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More Than Just Hair: The Meaning Behind the Ways That Guatemalan Women Wear Their Hair

More Than Just Hair: The Meaning Behind the Ways That Guatemalan Women Wear Their Hair


            Conceptions and ideals of feminine beauty vary from culture to culture, moment to moment—this something that we know to be a universal truth. As a woman, one of my favorite parts of traveling to another culture is exploring the variations in beauty rituals and practices.

            In so many ways, for so many people, and in so many cultures, hair is much more than just hair. Just think about Beyoncé’s famous song and its provocative lyrics, referencing “Becky with the good hair” and the racial bias that persists when it comes to Black hairstyles. Or think about the hijab and the significance which it holds to millions of women throughout the world. Search YouTube for ‘ways to wear hijab’ and you’ll find hundreds of styles, each with its own cultural and geographic associations.

             While visiting Guatemala, I observed the women in search of something to which I could connect—some kind of beautification ritual, or product, or practice which resonated with my own practices when it comes to prettifying myself. I am someone who has always treated my hair as, in many ways, an afterthought, and who prefers a wardrobe with a neutral, unassuming color palette. It wasn’t so much that I didn’t see the beauty in the traje of the primarily indigenous Guatemalan women, but that I couldn’t relate to it.

            The majority of Maya Guatemalan women wear their hair long and uncut, and completely natural. It is treated with a certain kind of easy, simple care which is reflective of much of the Guatemalan culture and lifestyle. The hair and the head is adorned in the same way that the body is. Vibrant colors, weavings, textures—the hair is not left alone, but is garnished and adorned in the same way that the body is, the same way that the buses are, and the same way that so much of Guatemala is. Herein lay the culture’s conceptions of beauty, as far as I can tell--from the perspective of a North American. Feminine beauty is an extension and interpretation of the visual brilliance and artistry that saturates Guatemalan (Maya) culture. 

            Just as the traje and each design in a weaving tells a different story, or adds an element to a cosmic narrative, each hair-piece and headdress tells something different about the wearer of the piece. La cinta, or the hair ribbon, is, it seems, the most widely-worn and versatile of the hair-pieces. It can be worn in different ways and may be worn sans traje. It may be quite plain or embellished with glitter, elaborate designs, tassels, or pom-poms.

            And then there are the headdresses—particularly special hair adornments wear which tend to be worn mostly by women in traditional villages or by older women, or worn for special events and holidays. These, too, tell a story. There is something deeply nostalgic about the Guatemalan woman’s traje and their adornments—evocative of and inherently connected to another world, one which is not accessible to the vast majority of us.

             For our wonderful readers, we’ve outlined two of the most commonly known and worn types of Mayan hair adornments, how they are usually worn, and their cultural significance.

The Hair Ribbon (Spanish: cinta):
A cinta is usually worn around the crown of the head, wrapped around braids in a spiral, or woven into plaits. In certain regions, the hair ribbon possesses cosmological significance; it represents the Feathered Serpent, Kukulkán, a two-headed serpent. 

The Tocoyal/Tocojal (Tzutujil: xk’op): a headdress that serves multiple purposes. It protects the wearer from the sun and keeps hair in place. The tocoyal is most commonly associated with the traje of the women in Santiago Atitlan. The tocoyal is wrapped around a woman’s head and looks very much like a hat but without a crown. The length of the tocoyal represents the length and fullness of the wearer’s life. An older woman may wear a tocoyal that is 20 meters long!

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