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I can’t remember what was going through my mind when I did it. If I’m honest, probably not a lot. I do know that it was a Sunday morning when I suddenly got the notion to trim my already-short hair.
Being a student, my only option was do-it-yourself. Needless to say it didn’t quite pan out and before I knew it my mother’s good sewing scissors were pressing close against my scalp. Slice, slice, slice. Dark brown tresses snaked across the utilitarian grey carpet. The end result: a botched mess.
Shortly after, a brisk walk around the corner from my studio apartment brought me to an old-fashioned barbershop I must have walked blindly past a hundred times. The old men inside didn’t bother suppressing bemused smirks, saying “We don’t do women’s hair.” I was forced to reiterate that I just wanted it off; I wanted it gone. Eventually, with a shrug, one of them acquiesced.
I closed my eyes against the buzz of his clippers. In just over a minute it was over. What seemed like a monumental hairstyling decision was a flash in the pan.
As I ran a hand over the new landscape of my skull, I remember thinking how clean it felt, how smooth. Outside, on the sidewalk of Rue Sainte-Catherine, I sucked in a deep breath, feeling lighter already.
What had prompted me to shave my head? A fleeting manic episode? An attack of youthful anarchy? Was I depressed? I couldn’t say for sure. The answer, to some extent, is all of the above. In any case, I wasn’t prepared for the fallout.
When my mother saw me for the first time after the trip to the barbershop, she cried. She actually cried.
No one could understand why a young pretty girl would do such a thing. Just ask Britney. I tried to play it down. “It’s just hair,” I’d say.
But of course now I see that it wasn’t. Hair on a woman is never “just hair.” For the female of the species, hair is inextricably linked to femininity, second only to breasts. Men can shave their hair off at the first sign of loss. Bald men are sexy, distinguished. But a woman without hair is different. A woman without hair is hardly a woman at all.
Consider the mass freakout that transpired when a handful of Hollywood actresses recently opted for pixie cuts. So what if new mom Beyoncé opted for a low-maintenance style? Maybe Pam Anderson got tired of her blond bombshell look. Perhaps Rihanna and Jennifer Lawrence wanted a change. Whatever. It’s just hair, people.
Alas, no. These beautiful celebrities were damned all over the media for cutting their lustrous locks.
Like Sinead O’Connor before me, in shearing my hair I had made a public statement – even if I wasn’t exactly sure what the statement was. (I wasn’t a lesbian, some kind of maverick or a bohemian, just a lowly English major.)
I was unprepared for the stares of strangers that wavered between horrified and pitying. Worse still was the concerned silence from family and friends.
No wonder. Historically, shaving a woman’s head served as a punishment. It was done to Jewish women during the Holocaust, the first step in robbing them of their dignity, their very womanhood.
“I am the devil, and the devil always has a bald head,” Charles Manson famously said during his 1970/71 murder trial. His female “disciples” shaved their heads, too, which gave them an appearance as crazed as their leader’s.
Unlike so many styles, skinhead has never been in vogue for women, as far as I know. Hair is a badge of health.
Looking back, I can see why people were rubbernecking at me. Many probably assumed I’d lost my hair to disease: that I was gravely sick, if not dying, perhaps of cancer.
And it’s not just cancer. Myriad other medical conditions can cause hair loss, from thyroid disorders, anemia and autoimmune diseases to polycystic ovary syndrome and psoriasis.
Pregnancy, sudden weight loss and too much vitamin A can also cause hair to drop out. Other times, genetic factors are to blame. According to the American Academy of Dermatology, as many as 30 million U.S. women suffer from hereditary alopecia.
But no, my 18-year-old self was the picture of wellness (in the physical sense, at least).
My baldness was unthinkingly unfair. I see that now.
Just as you don’t notice pregnant women until you are expecting a baby yourself, I rarely noticed balding women. Now I see them everywhere: riding the subway, out grocery shopping. Thinning strands raked across pale scalps. Typically the women are menopausal, yet occasionally much younger. Why are more of us losing our hair, or is it only my perception?
I try not to look. I can’t imagine how those women are feeling. Or, actually, I can. I remember the glares, the shame – and the ugliness, for which I tried to compensate by wearing dangly earrings and twice as much makeup as usual. Obviously Sinead was made of tougher stuff than me.
Irony is a cruel lady. Today my hair is longer than ever. I can’t imagine losing it – the blow that would deal to my self-esteem. Hair is never just hair. It should be, but it’s not. In our world it is a prize. A precious commodity.
Julie M. Green lives in Toronto.