Grace Jones. Sinéad O’Connor. Sigourney Weaver. Miley Cyrus. Lupita Nyong’o. Demi Moore. What do these names bring to mind? Power. Strength. Beauty. And of course, they are all women who have shaved their heads.
As a child, I already felt the burden of long hair. My thick locks took forever to wash and dry. It obscured my vision when loose, and gave me a painful headache when tied back. My bedroom floor may as well have been covered with a human-hair rug, with the amount of hair littering the floor that no vacuum could pick up.
When I received my first short hair cut at the age of 13, it was a liberation. No more headaches, no more pain. And I felt stylish! As a young woman, I was finding my own “look”, and having my hair cropped short was the first time I felt I’d really taken ownership of my style. I figured I looked just like Nicky Buckley, whose picture I had brought to the hairdressers to emulate.*
From then, I’ve never had my hair longer than my shoulders, and more often than not, it’s been in a pixie cut. I loved going to the hairdresser’s and trying out new cuts and colours, but always in the back of my mind I wanted to shave it all off, Sinéad O’Connor-style. “Later,” I told myself.
When I got sick, my plan was put on the backburner as my sensory issues took over. The air already burnt my skin, making it hard to wear short sleeves in summer, so how could I shave (and thus expose) my head? It was just another dream that my illness had denied me. Until now.
As you may have already guessed, I’m not in the best place mentally. Struggling daily with this all-consuming illness is hard enough, let alone dealing with the trauma inflicted on me by medical professionals in the past. The daily grind of disbelief is near impossible to bear, and almost more damaging than the illness itself. After a particularly few stressful weeks, combined with the ever-diminishing network I can now rely on for support, I didn’t know how I could cope.
So, in a moment of grief, loss and despair, I decided to shave my head. Like those in the old testament, my sadness was so deep that I felt compelled to remove my hair. (I would’ve worn sackcloths if I didn’t love clothes so darn much.)
Make no mistake: although this came from a moment of utter despair, it was what I wanted. I was delighted that I could fulfill one of my dreams which I never thought would come true. But it was also a way to channel my hurt and pain into something external; to take some agency back from a body that has denied me so long.
I was sobbing as I held my head above the bathtub and chopped my hair off with scissors, before hacking at it with my brother’s beard trimmer. My tears came not from my actions, but from all the emotions I had bottled up inside me from my illness. I felt I could finally grieve for the Siobhan who had died, and maybe, just maybe, create a new me from the ashes.
In our society, shaved heads on women still have the power to shock. They reject traditional notions of femininity, and subvert conventional female sexuality. Consider the reaction to a man shaving his head for summer: there is none. But a female celebrity shaves her locks, and is suddenly the subject of intense media speculation. Women’s bodies are not considered their own, and are often infused with a mystical power that only ever benefits others.
Rapunzel’s hair was a symbol of her beauty, but not for her: Dame Gothel used it to climb up a tower (ouch!), and cut it off when she realised it did not benefit her alone. In many religions or cults, such as the Exclusive Brethren, women are forbidden from cutting their hair. Others suggest hair is a symbol of shame or sexuality (or both).
The Victorians were obsessed with the idea of a mythological woman whose long, golden hair was her crowning glory. Hair was worn up and covered: the letting down of one’s hair was seen as a sexual act, and men were titillated by images of women with long, loose hair.
Hair’s perceived sexual force was both arousing and terrifying. Images of women strangling their lovers were a common representation of the power and sexuality hair beheld. Medusa is the image of women’s sexuality gone bad: her hair, replaced by phallic snakes, devoured her conquests. Women’s hair is so laden with meaning that the act of cutting it is a profound political statement.
Women started cutting their hair in the 20s** as a rebellion against their long-locked predecessors. Along with corsets and floor-sweeping frocks, long hair was rejected in favour of freedom: both bodily and political. Androgynous flappers challenged the gender status quo by smoking, drinking, and dancing at jazz clubs – activities formerly reserved for men. As singer Mary Garden said, “bobbed hair is a state of mind…[it] belongs to the age of freedom, frankness, and progressiveness.” Women were voting, playing sports and living unchaperoned – emancipation had begun.
Fast forward to the 60s. A young Grace Jones had just begun university, and was discovering the power appearance could bring. Already considered an outsider because of her skin, she was the first one at her campus to wear an afro. Staff members and students stared and laughed, so shocking was her appearance at the time. As she said, “it [having an afro] was an abrupt way of telling the world: I am not a nice girl.”
Later, Jones employed that power again, when she cut had her hair cut extremely short by her hairdresser, soon to be lover (she credits her short hair for leading to her first orgasm). Grace Jones inspired me as the ballsy MayDay in A View to a Kill. Her unique, androgynous styling left no doubt that no societal convention could restrain this woman.
An equally powerful star was making her debut at the same time. When Sinéad O’Connor started making music in the 80s, record executives wanted her to grow her hair long and wear short skirts, to convey a less threatening image of femininity. She responded by shaving her head. In an era when male record executives felt entitled to their young protege’s bodies, Sinéad rejected the conventional trappings of femininity to protect herself. “It was dangerous to be a female,” she remembers.
In more recent times, the image we most closely associated with shorn heads is one of a traumatised Britney Spears in a salon, taking hold of the clippers and shaving her head bare. It’s not hard to imagine what drove her to this point. Britney had been the property of Disney and the general public since the age of 11. Paparazzi stalked her every move, and her image was tightly controlled by her management. Her fledgling relationship with Justin Timberlake was more like a reality TV show than a teen romance. Britney had been incubated in the public gaze: no wonder she felt driven to take some ownership back of her body.
Please be assured that I am nowhere near as psychologically fragile as Britney was at the time. However, I understand how she felt when took control of the clippers, muttering “I don’t want anyone touching me. I’m tired of everybody touching me.” Britney had lost her body to the ravenous media, and decided to take it back.
As a chronically ill person, my body is no longer my own. It has been taken; both by this illness and the medical establishment. My abusers in hospital stripped this body from me and left me an empty shell. I could not reclaim it as my illness has my body in full control: from the moment I wake up in the morning to when I shut my eyes at night, my illness dictates my every move. I am a prisoner in my own body.
Although done in a moment of despair, Britney’s actions had the same underlying purpose as I and her hair-chopping predecessors did: she wanted to take control of a body she felt was not hers alone. Now, like many others, I understand the power of taking back a dispossessed body.
And how do I feel about my hair now? I love it. I feel strong and beautiful, like I never have before. I used to sweep my fringe in my eyes to avoid detection, but now there is nowhere for me to hide.*** I can take the world full on, as I am. In fact, the only problem is, I have so few places to go that I can’t show off what a babe I look. I just strut around at home feeling cool af.
It has emboldened me to challenge some of my anxieties, and before my health took a recent turn, I was attempting things I only thought would be possible once I recovered (such as sewing sleeveless clothes for summer). I did shave my head before my latest relapse, and my health is so affected of late that I’ve lost a lot of the initial confidence associated with the cut. But I still feel more emboldened to take on this relapse than I would have in the past.
And although I’ve always been a femi-nazi mad witch intent on destroying the joint, shaving my head has made me question even more about the gender constructs which underpin our society. Caring for a shaved head is so easy, I almost can’t believe it. Showering takes an instant, and far fewer spoons. My hair products sit redundant on my dresser. It makes me wonder what else is easier for men.
For instance, why would female flight attendants have to spend an extra hour at training to learn the company’s make-up policy? Why do women have to bear the burden of emotional labor in a relationship? And why, oh why, does women’s clothing not have pockets?!
That said: I don’t think shaving your head should be mandatory. You can be a feminist whether your have long hair, short hair, no hair or carefully cultivated curly underarm hair. Hell, I get around in 50s style frocks! But if you are interested in shaving your head, and something is holding you back – go for it! What that something usually boils down to is not inside you, but some form of societal expectation. And you know how I feel by now about society’s expectations of women (hint: I don’t much care for them).
Taking ownership of my body was a poignant moment, and one that will nourish me through these barren times of relapse. In these dark and desperate times for women, I hope all my beautiful woman friends have something similar to cling to; a reminder that there is a part of us that nothing can take away.
*I promise my style icons have improved since then.
**This is a very, very simplified history. I know bobs really originated in the 1800s.
***Except my gigantic glasses. I’m never giving them up.