“We can’t escape the many ways patriarchy subordinates us, but it’s perhaps in the small acts of resistance we can show ourselves what’s possible”. Rosel Jackson Stern talks about the consequences of shaving her head and examines the history of shaved heads in black and queer communities.
A couple months ago, I woke up in the middle of the night and it was time: my big curly hair had to go. The idea had been in the works for a while, but suddenly I felt very urgently that it had to be done. The next day I went to a barber shop and told the middle aged barber what I wanted. He promptly refused to serve me because my hair was “so pretty” and proceeded to ask me questions like “what does your boyfriend think about this?”. It was like I’d landed in a Trumplestiltskin inspired “Make America Great Again” themepark reenacting the 1950s. After giving him plenty of attitude, I turned to a female hairdresser down the street who was happy to cut my hair. But let’s just say that the treacherous path of rejecting traditional femininity had just begun.
I want to preface this perhaps quite drastic act by saying that I am a black queer woman; we are no strangers to shaved heads. The big chop is well known and we’ve been rocking that look ever since we realised Western beauty standards in the form of perms were fucking us over and that we could, as India Arie put it, “shave it all off like South African beauties”. I see black women in media and out on the street with shaved heads and so none of my black friends batted an eyelid when I decided to do away with it. Shaving your head is no big deal in queer communities either. The rejection of traditional presentations of femininity, or at least experimenting with it, is nothing new.
Left then is the straight white woman, bless her heart. She is the one who is completely in awe of my bald head, saying things like “wow, that’s so brave” and “I could never do that”. Given the lack of stigma in the communities I’m part of, I was very reluctant to think that shaving off my illustrious curls was an act of bravery. Sure, there’s the risk that I would have an egg shaped head, but in the grand scheme of things hair grows back and it’s no big deal. Except it totally was. Why? Because in the context of white western female beauty standards (which are imposed on all of us thanks to the wonders of colonialism), long hair is synonymous with femininity. Black queer people have never fit into that mould anyway (and why would we want to?) so we’ve practiced embracing our beauty in other ways. However, I’d imagine that for white straight women, who by all means have the privilege of meeting said standards, the rejection of them becomes less obvious.
That’s not to say I’m some sort of social justice wonder woman. In the months after I shaved my head, I became no stranger to the very conservative ideas that I, and society around me, had about traditional representations of femininity. The first time I had sex with my then boyfriend after the fact was a super awkward endeavour; I didn’t feel sexy because I felt like a boy. It was like my inner princess clad girly girl was having a tantrum yelling: “YOU HAVE NO HAIR, YOU LOOK LIKE CREEPY TOMMY FROM FOURTH GRADE – FIX IT NOW OR I’LL SCREAM!!!” In the months to come, I felt like I had to compensate for my shaved head by presenting myself in other traditionally feminine ways to appease this demanding child in me. She wouldn’t allow me to be queer, a woman of colour and have a shaved head – the butchness of it all would have been to much to handle. The tomboy previously allowed to run free had to be honed in because how could anyone think I was pretty otherwise?
To begin with, I thought I was invisible to the predatory guys on the street, almost like I had a huge stamp on my forehead saying “beware: unfuckable”. It must’ve faded in the shower or something because after a few nights out, I realised that it didn’t really matter what I looked like – they were still happy to grind their sweaty crotches on me at the club, stalk me home at night or, if feeling real ballsy (pun intended), flash me on the street. Needless to say, my princess clad girly girl let out a sigh of relief: thank god I was still oppressed.
In summary then, shaving my head was both a revolutionary and normative act. The pleasures of having my morning routine cut in half and suddenly being able to wear hats illustrated the far greater freedom of not giving a fuck. Or at least trying to. As mentioned, the internalised ideas about what it means to be beautiful and why that’s so important for women still prevail hair or no hair. We can’t escape the many ways patriarchy subordinates us, but it’s perhaps in the small acts of resistance we can show ourselves what’s possible, shed our skins and riot.
Illustration by Emily Godbold