Historically, women typically had long hair. Long hair can reflect good health and high status and, in many places in the world, women’s hair is traditionally kept longer than men’s hair. In modern society, a shaved head can be a symbol of self-identity, such as in cultural and religious groups (e.g., LGBT, skinheads, and Buddhism) or as an act of sacrifice for fundraising or awareness. Celebrities, such as Natalie Portman, Britney Spears, and Natalie Dormer, who have shaved their heads have helped make shaved heads or half shaved heads more mainstream.
Enter my dear friend Fran. Her mother is sick with the capital C. I first heard cancer called that by my Grandma and Grandpa years ago; it's a dismal diagnosis for older folk, especially. Like anyone, Fran is not sure how to address her own feelings about the diagnosis and support her mother and her family through this. Fran has considered shaving her head to show her support and express her strong feelings openly. Keeping this kind of grief, sadness, and fear inside cannot be good. Perhaps shaving her head would be a good way to let the feelings out. I once shaved my head, so Fran and I have chatted about head shaving a fair bit lately.
Why did I do it? I wish I had an upstanding moral reason, such as supporting a friend or raising money for a good cause. But I don’t. Before the shave, I did braid my hair so it could be donated to a wig-making charity, but that’s not why I did it. In truth, I did it for myself, for many of the same reasons other people do. There were the material reasons. Earlier that year, I'd been part of a TV makeover. I've never been into dying my hair or wearing make-up, but for the show, I had to give the make-up artists and hair dressers free rein. Almost immediately after the show, I scoured off the foundation slop they coated onto my skin, but the damage to my hair was permanent. They'd bleached my normally light brown hair and dyed it Ronald McDonald red. It was very effective, but the colour didn’t last. After the red washed out, I headed to the salon for some repair work, but the resulting colour was a shade on green side. Frustrated, I resorted to my natural ways and tried henna. If there was a tinge of green before, my hair was full on swamp green after the henna. A few weeks later on the eve of my wedding day, a friend dyed my hair a dark brown and left the colour in to cover the green. Whew! I had narrowly escaped the too-much-time-in-the-pool bridal hair do. A few weeks later, my new husband shaved my head.
Another of my reasons was the idea of a fresh start. I planned to remove the baggage my hair was carrying and begin anew. Old relationships, old patterns, old emotions – be gone! It was also an adventure for me. I’d always had long hair, usually tied up in a ponytail or braids. No hair would be something completely new and a fun challenge.
I also had a strong desire to know what it was like to have a shaved head. Would I feel different? Would people treat me differently? I thought I might engage in some reconnaissance like John Howard Griffin in Black like Me, but with a somewhat less significant mission of finding out how a woman with a shaved head lives. First, I did some background work. This was in 2008 and though Sinead, Demi, and Natalie P.’s missing locks were old news, Google searches like "What's it like for a woman shaves her head?" didn't yield many hits. I read about one woman who shaved her head for her sociology class and described her subsequent dating experiences. She didn't have any major epiphanies or unexpected consequences, like I was hoping for. With no shaved headed friends or even many short haired friends, I felt that I was going into it without precedence, though I did expect to be feel different and perhaps stronger for it.
I considered whether I was brave enough to do it and made it a personal challenge. I'd always thought of myself as someone who didn't really care about looks. I'd never figured out how to apply eye liner or use a hair straightener and I had no idea about brands or the latest fashion. Was I really so deep and philosophical? Did I really not care how I looked? How could I cope with not being able to hide behind my hair? Could I really go through with it?
In answer to that last question, it turned out that I could. On the first day of spring, I put my hair into two braided ponytails and cut them off to be sent away for wig making. For that special someone wanting green-ish hair, I guess. My husband used the electric clippers to zip away the bulk, then broke out the shaving cream to bic it. We paused for a few photos and laughed at the idea that he should cut away the sides to make a mohawk instead.
Here’s the anti-climax: It wasn’t actually a big deal. With a bald head, it took me less time to get ready in the morning, my bicycle helmet fit rather loosely, and I wore a toque to keep me warm at night. My husband still told me I was beautiful, I still went to work, and after asking a few questions about my head, people treated me the same as before. Generally, people thought it an odd thing to do, most were supportive, and the majority didn't really care. One of my friends was angry, as if it was insulting to her somehow. My mum was grateful that I’d waited until after the wedding to do it. My boss cried when she saw me as my image reminded her of a capital-C sick person.
Upon reflection, for me the big shave was mostly about the experience and a clean start. I’m almost embarrassed about how meaningful I thought hair was. Though, I acknowledge that the experience will be different for everyone. Shortly after I did, one of my coworkers shaved her head as a way to cleanse herself from her divorce. She felt great and totally rocked it. After that our favourite supermarket checkout lady shaved her head for a charity and tears sprung into her eyes every time someone mentioned her hair. She clearly regretted it.
It took me about 4 years to grow my hair back again. I missed my ponytail and I feel more comfortable, and warmer, with hair. The experience did make me realise that your hair and your looks are only most important to you. The rest of the world takes note and just keeps on ticking.
Will I do it again? Maybe. My 10 year anniversary is coming up or maybe Fran will need a friend along her journey.