“I want to shave my head,” she announced with her classical Audrey Hepburn smile mischievously crossing her face.
“NO!” the boys protested. “But Why?” they shook their heads unable to understand why such a beautiful woman would willingly destroy a core asset of her beauty.
Thereza was an artist. She wanted to see the world through the eyes of a woman without her most gender normative attribute, her hair — head hair that is.
She believed people would treat her differently, and she was right. Only she didn’t shave her head, I did.
An interesting fact about breast cancer is that women have reported that the worst part of treatment is the hair loss. The feeling of missing that part of your identity and going against such a deeply ingrained gender norm causes more grief than the physical pain from surgery and sickness from chemo combined. Which says a lot about us a species, that our need for social acceptance is stronger than our fear of physical pain. When it comes to breast cancer, women face not just mutilation of our bodies, but also the risk of being ostracized from society for not following “the rules.” Pain we can handle, but social rejection we cannot.
Thereza understood that. She recognized the role hair played in determining who we are to other people. To have hair is to be feminine, to lack it is to be masculine. Even women with shorter hair will notice the difference in the way people treat them compared to women with longer hair.
But what actually changes? What are the consequences? How will people treat you and how will you feel?
That is what she sought to uncover.
Art never quite goes quite as planned. I guess because it reflects life. Thereza would move to New York city, hair intact, and I would be treated for breast cancer shortly after that.
When I shaved my head, the questions she brought to light that day raced through my own head. What will be different now?
One of my friends used to express her self confidence in terms of her hair. She called herself Samson, the biblical king, meaning that her strength came from her hair, when she had good hair days she felt powerful when she had bad hair days, she felt weak. So what power would I feel with no hair, would I feel powerless without this tool or would I feel liberated from the control it has over my sense of self worth?
The answer is both. Shaving your head is powerful, you feel strong, bad-ass, sexy and unstoppable. But then you leave the safety of your mirror and make your way into society and suddenly you don’t feel so confident anymore. Your role in society has changed, it’s new and unfamiliar. As you wander through the streets, your lipstick no longer catches the eye of men it once used to, instead you might pick up a sneer from the old man in front of the coffee shop. That’s Gender Roles for you. When you run yourself against the grain you’re bound to catch a splinter or two.
Who you were and how you positioned yourself when you had hair no longer matters in the eyes of strangers, and even some acquaintances. That person before doesn’t exist to them.
When they looked at my bald head, they don’t see the sweet charming blonde that was there earlier this year. All the associations with blonde are out the window. I wear the shoes of a different type of woman now.
It’s uncomfortable, this new role, or at least I don’t think I quite know how to fill these shoes. Identity isn’t just how you feel. It also involves your perceived role in society. I am used to my sweetness as being a way to charm people and navigate social circles — works great when I was blonde, but not so great bald. Gender normative women look at me with a furrowed brow not sure what to make of me, and men for the most part just outright ignore me.
It is not that easy to just change your social behavior. You’re talking about adjusting tried and true methods that have been integrated into your personality since you were born. You don’t even know they exist until they stop working. Bald women aren’t “sweet.” No one was buying what I was selling. I had to adapt to the new identity I was being assigned.
It’s uncomfortable, like being in someone else’s skin.
In general, I feel like I make everyone uncomfortable. Even those not shy of bald women might be shy to address the topic of my baldness for fear of touching something more real, like cancer, because what perfectly healthy woman shaves her head, lets be honest here.
Oh, wait — black women shave their heads, and it isn’t shocking to society.
In fact, aside from older women, black women have been the most compassionate to me. With hair, blonde or brunette, I never really attracted their attention, but baldness, I began to notice, caught their eye. I would get compliments on my outfit or my tattoos, and in one case was told to keep rocking the head wrap. “Wear it with pride,”she said. Then it occurred to me, as a white woman I took for granted that aside from being born with the “right” skin tone, according to society, I was also born with the “right” hair, straight. African beauty is not as valued as Caucasian beauty. The relationship black women have with hair and identity is far more complicated than just hair or no hair. I feel their open-armed kindness in regards to my bald head comes from a sense of camaraderie in the shared experience of being up against a major societal standard of beauty.
Women have a way of reaching out to each other without being direct.
Take older women for example. I think because of my age (29) most people don’t connect my baldness to cancer, after all, nothing is surprising in San Francisco. Older women, however, tend to recognize the disease behind my exposed scalp. They see my head wrapped and their eyes soften with sadness, feeling perhaps even the need to reach out and say something to me. Before, as a blonde, older women would pay me no mind. Now, bald, they can’t take their eyes off of me. I catch them staring with big sad doe eyes and sweet nurturing smiles ready to lend me a word of support.
So, what can I conclude about the difference between being blonde and being bald? Well, where it matters, nothing changes. Your family and loved ones will shine love and praise upon you, as will strangers who recognize your struggle. As for the rest, it really doesn’t matter. We worry so much about what others think of us but the reality is everyone else is so self absorbed and busy worrying about themselves that they probably won’t even notice you. But if they do notice you, the truth is, they will see the bald before they see you because it’s different. It breaks the rules we are conditioned to follow. You will stand out. Some people will like it, others won’t. Fuck the others. We spend so much of our energy seeking the validation from people who don’t contribute anything meaningful to our lives.
Now more than ever, with social media, we require constant validation in order to maintain our self esteem. It’s a daily battle to not need your self worth validated by the society you live in.
If you’re looking to discover that people treat you worse now that you are bald, you are going to find that to be true. So why not pay attention to how people treat you better instead?
Humans are surprisingly compassionate. Don’t let society fool you.
I have been told I am beautiful more times bald than at any other hair covered point in my life. I get all sorts of compliments from strangers, ranging from normal comments like “you rock that look” to the more creative (and somewhat creepier) “you have cute translucent ears.” -- wtf?!
Now, I am not saying that this experience has completely rattled my foundations of gender and social normality — I don’t plan to stay bald or even have short hair in the future — “the rules” are too deeply rooted in my my self esteem. The point I am trying to make is that in a world that rewards those who fit the mold, being validated despite being an outlier is incredibly life affirming.
I am still getting used to my baldness, it took me nearly two months to stop being surprised when I caught a glimpse of my reflection. I try to carry myself now with more confidence and authority, as it is well received with a bald head, but I miss the attention and male admiration my blonde procured. With three more months of baldness ahead, I am sure I will notice more differences in behaviors, and hopefully by then I will be walking much more comfortably in these bald shoes.