In all the talk of ‘the blow’ that has gone on since the Oscars; in all the soul-searching caused by that break with the norm, its aftermath, and what it might mean, not just to the Smiths or the Academy, but to comedy, culture, and gender in general; in all the major medical discussions it has sparked about alopecia, not to mention the complex role it has played in black history – there has been one constant at its root: the powerful symbolism of the bald woman’s head.
Like all politics swirling around women’s bodies, the shaved head is both a magnet and a trigger. It inspires a complicated stew of prejudices, fears, stereotypes and sensitivities – whatever the reason for the baldness.
It’s only been four years since X González, the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School student then known as Emma, last made shaving your head as a woman a national topic of conversation as the face of #NeverAgain. How far have we not come since then. Hair, or lack thereof, is still a public problem.
That’s partly because it’s, literally, public. It is the most obvious expression of self, of gender, of subversion; of conformity, temptation, aggression, rebellion. It is immediately visible, impossible to ignore. And so it is a key variable in shaping the perception of the external gaze, be it male or female.
If, as Malcolm Gladwell wrote in “Blink,” we all make quick judgments about each other all the time, one of the first clues we use is her. Mr Gladwell said his book’s thesis was actually inspired by his decision to grow his own hair into a fluffy corona — and the way that new haircut changed people’s reactions to him. (In his case, he thought, it led to racial profiling.)
“In the age of social media, something like hair becomes part of your brand,” said Tanisha C. Ford, a history professor at the Graduate Center at the City University of New York and the author of the upcoming “Our Secret Society,” a research on race, power and money “The choices we make about how we decorate our bodies become part of who we are.”
As Representative Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts said when she revealed on Twitter that she, like Jada Pinkett Smith, has alopecia and had decided to reveal her bald head: “My twists have become such a synonym and an amalgamated part of not just my personal identity and how I feel in the world. appear, but my political brand. And that’s why I think it’s important that I be transparent about this new normal & living with alopecia.”
In a world where people are constantly making assumptions about each other, based in part on their hair, each hairstyle becomes a statement of itself, read through the lens of associations, often unconsciously, absorbed in time.
It is especially true of the two extremes: the yin of long, luscious hair, the kind described in Western myth, the Bible, fairy tales; and the yang of the shaved head. It is embedded in the history of race, wealth and class. And in the West, it’s largely defined by what Professor Ford calls “patriarchal ideas about beauty and sexuality rendered through a highly normative lens.”
Just think – in no particular order – how Rapunzel was freed by her hair and Goldilocks named after hers. How Lady Godiva used her hair to cover her nudity. How hair was the source of Samson’s strength.
Think of the towering wigs of the court of Louis XIV and Marie Antoinette; the powdered wigs British lawyers still wear. The wavy and blow-dried locks of the Trump women and Fox News (hair that anthropologist Grant McCracken called “lusty hair” in his book “Big Hair”).
Rejecting all that is not to avoid such associations, but to be part of many other references and traditions.
For example, the naked woman’s head is often read as a statement of “radical politics and violating gender norms,” said Professor Ford. Not to mention “a refusal by black women to fit into European beauty ideals.” See model Pat Evans, who became a sensation in the 1970s by shaving her head.
In this it may be a sign of strength and might; a refusal to hide a face under a bushel of Farrah Fawcett flips or a hair-sprayed helmet; a counterpart to old power structures and their outdated ideas. That’s how it was in “Mad Max: Fury Road,” which features the buzz cut of the rebel Furiosa, played by Charlize Theron. And in “Black Panther,” where the shaved heads of the Dora Milaje, the army of female warriors protecting Wakanda, are a reflection of their fierce, fearless beauty.
While that may be, as Professor Ford noted, “a very affirmative picture, it’s also set in a fantastic land of superheroes, and women walking the streets of Atlanta or Chicago can have a very different experience.”
Indeed, shaving women’s heads has also been a form of punishment and a sign of shame, from the guards who shave Joan of Arc’s pageboy before her execution to the women in France who were shaved after being accused of collaborating with the Nazi regime. And sometimes, in the context of chemotherapy, the bald head can be a signal of disease.
Wearing it proudly in public is forcing a confrontation with all these prejudices and assumptions.
All this is to say, while William Blake may have imagined seeing the world in a grain of sand, the world could in fact more often see itself in a lock of hair. Or in absence. Perhaps especially in his absence.