Listen to the full audio essay here: [soundcloud:https://soundcloud.com/user-754090332/a-shaved-head-will-grow-back]
In May of 2019, I sat staring at my reflection in a small rectangular mirror. I pulled my hair back tightly, entangling my fingers within locks of hair. Staring at my complexion I saw a round, egg-shaped face and pale pink lips that were cracked from unseasonably cold weather. I ran my hands through my hair, letting it fall to my shoulders. Some intertwined pieces coiled around one another forming knots. I laughed at the knots. It was a tangle of time — or it would be the last tangle for some time. Again, I pulled my hair back, asking myself “Will I like it? Why does that really matter?”
The material security of a full head of hair blocked my ability to fully interrogate my relationship with it. It was a weight that shackled me into a performance of failed conformity. I wanted to rid myself of this performance — who am I rehearsing for? A week of heavy risk assessment left me embracing potential repercussions of shaving my head — which included frustrating my conservative family, accepting a new mirror image and being more vulnerable in public.
Three friends came into the room and placed a pair of crafting scissors on the table in front of me. My untrained hands hacked away ropes of black hair, which swiftly entered freefall and landed in their ultimate resting place on the wooden floor. In one minute, I saw my face in an uneven set of bangs, an unnerving mullet and an asymmetrical pixie cut. With the haphazard smock left sitting on my head, the buzz of hair clippers began to drown out all sounds.
The buzz stimulated a brief moment of regret. It was a buzz that represented both an aesthetic and a desire to be free of an aesthetic. It sounded through my self-destructive construction, adhered to my adolescent reflection and battled with my blemished foundation of femininity. The buzz oscillated in the room, vibrating through my hands, drumming in my ears and filling my eyes with curiosity — what a fragile form of finery hair is.
I sat there looking at myself, not feeling as though the motions of my arms swiping the clippers back and forth were my own. I was looking at the mirror, but felt like I was sitting front row at a hazy film showing, in which I was the protagonist.
My head felt like soft carpet.
Hot tears leapt from my cheeks in the overwhelming moment of instantaneous change, of complex austerity. I was reintroduced to myself in the small rectangular mirror.
In the last decade, more women and non-binary folks have shaved their heads in an effort to subvert mainstream heteronormative and patriarchal beauty standards. At the same time, the mainstream media focus on this trend has consistently highlighted those who meet Eurocentric and/or feminine beauty standards. In January 2018, the pages of beauty magazine Allure were adorned with glamorous pictures of high-fashion models for a feature about women who shaved their heads as a sartorial statement. Similarly, the New York Times shared stories of female models who shaved their heads — again perpetuating the idea that a buzzcut is only a fashionable hairstyle if you have a femme face or “the right head shape.”
LSA senior Taylor Luthe (she/her) decided to shave her head twice in the summer of 2019. She agreed that many of the bald women that are perceived as beautiful had features that were stereotypically female. During that time, she noticed parts of herself that made her sometimes insecure about the decision.
“It was hard seeing little parts and pieces of your body, like in pictures, in the mirror, and not having ever seen those before. And then really over-analyzing those. Like ‘Oh, is that what the back of my neck looks like? Is there a roll?’ ”
Even as a radical feminist, Taylor acknowledged that she held deep-rooted ideas of gendered beauty. She asked herself, “Who do I need to feel feminine for? Why do I need to embody these characteristics if I already feel okay within myself about who I am and how I act in the world?”
A shaved head has not, and will never be, reserved for those with “suitable” features. Promoting this narrative over others excludes those who shave for gender expression, sexual orientation or freedom from gendered beauty. Though it is perfectly acceptable to buzz for a fashion look, media outlets that fail to include varying perspectives, identities and experiences beyond runway trends continue to silence individuals who have been harmed by a binary promotion of beauty.
The physical action of shaving one’s head is the same for everyone, but the reasons behind the decision are beautifully dissimilar. For LSA sophomore Aldo Pando Girard (he/they), hair has been something that has always separated them from their peers. “It was a big thing for me to be like no white people are going to touch my hair, ever, period, at all,” Aldo said.
Aldo is Cuban and Black, and has experimented with a variety of hairstyles throughout their college career. From box braids to waves, changes in their hair have often left friends initially disoriented upon seeing them.
“It’s been weird making big changes to my hair and people not recognizing me, that has been very surreal,” they said. “My hair is just pretty closely tied to how I view myself and how I can express myself.”
As someone who is gender fluid and likes to stretch and surpass traditional masculine beauty ideals, shaving their head made Aldo feel as though they had less control over their outward perception. It made them feel more masculine and publicly perceived as masculine, even when they had the desire to be androgynous.
LSA senior Leena Ghannam (they/them) shaved for a more androgynous look. Their relationship with their hair has been “antagonistic” partly due to their hometown.
“To have curly hair or kinky hair, especially because I grew up in a town that was majority white, I did not feel comfortable with the texture of my hair, and the quantity of it also,” Leena said.
They are from a Palestinian family that holds traditional ideals about the female appearance. When shaving their head, the “fear of family reaction” was a pressing thought. But the action ultimately aided in healing that “tumultuous” relationship they had with their hair, making the threat of family backlash a worthy fight. “It felt like a weird worship of hair, or an appreciation of it, but also a castration of it. It helped me develop a much better relationship with my hair,” they said.
In addition to looking more androgynous, Leena also shaved to help prevent the symptoms of trichotillomania — a somatic symptom of anxiety and OCD that causes an uncontrollable urge to pluck hair.
Listen to the full interviews with Taylor, Leena and Aldo here:
My desire to shave my head was similar to Leena’s. At age thirteen, I started losing the hair on my head from trichotillomania. The idiomatic expression “I want to pull my hair out” exposes a real and diagnosable disorder.
A 2002 University of Wisconsin–Madison study found at least 13 percent of adults in the United States engage in body-focused repetitive behaviors (BFRBs). Of the 13 percent, an estimated one to two percent of the population has trichotillomania. I didn’t meet someone with this disorder until I was 20 years old. We cried, hand-in-hand, understanding one another without words.
Hair-pulling triggered my first head-shaving fantasies. The only place where it was socially acceptable for women to be hairy was your head, and my scalp was being picked clean. The strands that sprouted from my head were of varying lengths after years of plucking in high school. A healthy mane only seemed attainable if I buzzed it down to the root, but the thought of being a teenage girl with a shaved head in a religious and conservative community deterred all plans of execution. My body only became a vehicle for expression once I entered college.
My parents were not happy the first time I came home with a buzzcut. My mom’s first questions were: “What’s wrong? Are you gay? Why did you do this?” Though I knew the reasons behind my decision, it was hard to come home to a place where my appearance was not only unacceptable but also immediately and constantly questioned.
The history of shaved heads is one that is full of freedom — but also deviance. It’s been used to physically display an entrance into a group or an obliteration of individuality — a social tariff on social interactions. The common associations of shaved heads are of religious conformity, military admission or a chemotherapy patient. Throughout history and in most places, women and men have parted with their hair for reasons of religious purification, public humiliation or cultural erasure.
For instance, after World War II, French women accused of sleeping with German soldiers were publicly humiliated by having their heads shaved. “The shorn women” were forced to walk through the streets bald, with swastikas painted on their bodies. Some 20,000 women were shamed in the streets.
During the Atlantic Slave Trade, Africans were captured by colonizers and their hair was cut off. This signified an eradication of personality and culture, as head and hair adornment was a fundamental part of one’s wardrobe.
These dark histories still inform perceptions of shaved heads, even though practicality, convenience, androgyny and style are now the predominant factors. LSA junior Hannah Meyers (she/they) has shaved their head three times in their life. The last time they shaved their head, it was because of a bad bleach and hair-coloring job. Even in the messy moment, shaving their head was saving their hair.
“I feel like the Britney moment came before the head shaving, and the head shaving was like the reclaiming of the moment,” they said. “It was starting over.”
Recently, she entered the workforce as a middle school student teacher. Hair is used as a uniform for students and teachers alike. Students with nonconforming hairstyles can be subject to expulsion. Teachers can be fired for not setting appropriate examples. But Hannah believes that their choices regarding body and head hair will be a model for younger children.
“I am questioning what it means to be hairy or not hairy in the workforce. I want to be a public school teacher, I’m getting certified for middle or high school. I’m not sure which one I would prefer yet,” Hannah said. “Working with young kids who are just forming their opinions, I think it’s important to have people who they look up to who they see different options of what to do with their hair.”
Listen to the full interview with Hannah here: [soundcloud:https://soundcloud.com/user-754090332/a-shaved-head-will-grow-back-hannah]
At the first extended family gathering since my buzzcut, my grandmother came up to me, smiled and said I looked like “an Italian opera singer.” I was incredibly surprised. I had already put up defenses, practicing half-true explanations for the buzzcut. When my grandmother was growing up in Italy in the 1930s and 40s, the common hairstyle for women was a short cut. The disparity between how my mother and grandmother reacted to my hair must have been due to the fluctuating ideals of femininity and hair.
In 2016, Time magazine talked to historians who track the social and gendered history of hair. Long hair was a status symbol as complex hairstyles require the help of another person demonstrating wealth and power. In the U.S., though, women began cutting their hair into bobs during World War I, a trend attributed to military nurses adopting shorter cuts for convenience and hygiene. In the 1920s, many American schools and churches rallied against flappers for “acting like men.” A shaved head has never formally been an accepted style for women. A woman’s hair has long been regarded as the key to her femininity and a persuasive symbol of her sexuality.
Zoe Cutler (she/her) is a graduate student at the School of Music, Theatre & Dance. As a trans woman, Zoe’s chosen hairstyle has much more to do with her identity as a lesbian. She never actually shaved her hair, but keeps a short hairstyle to “lean into the butch aesthetic,” and to “establish a specific genre of womanhood.”
“I think originally, I was trying to lean into some more classic model or like a mainstream model of womanhood that wasn’t really working for me in various ways. And so that was something that I could latch onto,” Zoe said.
Listen to the full interview with Zoe here: [soundcloud:https://soundcloud.com/user-754090332/a-shaved-head-will-grow-back-zoe]
Femininity has invariably been synonymous with long hair, but the regular removal of body hair is a relatively recent phenomenon, gaining steam in the 1970s during Second Wave Feminism. Former Atlantic writer Nadine Ajaka traces the original campaign against women’s hair to Darwin’s evolutionary theory in the mid-nineteenth century where scientists were determined to show hairiness in women as “indicative of deviance” from femininity and the white race.
Heavy-handed marketing techniques from companies, like Gillette, convinced adolescent girls that a women’s right of passage included shaving your legs. Those girls became our mothers’ mothers, and our mothers brought the idea into this generation — an oral tradition.
Recently, Gillette was criticized for the “pink tax” they placed on female hair removal products. The “pink tax” refers to the price disparity between men and women’s commercial hygiene products.
I can’t remember the exact day I started attaching abstract ideas to the presence of natural hairs growing from my body, but once my classmates could label me in one word — hairy — my reflection was no longer an impression of my appearance, but instead a place of personal scrutiny. All my features were up for reevaluation. My Mediterranean and Arabic genealogy was not forgiving in an era that idolized and still idolizes hairlessness.
With leftover lunch money in my pocket, I would bike to CVS half a mile from my house and buy Sally Hansen Body Hair Bleach Cream – Extra Strength. In those impatient 13 minutes, my arm hair was lightening and my skin was faintly burning, but my excitement was rising. From ages nine to 19 I tried plucking, shaving, waxing, threading, chemically-removing, lasering and bleaching most of the hair on my body. These removal-rituals began prior to my understanding that the male gaze was the origin of the assault on women’s body hair.
The regrowth of my shaved head has been a space for me to interrogate gendered beauty ideals. A shaved head does eventually grow back, but the experience has left me with a permanent introspection of my reflection’s foundation. There was a time when I ran around with a dark brown bob and a set of bangs that would tickle my eyelids in the weeks my mother forgot to trim them. And that’s all hair was to me. The unlearning process is slow, but I am confident knowing that the presence of hair on my head or body — or lack thereof — will not play a role in defining my femininity.
Catherine Nouhan is a senior studying English and Philosophy. She is the former Podcast Managing Editor at the Michigan Daily and can be reached at email@example.com.