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Why a bald head is never neutral Add to ...

Miss Delaware has piano-key teeth and her talent is to dance en pointe to Michael Jackson's The Way You Make Me Feel.

Such are the ways of most of the Misses who competed in the recent Miss America pageant, but what distinguishes Miss Delaware, 22-year-old Kayla Martell, is that she is proudly bald. She lost her hair from the autoimmune disease alopecia areata and lives a bald life, although, when performing, she wears the tumbling blond wigs that are the requisite emblems of beauty pageantry.

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Two weeks ago, Martell may have lost the Miss America title to 17-year-old Miss Texas, but she was the more memorable contender, applauded in the media for bravery in the face of baldness. "You can't be defined and shouldn't be defined by your hair," she told reporters. But what about being defined by your lack of it?

It was odd timing that Martell's story emerged when another bald head was traveling the globe in the vivid photograph of accused Arizona shooter Jared Loughner. Loughner's now infamous mug shot showed a faintly stubbly skull, capping a grinning, feverish expression.

There are several other photos of Loughner in circulation, including one with long, curly hair and a few with short hair. But the bald photo is the most chilling - and the most frequently selected for front-page publication, including by this paper - and not only because it was snapped within hours of a shooting that took six lives and left Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords critically injured.

Martell's and Loughner's two very different news moments writ large how baldness communicates so powerfully, though what it says is very different for men and women.

Hillary Clinton once told a group of Yale graduates: "The most important thing I have to say is: Hair matters. Pay attention to your hair. Because everyone else will." This may have been a self-referential comedy bit from the proprietor of some very scrutinized 'dos, but Clinton isn't wrong. She knows that for women - fairly or unfairly - short hair is equated with seriousness and long hair with sex. Almost none of the top executives in Fortune magazine's list of the most powerful women in business have long hair. But anywhere conventional femininity reigns - beauty pageants, strip clubs, reality TV, youth - so does long hair. For a woman to hack off her Tangled tresses means ambition or rebellion - or serious illness.

Baldness unrelated to illness is relatively rare in women: According to the Canadian Hair Research Foundation, 40 to 50 per cent of women will experience some hair loss by menopause, either through disease or aging, although the severity is usually much less than for men.

It's men who are watching the drain. Fifty per cent will experience male pattern hair loss to varying degrees. Baldness can be a source of pride - the willfully shaved baldie - or anxiety: An online survey reported that four out of five men are concerned about losing their hair, which makes the multimillion-dollar hair-loss industry smile.

Freud considered baldness in dreams a symbol of the castration complex, but there is no medical connection between baldness and virility. Women - swear to God - don't mind baldness; it's the pretending that makes us sad for you. But even Caesar couldn't handle bald: his 'do is the world's most famous front comb-over (though his laurel-wreath crown strategy hasn't endured).

Rose Weitz, a professor at Arizona State University who has written extensively on the politics of hair, says that cultural context is everything when it comes to baldness. "Two weeks ago, we might have looked at the picture of Jared Loughner and seen a goofy guy. Now we're expecting evil and derangement, so that's part of what we read into his shaved head," she says. "In North America, a shaved head often means hypermasculinity, militarism, athleticism. How many movies have you seen when the hair gets shaved off as the young men go into battle?"

Whatever battle Loughner thought he was fighting, he arrived prepared. His shaved head and multitude of weapons evoked Travis Bickle, as did his mind, littered with conspiracy theories and sickness.

Evidence suggests he felt renounced: rejected by school, women, his country. Even the army, whose look he ultimately borrowed, didn't accept him. He made himself look as physically mad as he must have felt, and his renouncing of the world has become mutual. With his head shining, he is apart.

To do what Loughner is accused of doing, one assumes that he had reached a place of total detachment, and detachment - of a different sort - motivates religious baldness. In the monk's tonsure or the nun's veil, the hairless head signals separation from the secular world, a renunciation of vanity.

For Miss Delaware, the renunciation is more confusing or perhaps extremely clever: Her baldness rejects the most restrictive definition of female beauty, even as she consents to the swimsuit competition.

Follow on Twitter: @katrinaonstad

 

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