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1. An uncomfortable garment made of coarse hair or other material worn against the skin. Used in some religious rituals as punishment or penance. In ancient times, men would wear a hair shirt as a sign of repentance to their deity for wrongs they had done.
2. By extension, something a person does to intentionally make an aspect of their life uncomfortable or unpleasant, often as a form of penance. I understand that you are sorry for your actions, but there is no need to wear a hair shirt because of it. All is forgiven. A: "Why aren't you eating dessert?" B: "Oh, it's my punishment—my hair shirt, if you will—for blowing off my schoolwork this week."
A self-imposed punishment or penance, as in I apologized a dozen times-do you want me to wear a hair shirt forever? This term, mentioned from the 13th century on, alludes to wearing a coarse, scratchy hair shirt, the practice of religious ascetics. Its figurative use dates from the mid-1800s.
a hair shirt
If someone is wearing a hair shirt, they are deliberately making their life unpleasant or uncomfortable, especially because they feel guilty about something. No one is asking you to wear a hair shirt and give up all your luxuries. Note: Hair-shirt can also be used before a noun. Why adopt such a hair-shirt response to economic difficulty when there are so much more appropriate and comfortable alternatives? Note: In the past, hair shirts were very rough, uncomfortable shirts made from horsehair. People sometimes wore them for religious reasons, to show that they were truly sorry for their sins.
A self-imposed act of atonement. The wearing of shirts made of unprocessed animal hair or a rough cloth next to the skin dates back to biblical days. The purpose of such an uncomfortable garment was as an expression of faith, a constant reminder that the wearer's sinful flesh was inconsequential compared to a commitment to God. Some members of the nobility wore hair shirts to compensate for the luxury with which they surrounded themselves. Although such mortification of the flesh is rare these days, “hair shirt” survives as a metaphor for self-imposed penitence. A basketball player who takes cold showers for the next month as penance after missing what would have been a game-winning shot has chosen to wear, as it were, a liquid hair shirt.