To my knowledge, I have never brought a stranger closer to tears than when I arrived at a Supercuts in Chicago and asked the first stylist I saw to shave my waist-length hair into something vaguely resembling a hedgehog.
“But why!” she gasped, mournfully stroking the thick mat of Old World hair. I shrugged, and she proceeded to whisper to the other stylists re: my abomination of a plan. This is not intended to aggrandize my hair as though it were an ancient relic lost to the ages, but a realistic depiction of what a 62-year-old Croatian woman with dyed black hair and chalky eyeliner would say if presented with such a situation. Though the stylists collectively laughed and shook their heads, I was a paying customer and therefore, an hour later, I left, head shorn (and admittedly a bit breezy in the November air).
I had wanted a shaved head for some time. It was an ever-inexplicable urge that drew both guffaws and faintly-impressed nods from those with whom I shared my plan. The strand running through it all was the notion I was somehow making a sacrifice; that I was laying down my femininity in exchange for something hard, invulnerable, and asexual. Perhaps I was challenging myself in some way, or participating in some secret ritual only my heart could explain? Nevermind the freedom from the constraints of hair (particularly: three-foot-long hair) and all of its connotations.
Now, in my quasi-baldness, I don’t claim to be an individual, and in fact I acknowledge my participation in a larger trend. Women/femme individuals are adopting this style at an increasing rate, and one need only to look around a busy intersection in New York City to gather such statistical evidence.
It’s possible, and maybe even likely, that the growing favorability of the femme-shaved-head is directly tied to the current feminist movement. As “women’s liberation” becomes increasingly commercial and commodified, the status quo of what is considered physically radical is pushed towards extremes. So much of the popular discourse surrounding women’s place in 2018 life revolves around appearance (has it ever not?), and the rejection of traditional forms of femininity. Can the shaved head, in some ways, be reduced parallel to the reduction of feminism? If feminism were to merely equal a woman’s place in the world being manipulated to resemble a man’s, as feminist-branded-capitalists may claim, then is a woman’s shaved head merely a symbolic attempt at such a manipulation? It seems as though popular culture would have it so.
In a recent Times piece, fashion editor Vanessa Friedman quotes Princeton-based cultural anthropologist Erin K. Vearncombe. “I don’t think you can ever just shrug it off as a matter of personal expression. Hair is intrinsically linked to assumptions about gender and power relations.” These words are certainly true, as evidenced by the literal legal/political consequences at risk for those with traditional African/African-American hairstyles. I do not aim to reject hair as a political platform, but the context in which it is being evoked: This quote is used to support Friedman’s overall thesis that a woman with a shaved head is, specifically, a symbol of strength; strength offered through masculinization.
The vehicle through which the piece attempts to showcase said thesis is Emma Gonzales, a young woman who rose to prominence for her outspoken anti-gun-violence activism following a mass shooting at her high school in Parkland, Florida. Gonzales’s baldness was the subject of much discussion extrinsic to the Times. One particularly troublesome meme circulated on Twitter, depicting a collage of Gonzales alongside the characters Furiosa (Mad Max: Fury Road), Eleven (Stranger Things), and Okoye (Black Panther). The collage was captioned “The future is female and it doesn’t have time for styling products.”
Here we have three fictional characters superimposed alongside one very real young woman, yet they are tied together due to the nature of their hair and an implied belief that they have revolutionary capabilities due to their lack of this time-consuming, feminine vestige. While many praised this collection of words and images and all of its implications, there are dangerous unspoken claims being made, beginning with the conflation of the fictional and the real.
Women with shaved heads have served as a trope in film and television nearly as long as the mediums themselves have existed (any number of Joan of Arc movies comes to mind). In nearly every instance, the lack of hair directly correlates to a powerful yet wordless character — every fictional example in the aforementioned meme speaks but a few lines. These characters have trauma often associated with the lack of hair, or in other instances the removal of the hair is shown to be traumatic in itself (V For Vendetta, G.I. Jane). Most importantly: every character and media property thus discussed was written and directed by a man and relies on the patriarchal dynamic that a woman’s power can only come at the expense of herself. This strong, silent, and shaved-headed woman is a uniquely male conception.
Gonzales, while indeed strong, is far from silent, far from stoic, and far from letting her trauma physically define her. This is where the disconnect between a woman’s hair and the culture attempting to interpret her is taking place.
The opposite of the invulnerability one may assume based on these cues from entertainment, in reality the experience of being a woman with a shaved head is one of great vulnerability. Not hardness, but its opposite. Rather than rejecting femininity outright, shaving my head has served as an opportunity to explore and understand my womanhood beyond its traditional signifiers. Having a shaved head offers you very little escape from yourself, and has served to heighten my own self-interpretation.
In some ways, I feel more feminine than ever — or have at least better come to understand the forms that femininity evokes within myself. This takes both positive and negative shapes — shapes of bliss and shapes of reckoning with the doubt of my being and tracing it back to something as frivolous as hair.
Shaving one’s head is analogous to a softening, a calming; a desire to center oneself and connect internally in new ways. It is not an antisocial rejection but an opening of oneself to a new way of living.
Thus, I reject that the blossoming trend of the shaved head runs parallel to an increase in femme aggression. Admitting so would mean that the work of feminism is only serving to create new power structures based on the same artificial power. Women are shaving their heads because we aim and need to create spaces in which our relationships with each other are based on realness, rawness; fairness and unadornment. We wish to be seen. If cutting our hair will allow us to feel that world brushing across our cheek like a cool breeze from time to time, so be it.
Find this essay and more in Katie Fustich’s debut essay collection, On Love and Communism, now available to order.