been hanging out at the beach all day, sun kissed skin and lightly frayed locks. Beach hair falls into that same category as ripped jeans. You either live the lifestyle that frays your hair and tears your pants, or you spend exorbitant amounts of money to create that identity for yourself.

This, still, is nothing new. The fact that beach hair earned an article in the New York Times style section is not in and of itself something to waste words on. But it fits into this broader idea of the surf mythos (bear with me).

Full disclosure: here is a photo of me from the mid-2000’s, sporting my grunge flannel, ripped jeans, and my so-cal surf hair.


The distinction that I am interested is that between the product of a culture and the cultural product. In other words, what results as a natural bi-product of a way of life or a hobby, vs. how that bi-product is adopted and re-appropriated for mass consumption.

Everything you find on-line about beach hair will tell you how to get it without going to the beach. But how does Rob Machado come to look like Rob Machado? Or how does Mary Osborne get that gorgeous Mary Osborne hair?


Rob Machado


Mary Osborne

The science of hair and skin can be studied together (and relate to other studies of contrasts; i.e. the exoticization of dark skinned people with blue eyes, etc.). Under contact from the sun, skin darkens because of damage to layers of skin by ultraviolet rays. These UV rays trigger melanocytes to overproduce melanin in the epidermal, or top, layer of skin. Over time this alters the composition of the skin and darkens it (You are not, in fact, baking in the sun).

Hair, on the other hand, is given its color through the same process as skin, roughly. Melanocytes produce forms of melanin which create their own bi-products that give hair its color. But since the hair itself is actually dead, the melanocytes cannot replenish the melanin that was originally present in your lovely strands. As a result, the sun dries and fades the hair. It photolyses (breaks apart) the melanin and then bleaches the hair.

Ocean water then acts as a sort of rough soap the texturizes the hair, Add to that the natural tousling of wind and waves, and there you have your eighty-five dollar salon style.

This look comes in two varieties, which is fixed along gender lines. Type in “beach hair” into a google image search, and this is what you find:


Type in “surf hair” and this is the result:


It’s interesting how even in this seemingly minor representation of a sub-culture, the same stereotypes that pressure major discussions manifest themselves. Women are passive, observant and wafe-like “beach-goers,” watching the surfers and not participating. Men are the surfers, those being watched.

The market picks this up and pitches their products along these gender lines. Consider these two adds:


The notion of these gender differences is as contrived as the notion of beach hair itself. As the New York Times article wraps up, Change quotes Miami beach stylist Oribe, who says “When I’m at the beach, the moment I get out of the water, I want to take a shower.”

For me, personally, one of my favorite parts of surfing is running my fingers through my hair and feeling the grains of sand. My skin tastes saltier, and it feels softer, and I smell like the ocean. My hair is short now, but that feeling lies deep in the roots. Kelly Slater feels it, and he’s bald.