Things I Learned When I Shaved My Head
Since I was small, people had always told me I had princess hair. It was honey blonde, thick, wavy and, by the time I was a teenager, waist-length. Childhood nicknames (friendly or otherwise) were usually some variation of “goldilocks”; when I swam, I was a “mermaid”; when I braided it to play sports, I was Rapunzel.
Before I sat down to write this article, I never noticed quite how pervasive these fairytale ideals of femininity were in my childhood.
When I shaved it down to less than a hundredth of it’s original length, however, the meanings, stereotypes and privelege attached to something that I thought was so trivial – a hairstyle – came into surprising focus.
I chose a side shaved pixie cut rather than a number one all over, but the buzz of the razor was, regardless, unbelievably liberating. It felt like an open challenge to the ideas of conventional feminine attractiveness that had been so central to the problems of my youth. I was giving a jubilant, middle-finger farewell to years of caring too much what everyone else thought, and it felt fantastic.
Clumps of oh-so-precious locks fell on the floor, suddenly looking not very precious at all. I walked out of the salon feeling light as air. Demonstrating a correlation notorious among women the world over, I broke up with my long term boyfriend three days later.
So what happened next?
1. It was a BIG. DEAL.
Everyone I met had a comment. The first reaction was shock, starting from the second I cut it, with an audible gasp from a nearby woman in the salon. “Oh my god!” She exclaimed. “I thought the scissors slipped!”
At least to my face, most of the comments were positive. Many made a point of telling me they liked it, which I appreciated; though the intonation some said it with – “well, I like it”; “I think it looks great” – somehow gave me the impression they felt the need to verbalise their support of a RADICAL! decision. It reminded me of the way people fall over themselves to say they love gay or trans people, or people of any minority with a tendency to make the mainstream a little nervy.
Others were more pointed. My grandma told me it didn’t suit me at all, but that she would “get used to it”; my poor grandpa, having been given no prior warning, didn’t recognise me when we met for coffee and lunch. He was polite enough to hold back the outright insults at the time, telling me gingerly that I looked “different”. Months later, after a few glasses of wine, he implored me to grow it out. “You should have long hair,” he said. “This is so… unfeminine. I don’t like it.”
2. Everyone assumed I was gay.
Perhaps unsurprisingly given the cultural pervasiveness of the short-haired gay woman image, everyone automatically made this assumption. It was mostly harmless and occassionally hilarious, notably when a large group of colleagues who had known me for 3 months all expressed surprise at the same time when I mentioned an ex-boyfriend.
There were some nasty situations, like not being believed when I said I was straight (“Are you sure?”), or the time I was cussed out by a drunk man who had tried to hit on me on behalf of his allegedly interested female friend, for example. “You’re not gay? Yes you are,” he said loudly in a crowded bar, drawing stares. “If you’re not, get a different haircut. You’re fat anyway.” Charming.
3. The dating pool was reduced, a LOT
Probably bearing some relation to my allegedly obvious sexual orientation, I got far less male attention. In real life it was just a feeling that less people were looking at me; digitally, my phone helpfully quantified my reduced attractiveness with far fewer matches on Tinder. In some ways this felt like a relief. Any woman will tell you that a lot of male attention is actually quite unpleasant. Now at least, people who expressed interest were interested in the real me, rather than a barbie doll projection.
One thought did nag me, however. How many people wouldn’t bother to get to know the real me, because they weren’t drawn to the packaging?
4. People were scared of me
Moving from the very conventional to the slightly unconventional side of female aesthetics, I became so much more conscious of how people perceived me. When I had long hair, people used to tell me they thought I was an angel before they got to know me. These days I’m used to people telling me I’m less scary than they expected.
Dating apps – useful windows into what people think is acceptable with the shield of relative anonymity – again showed me much of what people’s first impressions were. “You look like you could beat the sh*t out of me.” “Could you crush my head between your quads?” “You scare me but it’s kind of hot”, and so on until the end of time.
5. I became a w*nker detection test
Those who commented genuinely nice things – “That looks so cool!”; “I can’t believe how much it suits you”; “You’re like a rockstar! How long have you wanted to do that?” – signposted themselves as progressive and supportive. These people earned a special place in my heart.
On the other end of the spectrum was the outright nasty stuff: insults, disbelieving stares, and unsolicited hands in my hair were unpleasant, but actually acted as a useful litmus test for people I did not want to be friends with.
Comments that attacked my appearance almost always came from drunk strangers, gave me the uncomfortable feeling that these thoughts lurked in the minds of everyone, only hidden behind a screen of politeness or sobriety.
It was the first thing people zeroed in on if I offended them or rejected their advances. “Fuck you,” a typical drunk man would say. “You look like f*cking boy, anyway.” “Butch.” “Lesbian.” Others would feign concern. “You’re very masculine, you know that, right?” They’d say in a kindly way. “Guys don’t like that.” “You look too different.” These are all direct quotes.
Truths I realised
People seemed to get pretty angry, right?
The frequency and similarity of these responses amazed me. Aside from being surprised that so many people thought what I did with my hair was their business, I was hardly an extreme fringe figure: shaved head or not, I was white, straight, cis, and privileged. If this is the type of hate that I got for a hairstyle, what kind of hate must genuine minority groups be faced with, or people who actually protest rigid power structures, rather than just implying they do via aesthetic choices?
In the terms of a nursery age child – unfortunately the level at which much human thought takes place – short hair equals a rejection of being female.
I had expected the feeling of empowerment. What I hadn’t expected was an education in the real value people put on appearances, consciously or subconsciously. “Truths” about me changed when I changed my hair, not in my mind, but in everyone else’s, and everyone else believing something about you comes scarily close to it actually being true. Honestly, I was surprised by the rigidity of what people saw as ‘feminine’.
From childhood, we’re taught to separate boys and girls via two things: skirts and long hair. What people were angry at was my rejection of an image they had learned as true from nursery age, because in the terms of a nursery age child – unfortunately the level at which much human thought takes place – short hair equals a rejection of being female.
Long hair is symbolic of a bigger issue. Why are girls the ones that have long hair and skirts, despite the former being harder to manage and the latter more restrictive of movement?
From the time they can talk, girls are subject to clothes and styles that value appearance over practicality, telling us that for girls, an important role (if not the most important role) is visual.
The more I thought about it, the more limited I realised I had been by this all-consuming focus on how I looked. How many sports had I decided not to play because I was embarrased to be sweaty? How many times had I worn painful high heels because I was self-conscious about my short legs? In other words, how much of my life and personality had I sacrificed because being attractive was more important?
Hair is just one small bolt in the sexist cage that holds both men and women in their conventional places, looking unthreateningly the same as one another and the same as men and women of the past. It’s a cage that doesn’t feel like it’s there until you challenge it and are met with confrontation from all directions.
Every time you tell a girl that they ‘should’ or ‘shouldn’t’ do something for the sake of making themselves attractive, you’re reinforcing the idea that being pretty is more important than their feelings or expressing their individuality. You’re telling them that how other people (men) perceive them should be their number one priority.
So what did I learn? That these gender ideals and the influence they exert on us are much stronger than we perhaps think. I wholly suggest breaking from them; but if you think people will wholly support your doing so, think again.
You look like a boy.