When I left university to return home for quarantine, a surprisingly common ‘goodbye’ I received was “PLEASE do not do anything stupid to your hair!” As someone who is known to make relatively ‘poor’ hair choices, whether that be a 3am fringe cut, or an at home box dye, many of my friends feared for my hair’s wellbeing as I strapped in for up to six months with nothing to do, especially given the rising trend of people going bald. I took their concerns and advice to heart: for the six days of quarantine I managed not to make any rash hair decisions. But, by the time day seven rolled around, I could already feel my fingers edging closer towards the razor and thus, made the fated choice to shave my head.
While this seems like a somewhat drastic thing to do, shaving my head has always been something I have wanted to try. Whether it was a particularly bad mid-exam breakdown, or a fight with a boy, going completely bald always seemed like a real possibility for me. My friends grew to ignore my threats of the big chop, and while my cries eventually fell on deaf ears, I knew that one day, it had to be done. Spending six months inside with no one seeing me but my parents seemed like the right time if there was ever going to be one, so I went ahead and did it, without the probably needed forethought.
Initially after the cut, I was elated. I felt lighter, both mentally and more literally, and so proud of what I had done. This was closely followed by the realisation that, unlike most of the other spur of the moment hair choices I had made, this was not going to be fixed with a quick trip to the hairdressers. This was in fact a commitment that would take well over a year to come back from.
I was surprised too by the initial response from others, many of whom (mostly girls) commented that the choice was brave. Although I’ve never viewed my relationship with my hair as one that defined me, this reaction began to raise questions for me, about who I was, the person I had been presenting to the people around me, and who I wanted to be now that my hair was gone. My hair was such a large part of who I thought I was even if I hadn’t realised it, and it was honestly quite confronting to see myself without it. I discovered that my hair was a huge symbol of my femininity, and something that had affirmed my womanhood, making me feel more solid in the feminine elements of my personality. For someone who often chooses to dress in a somewhat androgynous way, even though I have never questioned my gender identity, I felt suddenly insecure in myself like I never had before, which was quite challenging to deal with.
A woman’s hair has a strange place within our society. So much of our collective expectation of beauty rests on a woman’s head, even if we don’t realise it. I certainly wasn’t aware of how much my own sense of attractiveness and femininity rested on my hair until it was all gone. I have never taken my hair very seriously, keeping it short, in what I called the ‘Pulp Fiction’ cut, with that in itself being a subconscious act of defiance against many people’s expectation of womanhood for me.
But it wasn’t until I had no hair left at all that I realised just how much it was controlling me. I once had someone tell me that I hid behind my hair, that when I had it down, they could tell I was trying to hide myself somewhat from those around me. I see now just how much of a security blanket hair can be for us, as I am now truly without any protection: it is just me and my face against the world.
As a white cisgendered woman, while appearance has always been a major player when it came to my anxiety, I could never imagine what it would be like for people from marginalised demographics, dealing with body dysmorphia or living in a body that is not as accepted by society as mine is, considering the deal to which even this small change impacted me. Changing my appearance even slightly from something that was palatable to mainstream society to that which doesn’t fully align with what is widely accepted as ‘woman’ really opened my eyes. I see now the degree to which what we present to the outside world physically can dictate how we are perceived as a whole, something that I should have fully realised long ago.
It was also this realisation which helped me understand the power of women with a shaved head. After the shave, I became interested in seeing the women who came before me in shaving their heads, as well as the cultural significance this hair style has had. There have evidently been many instances throughout history in which a shaven head has been a form of punishment for women, including during the Salem witch trials, or obviously during the Holocaust. However, the shaven head was reclaimed through the skinhead subculture in the 1960s (before the movement was taken over by racist and neo-Nazi groups) as well as during the feminist Riot grrrl’s of the 1990s.
One comparison that was frequently made to my hair was that of Britney Spears, who shaved her head after leaving rehab in 2007. While many joked about this being my ‘breakdown haircut’ like Spears’s, I started to wonder if her head shave was really a sign of her mental deterioration as the media and pop culture proclaimed or, rather, an attempt for her to take control of her own life and appearance in a difficult time. While the connotations of a shaved head may not be as severe for me as they have been for others in the past, I feel proud of myself for joining the ranks of the brave and powerful women who have come before me with this cut.
Even though there have certainly been mixed reactions to my new hair, ranging from wild support to dramatic horror, I am so glad I made the choice to go bald even after so many years and close shaves (excuse the pun). Shaving my head has been hugely significant. Girls: do it. You know you want to.
Image: Andy Mabbett via Wikimedia Commons