Ukraine: The politics of hairstyle

Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko without her signature braid.

A local, slice-of-life story from a Monitor correspondent.

It was one of the icons of Ukraine’s “Orange Revolution”: Yulia Tymoshenko’s blond braid, coiled around her head like a crown, hit news pages the world over as she stood defiantly alongside Viktor Yushchenko at Independence Square in Kyiv (Kiev) in 2004 to protest a rigged presidential vote.

The traditional Ukrainian braid became a permanent feature atop Ms. Tymoshenko’s head in the run-up to the elections, underlining her patriotic credentials and appeal in the nationally minded western part of the country. It soon became the world’s most famous political hairstyle and a central part of her image as the Orange Princess.

So when Tymoshenko, now Ukraine’s prime minister, turned up to a cabinet meeting last month with her hair combed back into a modest bun, tongues were set wagging.

“No supermodel or Hollywood actress can create such a furor over a change of hairstyles as Tymoshenko,” wrote leading news magazine Korrespondent. “Ministers, journalists, and even political analysts forgot about the agenda and started guessing what had prompted her to change her image.”

With the next presidential election approaching in January, was she trying to soften her patriotic image in an effort to appeal to Russia-friendly voters in the east and south of Ukraine? After all, she has recently been courting closer relations with the Kremlin.

Or perhaps this was an “anticrisis” hairstyle, an attempt to distract from questions about her handling of Ukraine’s significant economic woes or to present a more austere, professional image.

For her part, Tymoshenko pleaded with reporters not to read anything into her new hairdo. “A normal woman is simply obliged sometimes to change her image. I, too, continually try to be a normal woman. Unfortunately, work gets in the way.”

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