Shaved heads are having a moment. Cara Delevingne’s silver scalp was the talk of the Met Ball last week, following Kristen Stewart sporting a bleached buzzcut in March for a new film role. In the fashion world, Adwoa Aboah and her grade-one fuzz is on the cover of both the latest i-D and LOVE magazine’s new issue, alongside Slick Woods, another model with a shaved head.
It may be becoming de rigueur, but a woman with a shaved head still invites comment and gets up some people’s noses. “It’s exhausting to be told what beauty should look like,” wrote Delevingne on Instagram, in what seemed like a rebuttal to criticism of her bald look. “I am tired of society defining beauty for us. Strip away the clothes, wipe off the makeup, cut off the hair.”
When I shaved my head five years ago, there were fewer examples in pop culture. There was Sinéad O’Connor, of course; and Demi Moore, Solange Knowles and Natalie Portman had all done it at one time or another. I always loved that scene in Empire Records when Robin Tunney’s character arrives at work and shaves her head in the bathroom while The Martinis’ Free plays in the background.
In the 1970s, Grace Jones made the shorn look an expression of fashion and style. “I liked how having it short was a threat to people because it made me look so confrontational. It made me look hard, in a soft world,” she wrote in her memoir. This explanation doesn’t surprise me; my reasons for shaving my head were deeply psychological.
Bzzz. Bzzz. I can still remember the sound and the feeling of having my head shaved for the first time. It was a warm evening in July, I had some kind of throat infection and we were about to go on holiday. I had been dyeing my hair various colours of the rainbow since I was 12. The only options I had left were green or … shaved. I was about to start a new job and felt, for a few reasons, that I was starting again. Shaved it would be. As my hair dropped to the floor, and we went shorter and shorter with the clippers, I felt lighter, liberated, ecstatic. It sounds ridiculous, but the effect was so powerful that my tonsils, or whatever it was, stopped hurting.
I had recently stopped drinking and I wanted to cut off the past and its boozy repetitions, to shed a side of me that was dangerous and destructive. I wanted to raze myself to ground zero and build myself back up again. Shaving my head felt like the most elemental and easy way to do it. Perhaps it was also a reaction against a conception of life as a sober person. It felt like an emboldening, a taking control of my identity, something anarchic and subversive in the face of a lifetime of Diet Coke, tea and early-to-bed. It also felt a bit brave, as if by doing it I could front away the fear of life without my crutch. In those early months, I felt raw, as if my skin had been removed, and having a shaved head somehow made me feel stronger.
When you find yourself drunk all the time, or hungover, your self-esteem can take a kicking. It took time to build mine back, but having a shaved head gave me a starting point. It also affirmed in me the simple concept of growth as intrinsic to life (well, for a while), that things change and move forward. Hair grows. Patterns can be broken. Neurons adapt.
The reaction was, shall we say, mixed. Friends seemed to like it, but elderly relatives? Not so much. My mother cried the first time she saw it, because she thought I looked ill. A friend’s mother told me it looked awful and scary. My grandmother was upset because it reminded her of images of people in Nazi concentration camps. I was a lot more comfortable at a festival or in a city rather than the rural corners of Scotland or the news desk of the newspaper where I was working at the time.
It is true that, historically, a shaved head is associated with some pretty bad stuff. Deposed emperors in Byzantium would have their heads shaved, along with castration and disfigurement. The Merovingians shaved the heads of dethroned kings or failed successors. French women who slept with German soldiers in the second world war had their heads shaved and were then paraded through the streets. It has been used as a tool to shame, dehumanise and mark in different cultures. It’s not all bad, though: Grace Jones said that shaving her head led directly to her first orgasm.
I kept my head shaved for a couple of years, enjoying the ease of my husband getting his clippers out, not costing a penny, wash and go. I loved the way my scalp felt like a velvety vole. But in a way, it was high maintenance. It required makeup and a proper outfit. And growing it out was a bore.
I cut my hair very short again recently, following the birth of my daughter. Again, it was a psychological act, a need to express the end and beginning of a new life. I’m not happy with it, to be honest. But in the words of Esther Tognozzi, the owner of the Californian hair salon where Britney Spears shaved her head: “It’s only hair, it grows back.”