A Woman Shaved: a sign of what?
Originally written in 1994; this version includes some revisions made in 1999.
Later reproduced with permission in “The Student Underground” Issue 43 (May 2003): 13.
If you are quoting from or printing parts of this page, please give full acknowledgement and reference as: Nicki Hastie (1999) A Woman Shaved: a sign of what? [WWW] http://nickihastie.co.uk/my-writing/articles/a-woman-shaved-a-sign-of-what (add date you visited this page).
An introductory aside
As a result of this short essay, I was interviewed for a BBC News magazine article (20 February 2007), after Britney Spears shaved her head. I’m still convinced that episode helped her move forward postively, and was about her taking control of her life; not falling apart. See also my blog post of 18 February 2007. As one of my blog readers comments, my post “put ‘Out on a Dike’ [the name of my former blog] in advance of CNN or the BBC”! Hey, so sometimes I do know what I’m talking about 😉
Anyway, I’ve learned from my own life subsequently that it isn’t until afer a certain falling apart is acknowledged and fully experienced that new beginnings become possible. I instinctively recognised Britney’s actions as a desire for survival. Survival always has to be recognised on each individual’s own terms.
It occurred to me recently that I’m a walking social survey. With several advantages which help me to receive uncensored opinion: no clipboard to hide in the act of waylaying “unsuspecting” interviewees; in fact no need to ask questions at all, let alone invite people to speak to me. My shaved head is invitation enough. A woman with a shaved head is public property, it seems. A prime candidate for objectification.
Without uttering an “Excuse me, Sir/Madam” I have gained access to an amazing cross-section of public opinion on the subject of my own shaved head. Responses range from the stereotypical, the discriminatory, to the fascinated and, of course, the “great wit””.
The most common cry is “skinhead”, shouted from passing cars, from across the street, from behind, or hurled into my face as someone walks by. Once accompanied by a ball of saliva. Usually a man or male youth. Once I heard, from some way behind me (a safe distance), a woman’s voice: “There’s a lady skinhead; we don’t like you.” It’s not always meant as abuse, I know. “Skinhead” doesn’t always connote a certain youth subculture. More often it is a reaction to difference, and the result of the speaker’s inadequacy to find something more original to say. Embodying this difference, I am a challenge, a temptation. Women should not be seen with shaved heads (unless you are Sigourney Weaver and making a film). In their eyes, I have crossed a boundary, broken an unspoken rule. To suppress me and restore dominant codes (of behaviour and appearance), they break noisily into my private space.
Occasionally, there’s the suspicious questioning of my politics: “Are you a skinhead? Are you a fascist?” I worry when this is uttered by a ten-year old black kid anxiously checking my clothes for extra signs of affiliation. The shaved head is still a powerful symbol of white bigotry and brutality, equalling incitement to race hatred and racist violence. I confuse him, as I confuse (sometimes frighten) the older women on the bus. At least he asks me questions before he judges, unlike their horrified askance looks at my head as they wonder “Can that be a girl?” Of course, the answer is often “No”. A haircut too improper for girl or woman, I must be a boy.
I’ve come close to having the t-shirt printed: “No, I’m NOT a boy.” Tired of being referred to as “Sonny” or asked “Is your mother in?” An embarrassing incident in Sainsbury’s as I was buying a packet of cigarettes for my lover, named my hair as the culprit. I half forgave the woman as she was obviously shortsighted, but being asked your age when you only have to be sixteen to purchase cigarettes is really going too far. Replying, through semi-shock, “Twenty-three” (as I was at the time), she threw back, “Ooh, yes, that’s old enough. It’s your short hair.” That makes the mistake and the embarrassment my fault. Others imply I might be suffering from some kind of gender identity confusion. Definitely “unfeminine” and certainly a little “odd”. “My daughter would never have her hair like that. I suppose my son might, but definitely never my daughter.”
Of course, I’m never really alone with my shaved head. There’s always Sinead O’Connor following me around in some guise or other. It’s uncanny the number of people who shout out “Look, there’s Sinead O’Connor”, but I’ve yet to see her in the flesh. Sadly, Sinead’s more famous for her shaved head than her voice. Some clever wags have recognised how “Skinhead” and “Sinead” can be made to rhyme, and combine the two. Spot a woman with a shaved head, and suddenly everyone’s practising to be a stand-up comic:
- Knowing I ride a bicycle:
- “That’s a very streamlined haircut. Is it to make you go faster?”
(overlooking the fact that this rider wears a helmet).
- Then there’s the double act:
- Voice 1: She’s had her hair cut again.
Voice 2: Which hair?
Voices 1 and 2: (Self-)satisfied laughter.
Some people cannot progress from the simply inane, staring blankly and offering “You’ve got a short haircut.” In case I don’t know, I suppose. To remind me that I have a shaved head, in case I am ever under the (mis)apprehension that I am more than a haircut. Others point to my head, or pat it, when seeing me again after a period of time, saying, You’ve still got it, then.”
I am amazed how people I have never met before are driven uncontrollably to open their mouths and to deliver such banalities. What happens to their interpersonal communication skills? Does respect for my personal feelings become discounted once I shave my head? Am I a not-person? Or, rather, a “not-woman”.
I have been shaving my head since 1988. It is nothing new to me. But it continues to shock and to fascinate. Reactions escalate. More often now I hear how “It really suits you”, sometimes said begrudgingly. Two women recently stared somewhat covetously at my hair, and mused how “if I was younger, I’d have mine done like that.” They questioned me extensively. Wanted me to describe the whole experience. Did I feel daring? How often did I need to cut my hair? Did I wash it? Did I use shampoo? How lovely to be able to get up in the morning and not make a fuss! They wanted to touch my head, but they didn’t. Most people speak their reactions. A few are touchers; a tiny minority of these ask first!
One of the most quotable responses is one of the most originally articulate, yet both personal and cutting: “Why shave your head if you don’t shave your armpits?” What this sums up for me is that people want my shaved head to be a statement of some kind (and my armpits, too, I suppose, if they were always as visible!) They want to be able to categorise it and me. To find out my intentions. Of course my shaved head does serve as a statement in that all dress codes are part of a larger system of cultural codes. But the examples above just go to show there are multiple significations.
And me? What do I have to say about my shaved head? I like it this way. It feels like me. Makes me feel good. I cannot imagine myself any other way. Shaving my head every two weeks gives me an instant confidence boost and, armed with my own clippers, no-one has to help me in recreating the style: I can pleasure myself. [It’s a number one cut, for those clipper aficionados amongst you.]
But, just as I thought, that’s really not good enough for others out there. Personal tastes are out of fashion. That is, until they grow into a subculture. So, right now, I’m public property; and occasionally that means I’m also constructed as public enemy.
I guess now I can at least claim to know the origin of the saying “Public Enemy Number One”. Ha! Ha!
Originally written in 1994; this version includes some revisions made in 1999.
Later reproduced with permission in “The Student Underground” Issue 43 (May 2003): 13