Lucy Brisbane-Mckay’s decision to shave off all her hair was a quick one. But its implications run far deeper than that, as in our society one small action of hair removal challenges femininity itself.
Throughout history, such as in the case of soldiers, criminals and prisoners, shaving hair has been a symbol of the removal of individuality. We use our hair to express ourselves, give a clue about our style, our taste or who we are, or even as a safety blanket to hide behind. However for a woman in the UK, a shaven head is so rare that it becomes one of the boldest haircuts possible. For me, a 21 year old cisgender woman, it has meant challenging my perceptions of what it means to look and feel feminine.
In the UK there are a significant number of women of African or Caribbean origin who swear by the shaven head, but it is very rare in other ethnicities. For most women the thought of being stripped of their hair is terrifying, particularly because of what it signifies in Western societies: cancer, neo-Nazism or lesbianism (which is apparently a bad thing). Alongside this there is the idea of covering your hair for religious or social reasons, which interests and perplexes many Western people; some of who see wearing a headscarf as an oppressive act. Yet most people who don’t cover their hair, consciously or not, use hairstyles to express their culture, sexuality and signify their gender identity, so is uncovered hair really that different?
We spend crazy amounts of time and money trying to create hair that shows our wealth, femininity and style suitably. It scares me that something as seemingly mundane as hair can hold so much symbolic power. So on the way back from buying a pint of milk, I decided I had to learn how it felt to live without a comforting mask of girly hair to hide behind. In the spur of the moment I popped into the local barbershop and, after a long time convincing the shocked barber to do it, I came out with a number one.
It has been a liberating and enlightening experience. The most common reaction in public is that people assume I shaved my head due to bad health. It’s quite peculiar getting so many sympathetic looks from strangers. Although people mean well, is it a coincidence that we generally assume a woman would have a shaven head out of weakness, when we assume a man does it to show strength? Society’s popular perception of ideal femininity is so often rooted in weakening women. We are meant to look youthful, gentle and soft. Strength in ‘feminine’ beauty is rarely actually about looking strong, resilient or empowered, it is about looking sexy.
Honestly, I don’t really feel that I look more attractive bald, and nor do other people if my Granny’s horrified reaction is anything to go by. This is something that has confused a lot of people because why would you do something to make yourself feel worse? But even though I like to question what it means to be ‘pretty’ or ‘feminine’, it is hard not to subscribe to dominant values when I, like anyone else, hope to feel wanted and beautiful. We are all as shallow and as vain as each other, which is why it is so difficult to get away from norms and expectations. I felt sick when I watched the barber sweep all my blonde hair from the floor and into the bin but I did not once regret it.
Of course, purposely trying to look unattractive is hardly going to change anything, nor is simply mimicking the opposite gender, but shaving my head has forced me to live and think differently. I did it it to challenge my own perception of what signifies my identity and femininity. It was scary at first but in the end the experience has made me feel far more confident in myself far beyond how I look. The best way to challenge society’s embedded perceptions is ultimately to challenge your own perceptions of yourself, because if you can’t convince yourself that something is not truly important then you certainly can’t convince anyone else.