With a glint in my hair
Submitted 2006 for Crowning Glory, a collection of original writing about women and hair edited by Mandy Ross. The book has a great contents list but, unfortunately, still no publisher.
If you are quoting from or printing parts of this page, please give full acknowledgement and reference as: Nicki Hastie (2006) With a Glint in my Hair [WWW] http://nickihastie.co.uk/my-writing/memoir/with-a-glint-in-my-hair (add date you visited this page)
The story is that when Mum told my grandmother (her mother-in-law) that I was a lesbian, Gran didn’t seem fazed at all.
“Well, she has always worn trousers,” Gran said.
If she mentioned my shaved head, Mum didn’t repeat that part to me. Perhaps, for my grandmother, trousers were the constant signifier. They were my clothing of choice throughout my childhood and teenage years. My hair was always short, although no shorter than a lot of girls, and the style kept changing. By the time I was down to a number two all over (about 6 mm in length), my visits to Gran had become less regular.
As I get older I begin to wonder more about the relationship between my shaved head and my sexuality as a lesbian and whether, this too, keeps changing. Almost twenty years on, I still shave my head. Now to the length of a number one (3 mm), even slightly shorter at back and sides as I don’t use an attachment comb here. Instead, I let the naked blade do its work at its lowest position, creating added emphasis. This is very short, but not the shortest I could go. The taper lever on my clippers means I could choose to go even closer. I like having that control, and the understanding there’s somewhere I’ve not yet been. I am definitely not bald, however much some people choose only to see my scalp rather than the gradations, the shading of close-cropped hair.
I can’t imagine growing my hair. This is definitely not a phase. My shaved head is here to stay. It’s a talking point for some people each time they meet me, which alerts me to the fact it probably makes them uncomfortable. “You’ve still got it, then”, often accompanied by a quick, or even lingering, rub of my scalp which aims to disguise discomfort as affection. You’d think they would have got used to it by now. I think my hair makes some people more uncomfortable than the knowledge I’m a lesbian. They can’t not see my hair. My sexuality – well – that’s known, but it’s less tangible. They can choose not to think about it, whereas my hair stares people in the face.
Most people do seem to want my shaved head to mean something. Is it possible I chose my hairstyle to better emphasise my trousers? To make myself more visible as a lesbian? In the beginning, perhaps. And yet the equation’s not always so simple as woman with shaved head = lesbian, otherwise straight women would never choose the look – and some do. And no-one suggests these days that straight women wouldn’t wear trousers. That’s why I’m interested to understand how hair performs as a marker of difference.
Many people have extreme reactions to a woman with a shaved head. They can be fascinated or repulsed. It feels as though most disapprove. Occasionally the same person can display an intriguing mix of fascination and repulsion. I have been spat at and verbally abused. I have learned when to answer back and when to keep silent. I have learned to smile, sometimes when it’s the last thing I want to do, and through that I have developed skills and tactics which get me taken seriously, and which have given me a new understanding of the motivations behind human respect and hostility.
I first wrote about my shaved head in 1994. I added the article to my website in 1999. People regularly email responses to me, both men and women. They want to make sense of head shaving, especially by a woman. Some are seeking courage to shave for the first time. They are exploring relationships between hair and identity. Some women have lost hair through illness and tell me there is comfort in knowing other women positively choose a different look. It gives them hope they might feel beautiful again one day. A few responses are on the edge of perverse, asking for photos or videos, seeking sexual stimulus. A handful are downright abusive, asking if I’m insane, if I’m gay, if I’m stupid, demanding to know what gives me the goddamn right to cut off my hair.
Shaving my head feels like it gives me a freedom that many women don’t have. Almost as though it allows me to cross over or slip (not necessarily unnoticed) beneath or between borders, so that I don’t have to feel confined by conventional definitions of beauty and femininity. Other people still try to apply those definitions, though. This gets me into trouble sometimes when, coupled with trousers and an androgynous ‘street-style’ of dress, my gender is questioned. But I don’t think I look like a boy. I’m not even sure I’m trying to look like a lesbian. I’ve never felt like a stereotype in any way. Maintaining a shaved head for nigh on twenty years involves commitment. It has become an intrinsic part of who I am, part of uncovering myself in order to continue recognising myself, and that cuts across multi-faceted identities. My shaved head is as much a part of me as the shape of my nose.
It was only quite recently that I remembered I don’t talk about my hair in relation to my sexuality in my web article at all. You could ask why would I need to, when the website already declares that it contains “Lesbian Essays and Other Writings”? But this interested me, that I hadn’t directly connected the two. It encouraged me to look further at my motivations. How might others see (or not see) my sexuality? Does my sexuality stand separate from my shaved head as well as being wrapped up in it? For men and women, across generations, hair (and hair length) has acted as symbol of potency and purity. There is a relationship between hair and sexuality at some very basic level. Even if interpreted differently by different cultures, it’s there. Hair matters, both its presence and absence. It matters to me, too.
I won’t deny that there is a relationship between my shaved head and my sexuality, but it’s an ambiguous one. When I was sixteen or seventeen, around the time I began coming out to myself and others, a part of me still naively believed that hair was private, a matter of personal choice. I wasn’t prepared for all the negative comments I received, the attention my hair provoked as it was cut shorter, although I did already realise that hair could be a powerful symbol of self-identity and cultural identity. It wasn’t a consciously thought-through decision to get my hair clipped shorter and shorter, but it was an action I was able to take, perhaps in an attempt to demonstrate who I was as a lesbian first coming out. In some ways, I was hoping my hair would speak for me.
In those early days I wandered around my home town scrutinising other women’s heads for variations of short spikiness, because at least that gave me a starting place to try and establish I wasn’t alone. I was aware of how we all tend to draw on stereotypes when assessing a person’s appearance at a distance, or when meeting for the first time, and I could certainly be accused of reading too much into women’s hairstyles back then. My gaydar was immature but I also somehow knew to go beyond hair, to check, for instance, for steady, lingering eye contact and a certain stride of confidence (and everyone knows it’s easier to stride with confidence in trousers!) But no-one rushed forward to ‘claim’ me and my shaved head, to welcome me into the collective lesbian bosom. It turned out that I was pretty much alone in my home town, and when I received sexual attention it was the wrong kind.
When I first wanted my hair cut with clippers – not all over to start with, but definitely at back and sides, my own unique version of flat-top – I found myself a new hairdresser’s, somewhere unisex and trendy. I was assigned to a young man. They trusted electric hair clippers only in men’s hands in the 1980s. He took ages sculpting me. I think he was probably very nervous. I was in the chair nearly two hours, and it’s not as though I had much hair to start with. I didn’t mind it taking so long because at least he was doing what I asked. If I wanted it cut shorter he would oblige. My previous experience with women hairdressers was that they had a length they simply couldn’t bring themselves to cut beneath.
I was really pleased with the results. “See you again,” I thanked the young man, meaning I’d be back for another haircut. Later that afternoon he rang to ask me out. I turned him down and afterwards felt a little sick and empty. This wasn’t how it was meant to be. I realised then I wanted boys to stop fancying me. It would be so much easier if they just left me alone, without me having to explain. It didn’t feel possible to actually tell them I was a lesbian. AIDS was known then as the ‘gay plague’ and my world didn’t yet seem safe to tell more than a handful of close friends. Maybe I hoped the hair would put boys off me. Or put them on to the fact that I’d rather date girls.
The best thing about that afternoon is we succeeded in breaking a couple of stereotypes:
- All male hairdressers are gay.
- Everyone knows a woman with extremely short hair is a lesbian.
How wrong can you be! Except in my case – I was a lesbian! And still nobody could see it unless I told them.
There were other types of male attention, just as unwelcome. I kept a diary back then, and this is an entry from August 1987 (age 18):
Last night when we were all sitting having a drink … [name removed] started going on about my hair. He asked me when I was going to grow it and displayed the fact quite obviously that he doesn’t like it as in his words ‘It’s so unfeminine’. Then he went on to say how on earth can my parents put up with it. He said I wouldn’t be allowed to live in any house of his looking like this – he’d throw me out. I was flabbergasted.
I couldn’t analyse this exchange adequately at the time. I was simply outraged. I didn’t appreciate that people were reading my hair for signs, but always laden with their own perspective. He was just one who couldn’t keep his thoughts to himself. “He’d throw me out”? For a haircut? Isn’t that what some parents actually do when they find out a son or daughter is gay? And isn’t this exactly what lesbian and gay teenagers fear – and the reason why I was saying nothing verbally to my parents quite yet. Rather than my sexuality remaining invisible to all, as I had thought, despite my hair, here was someone acknowledging its message quite blatantly. But his response was riddled with the disapproval and homophobia I was beginning to anticipate, and to fear.
Being a woman with a shaved head regularly encourages confusion. Initially I was confused when hair didn’t operate for me in the way I’d anticipated; and outraged when it did, because it came with judgement and venom, and sought to deny me. Today I would say I draw stronger reactions about gender than about sexuality. I receive fewer homophobic comments and more instances of mistaken gender identity – in shops, on public transport, in restaurants, in public toilets.
The public toilets one is the hardest, because most directly intimate, challenge. Or sometimes it’s not even a direct challenge at all. My presence simply makes some women turn around, puzzled, searching for another door. It’s better for me when they think they’ve got it wrong; the way I see it, they have. I want the world to widen its definitions of what a woman looks like, of what femininity is, of what femininity and masculinity can be in one person. Outside of the bathroom arena, if people really can’t tell if you’re a sir or a madam, why do they insist on greeting in a gendered way at all?
Shaving my head may once have been a coming-out act, but it stopped being that a long time ago. The way I would describe it now is that being freshly-shaved returns me to myself. Looking back, it always has done.
At 17 I stood in front of a mirror in a pub where all my fellow sixth-formers were enjoying a party and realised I was fed up not feeling like me; not displaying who I believed I was; not recognising the reflection I saw. I saw a mask. I had taken to wearing a lot of black eye make-up for the last year or two. There was nothing strange in that for someone of my age, but on this one particular night I was horrified at the distancing effect. Maybe I just felt distanced from my peers because I had this secret and no-one seemed to realise it. So the make-up was symbolic. It seemed on that night, however, that it was me growing distant from myself. My eyes were sad, disguised. So I stopped wearing make-up, and I immediately became more alive to myself. If anyone commented, the only ones I remember are those who did it in an envious way. “You’re so lucky to have strong, dark eyes and colouring.” As if they wanted to stop too.
Shaving my head feels like that – clean and clear. My shaven head gives me strength, confidence and self-affirmation. When I look in the mirror my face and hair promote clarity. They positively reflect who I believe myself to be.
The defining fact is that I am choosing to shave my hair, and it has always been a positive choice. Some women recognise there could be a liberating effect, mostly when they’re talking about how long it takes to wash and style their hair, the faffing around that has to go on before they feel presentable.
“It’s alright for you. You can’t have a bad hair day.”
Well, this isn’t entirely true. For me, any day which takes me over two weeks of hair growth is a bad hair day. When hair is as short as mine it feels like it grows at a rapid rate, and I don’t let it grow beyond fourteen days if I can help it. Others might not notice the growth so much, but if I’m approaching two weeks I feel fluffy instead of sleek, fuzzy instead of shiny. Shaving my head doesn’t mean I’m not concerned about my appearance. I can still feel sensitive and vulnerable when someone decides to tease me.
“It’s getting a bit long.”
“I know,” I say. “It’s time for me to cut it.”
And my self-image is deflated, while they walk away with a smile, an eyebrow raised. I’m caught out again. My definition of long is so different to most.
It’s also not true that I don’t have to bother caring for my hair.
“I bet you just get up in the morning and wipe a flannel over it.”
That’s a bit insulting to my personal hygiene regime. I do use shampoo and conditioner but definitely no more than twice a week – and I use moisturiser most days. You could call it more scalp care than hair care. Moisturiser with UV protection is very important in the summer. It has other uses too. Close-cropped hair acts a bit like velcro, and this brings unfortunate consequences if the cats sleep on your pillow. Yet a quick rub over with a couple of fingertips of moisturising cream and most of the fluff and debris comes away. I’m happy to say that these days the scalp moisturiser I buy is marketed as a unisex product, recognising that women go for the close crop too.
In recent times I have received a lot more comments from women which hint at approval:
“I should just get it all cut off, like you. It would be so much easier.”
“Then why don’t you?” I say.
“My head’s not the right shape,” I sometimes hear.
Or, “It wouldn’t suit me.”
I take from this that others believe it does suit me. I wonder if this is only because of my head-shape. Or whether they’re observing the whole person, my total package, and beginning to recognise a more holistic ‘fit’. I wonder if many women would like to shave their heads, but never do because they think they will be assumed to be lesbian. In an insightful web article, Kaitlin Duck Sherwood, a straight woman, writes under the heading “What I learned by shaving my head”:
For the first few weeks after I shaved my head, I walked around very nervously, convinced that people were going to jump out of alleys and beat me up for being a lesbian. … After several weeks of not getting beaten up, I relaxed. But the experience made me personalize the fight for gay rights. Instead of being for gay rights because it was “the ethical thing to do”, I now have a personal motivation because I realized there is nothing I can do to prove that I am NOT gay.
I admire Kaitlin for that understanding. It always is going to take an alliance of women of all sexualities to pick apart the policing of acceptable femininity, and to get the message across that homophobia is damaging for everyone.
I can’t know if I would still have chosen to shave if I was straight. I figure it probably is easier to be a lesbian with a shaved head than to be straight and shaved. At least I’m not trying to prove I’m NOT something. That wouldn’t be a satisfying way to live at all.
So what’s next for my shaved head? I’m 37. Can I sustain the look, the scrutiny? I believe I can. Though I may need to shave more frequently in future. I’m noticing one or two silver hairs which grow faster than all the brown ones, breaking the clean, rounded outline of my head. I feel justified in calling them silver hairs, not grey, because the way they stick up above the rest, slightly too proud, it really does look like they’re glinting at me in the mirror. I don’t mind them. I’m looking forward to a whole head the same colour, same length. Knowing, then, that I shine.
Shaved, my hair is my pride and my joy. Velvet beneath my fingers, it makes me feel vibrant, like the woman I should be, the woman I am. Perhaps even the woman my grandmother always knew me to be.