In all the “slap in the face” speeches since the Oscars; in all the soul-searching about this break with the norm, its consequences, and what it might mean not just for the Smiths or the Academy, but for comedy, culture, and the genre at large; in all the important medical discussions it has spawned about alopecia, not to mention the complex role hair has played in black history – there has been one constant underlying it all: the powerful symbolism of bald woman’s head.
Like all the politics that swirl 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 in the first place.
Just four years ago, X González, high school student Marjory Stoneman Douglas then known as Emma, made shaving her head as a woman a national talking point as the face of #NeverAgain. How far we have come since then. Hair, or lack thereof, is always a public issue.
That’s partly because it’s, literally, public. It is the most obvious expression of self, of genre, of subversion; conformism, seduction, aggressiveness, rebellion. It is immediately visible, impossible to ignore. And it is therefore a key variable in the formation of the perception of the external gaze, whether male or female.
If, as Malcolm Gladwell wrote in “Blink,” we all make snap judgments about each other all the time, then one of the first clues we use is hair. Mr Gladwell said his book thesis was actually inspired by his decision to let his own hair grow out in a fuzzy crown – and how this new fact changed people’s reactions to him. (In his case, he thought, this led to racial profiling.)
“In the age of social media, something like hair becomes part of your brand,” said Tanisha C. Ford, professor of history at the City University of New York Graduate Center and author of the upcoming “Our Secret Society,” an examination of race, power and money. “The choices we make about how we adorn our bodies are part of who we are.”
As Representative Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts mentioned when she revealed on Twitter that she, like Jada Pinkett Smith, suffered from alopecia and decided to bare her bald head: “My twists have become so synonymous and a confounding part of not just my personal identity and the way which I show up in the world, but my political brand. And that’s why I think it’s important that I be transparent about this new normal and living with alopecia.
In a world where people constantly make assumptions about each other based in part on their hair, each hairstyle becomes a statement of self, read through the prism of, often unconscious, associations absorbed over time.
This is especially true at the two extremes: the yin of long, lavish hair, the kind depicted in Western myths, the Bible, fairy tales; and the yang of the shaved head. It is steeped in the history of race, wealth and class. And, in the West, it is defined in large part by what Professor Ford calls “patriarchal ideas of beauty and sexuality rendered through a very normative lens”.
Just think – in no particular order – of 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.
Consider the imposing court wigs of Louis XIV and Marie Antoinette; the powdered wigs still worn by British lawyers. The puffy, brushed locks of the Trump and Fox News women (the hair anthropologist Grant McCracken called “voluptuous hair” in his book “Big Hair”).
To reject all this is not to avoid such associations but to subscribe to a host of other references and traditions.
A woman’s bare head, for example, is often interpreted as a statement of “radical politics and transgression of gender norms”, Professor Ford said. Not to mention “a refusal on the part of black women to subscribe to European beauty ideals”. Look at model Pat Evans, who caused a stir in the 1970s by shaving her head.
In this, it can be a sign of strength and power; a refusal to hide a face under a bushel of Farrah Fawcett flips or a hair-sprayed helmet; a response to old power structures and their antiquated ideas. At least that was the case in “Mad Max: Fury Road”, with the buzz cut of the rebel Furiosa, played by Charlize Theron. And in “Black Panther,” in which the shaved heads of the Dora Milaje, the army of female warriors who protect Wakanda, reflect their fierce and fearless beauty.
While this may be, as Professor Ford noted, “a very assertive image, it is also set in a superhero fantasy land, and women walking the streets of Atlanta or Chicago may have a very different experience.”
Indeed, shaving women’s heads has also been a form of punishment and a mark of shame, from guards mowing Joan of Arc’s pageboy before his execution to women in France having their heads shaved after being accused of collaborating with the Nazi regime. And sometimes the bald head, as part of chemotherapy, can be a signal of illness.
To wear it proudly in public is to force a confrontation with all those prejudices and assumptions.
All this to say that if William Blake could imagine seeing the world in a grain of sand, the world can in fact see itself more often in a lock of hair. Or in his absence. Perhaps especially in his absence.