For several thousand years, women have been told that their hair is their crowning glory. Women, on the other hand, will tell you that their hair is often their biggest frustration – for every day our hair looks fabulous, there are more days when it’s too curly, too flat, too frizzy, too dry, too oily, too long, too layered, or too just-plain-blah. Most women have said, at one time or other, “It would be easier to cut it all off!”
That’s what I did on Sunday, September 1, as part of a childhood cancer research fundraiser. Taking my turn along with a dozen other volunteers, I sat in a folding chair and submitted my crowning glory to a public-spirited beautician. Ten minutes later, I was staring at hamster-sized clumps of my graying hair and running my hands over my prickly scalp.
I ran my hands over other newly-shaved heads and allowed random hands to feel mine. There’s something novel and inviting about a purposefully bristly scalp – like a puppy, it’s kind of silly and begs to be petted. We volunteers (the charity foundation called us “shavees”) marveled at our own wry courage and commented on the shape of one another’s skulls. We posed for a lot of photos. By the time the shaving event ended, bald felt pretty normal. Then I went to Wal-mart to pick up sunscreen and a couple of scarves.
Suddenly, I was a Bald Woman.
Women are supposed to have hair, whether it’s long and luxurious or short and tidy. Our culture tells us that female baldness is unattractive, unhealthy, wrong. After the Liberation of Paris in 1944, French women who had become mistresses to Nazi officers were shaved bald, among other punishments. Today, a bald woman typically is assumed to be fighting cancer (though she may have alopecia), to be enacting some sort of rebellion (remember Sinead O’Connor tearing up a picture of the Pope?), or even to be mentally ill or in crisis (pictures of half-shaved Brittany Spears are still all over the Internet). I don’t know what the Wal-mart shoppers thought, but the clerk who rung me up was clearly nervous, talking too fast and radiating an almost oppressive cheerfulness.
During the ensuing week as I ran errands, I sometimes wore a turbin-wrapped scarf or a chemo cap and sometimes went au naturale. When wearing something on my obviously bald head, I often received sympathetic glances. When I was just plain bald, sympathetic glances were mixed with others that I interpreted as surprised or disdainful. It seems that a woman trying to cover her baldness is an object of pity, but an openly bald woman just may be up to something. Because I have a couple of visible tattoos and a facial piercing, my baldness might be interpreted as making a statement – a rebellion. Because my clothing isn’t particularly feminine and I’m quite tall, my baldness might complete a stereotypical image of lesbianism, which others may view as anything from fine to rebellion to sinfulness. I suppose some might interpret my baldness as a sign of mental illness, although I’d think that more likely at the end of the semester, when most of us teachers are a bit twitchy and wild-eyed.
So why did I shave my head? Mostly to help raise money for a good cause and to support the BVU student who spearheaded the baldness event. Plus, my hair wasn’t that long at the time of the shaving and it grows fast, so it seemed like an easy, low-risk way to contribute. I wouldn’t have tattoos and piercings if I minded looking a bit different, and I don’t really care what random people assume about me. But none of that means the shaving didn’t mark me: I’m as subject to insecurity about my appearance as the next woman bombarded by advertising. The day before the event, I had my eyebrows waxed for the first time – I wanted some feature of my head to be feminine. As I went about my days, I spent way too much time in front of the mirror: tying a scarf, pulling it off, arranging a cap, choosing another scarf, and what about that hat I bought last summer? The first five days after the shaving event, I spent more mirror time on my baldness than I ever did on my hair.
Now it’s a week after the event and my hair, to my surprise, has doubled in length. However, 2 x stubble is still stubble and I need to sharpen my eyebrow pencil. The hairstyle I’d been sporting pre-shave was just about perfect – reasonably attractive and easy to care for – but I must admit that not having to blow-dry or even use a comb has been kind of freeing. I’m considering letting my hair get just long enough to lay down and keeping it that short.
I won’t be bald any more, just bald-adjacent.