Hair today, mad tomorrow

Even when baldness is caused by illness, it is taboo because it flouts conventions of femininity, argues Nichi Hodgson. Britney Spears is only the latest in a long line of reviled, bald women - and, worst of all, she chose to shave off her locks

Nichi Hodgson, 29 March 2007

Isn't it interesting the string of adjectives the Sun used to describe Britney Spears as they reported on her attack on ex-husband Kevin Federline's empty car, after he refused to let her see her two sons? "Frenzied," "raging," "teeth bared", "wild-eyed" all appeared in the lurid two-page spread - and so did "bald." And call me over-deconstructional, but it seemed "bald" was the phantom signifier shadowing all the other adjectives used to highlight Britney's heathen rage. A mug shot in the bottom left-hand corner of the page, captioned "ugly scene - Britney bears teeth" illustrated this perfectly.

Photographed at such an angle as to emphasise her newly naked head, the message was clear: Britney's baldness is a definitive part of her new ugliness. And more seriously, it also signifies 'meltdown', 'madness', her entry into that echelon of fallen stars, of whom Whitney Houston and Michael Jackson might be considered fellow inhabitants: once popular, once gorgeous, now deranged.

When she donned the locks of celebrity, any act of rebellion could never be that serious because she would still be presenting herself in the requisite physical mould. Instead the starkness of that bald head, which Britney herself inflicted upon her public persona, is much more disturbing, and much more likely to claim column inches.

It is a self-mutilating rejection of socially-acceptable beauty and the success and approval she has spent her life seeking. Whatever Britney's reasons for shaving her head, it sits uncomfortably with the expectations of purveyors of celebrity standards, leaving them with no choice but to conclude that the shaving anticipated - even induced - her now tangible psychological madness.

Rapunzel's locks are a literal and metaphorical ladder, allowing the prince to 'rescue' her from a lifetime of spinsterdom

So why is a bald woman anathema to our perceptions of beauty? And not only our perceptions of beauty, but also of what is acceptable social behaviour?

Women's hair has long been viewed as a sexual instrument of social deviance. In both Islam and Judaism, Orthodox female practitioners of these respective faiths elect to cover their hair in response to combined cultural/religious pressure rather than doctrinal decree, but in both instances, it is a matter of modesty, of taking responsibility for one's potential to tempt the male sex to carnal sin.

More favourably, in the Bible, Song of Songs reveres a woman's hair, comparing it with "a flock of goats from Gilead". Again this emphasises the sexual potency of the female mane, albeit in a more romantic and appreciative manner. In Deuteronomy , it is decreed acceptable for men to marry women they capture when raiding other cities, on condition that she shave her hair, and that he leaves her untouched for one month before 'union'. Seemingly, the hair is cut in order to quell her captor's desire during the mourning period.

And from the Bible to fairytales such as Rapunzel: here, the beautiful young maiden locked up in a tower by a shrivelled older woman, attracts the attention of a handsome young prince by unleashing her luscious, long locks, which then serve as both a literal and metaphorical ladder, allowing him to 'rescue' her from a lifetime of spinsterdom.

In more recent history, just as in the Bible, shearing a woman of her hair has been a way of stripping her of her sexual identity or, in some cases, of condemning her on account of her it. The French shaved the head of women who fraternised with German soldiers during the First World War.

For hundreds of years, criminals and the mentally ill have had their heads shorn in order to mark them out as deviants

A similar shaming is depicted in the 2000 Italian film, Malena, starring Monica Belluci, which recounts the true tale of a woman, who, mistakenly believing she is widowed during the Second World War, is forced to become a prostitute to survive. As the clients take on a distinctly American flavour, she adopts a blonder hue, becoming a sort of brazen pseudo-Marilyn in a small town of modest, dark-haired signoras. However, when the local women decide that she has degraded their society for long enough, it is they themselves who take revenge on Malena, and in an act of oppressed becoming oppressor, they publicly and physically attack her, drawing blood and hair at every turn, finishing with the ultimate act of abuse and defamation - the shaving of her hair.

In spite of its significance, on closer examination, the furore over shaving of women's heads seems utterly ridiculous. Only a matter of inches separates the hair of an angel from that of a whore - think of the modest clipping of nuns compared with this violent shaving of a prostitute. And in that sense, the rules that decide who is appropriately attractive, who is a saint and who is a cheap and nasty sinner, undeserving of a place in society, seem unfeasibly pedantic. As these examples of punishment show though, if you are a woman, lose that hair at your peril.

The only example of a society in the world I can think of where a shaven female head is not considered an act of defilement and defeminisation, is amongst the Maasai people of Africa. Unfortunately though, they also practise clitoridectomy, taking the shine off my initial presumption that this must be a society that empowers its female members.

Hair-shaving is not only used to denote the bad, but also the insane. For hundreds of years, criminals and the mentally ill have had their heads shorn in order to mark them out as deviants. This has served to shock, particularly when done to women because we are so accustomed to hair on a woman, and because it is such an indelible signifier of female beauty. Except of course, when it is growing on any other part of the body, and then it becomes decidedly illicit.

The only women that have braved a shaved head in Western culture in recent years have been considered slightly loopy. Sinead O'Connor is the best example. Interestingly, her video for 'Nothing Compares 2U' in which she appears in simple black roll-neck sweater and shaved head, artfully capitalised upon the vulnerable associations of a shorn woman, bringing an even more plangent tone to her already mournful song.

Ultimately though, Sinead's 'extreme' hairstyle just went to confirm the oddity of some of the other details about her colourful life. One of the most tiresome accusations was that she was a lesbian, considering the fact that gay women have often shaved their heads as a subversive resistance to male-moulded woman. In fact, in 2000, O'Connor did indeed announce that she was a lesbian, only later to retract full homosexuality and conceding that she was in fact only one-quarter gay.

Theoretically, women have never had more choice when it comes to how they wear their hair. Baldness, however, is still not an option

But, for the singer, shaving her head was clearly not simply about sexual orientation, whatever the media was inclined to reductively proclaim. All in all, her skinhead was yet another indicator of what denotes a decidedly unattractive kookiness and individuality, if you happen to be female.

And that brings us back to Britney. Even she, sex kitten extraordinaire, once prized schoolgirl, then "not that innocent" (sex) "slave 4u", yes, even she has now been accused of dykedom. But in spite of all the claims of lesbo sex romps, ultimately, the only way the papers will be able to accept Britney's act of self-sheardom will be as act of madness. Because what woman in her right mind, particularly a celebrity woman whose hair is of such currency, could shave it off and still be mentally sound?

Theoretically, women have never had more choice when it comes to how they wear their hair. Current styles include long, loose waves, asymmetrical fringes or the 'Pob' (Victoria Beckham's new style, a graduated bob, longer at the front), as well as the perennial favourites - long, straight layers, the classic bob, the pixie crop. Baldness, however, is still not an option.

Evolutionary biology's perspective opines that, among females, a healthy head of hair is an indicator of youth and beauty. Women need hair to have societal approval. By contrast, hair loss in the male of the species often indicates maturity and status, something which can be seen explicitly in the way adult male silverback gorillas are received by their peers, particularly the females. On a subconscious level, it seems that humans respond this way too. You have only to look at the number of powerful men perceived as attractive to see that baldness is no roadblock to status and success - think of Sean Connery, Patrick Steward, Bruce Willis.

And then try and count not just how many attractive, successful bald women you know, but any bald women you know. Chances are, unless they are either very ill or very old, you probably can't think of any. And even those who are not bearing their scalps through choice are somehow not quite acceptable.

In America, a woman called Sharon Blynn is currently trying to change this with her campaign, 'Bald is Beautiful', which seeks to expand the accepted notions of beauty and femininity to include a woman without hair. Sharon, a victim of ovarian cancer, now in remission, was a successful student and talented young woman, achieving highly at Columbia University and in her career as a music marketing manager prior to her illness. She had also worn her hair long all her life and admits that this was an intrinsic part of her femininity and identity.

But facing the loss of her hair, Sharon decided to take charge of soon-to-be imparted baldness by embracing it and parading it, for at least as long as it was a biological imperative that she would be hairless. For Sharon, "my gleaming, smooth crown is a badge of courage, of survival", and she now models for several high profile fashion houses (for although she no longer has the requisite socially acceptable locks, she does possess a perfectly acceptable willowy 5'10", size 8 figure). In Sharon's own words, her bald head is a "badge of courage", the courage she was forced to find to fight for her life at a time when she should really have been in the prime of it.

Where is the role model for a healthy woman who chooses to shave her head as an alternative to the tiresome effort required to maintain socially acceptable tresses?

And so although she extends her celebration of baldness to encompass all women without hair, Sharon urges others to see her baldness as a symbol of her strength and status as a survivor of cancer; unfortunately, you cannot help but think people will merely further align female baldness with past or present illness.

When the Scottish TV presenter Gail Porter developed the condition Alopecia, causing her to lose all her hair in 2005, she elected, like Sharon, to brave the world wigless. Her primary reason for this was not to challenge conventional notions of acceptable femininity but to raise public awareness about a condition which, in some form, affects around one in 100 women across the UK, and which is still little-known and highly stigmatised.

In Gail's case, the doctors could give no definite reason for her contracting the disease, but suggested that it was a side effect of the post-natal depression she suffered after the birth of her daughter, compounded by the stress of divorce. Like Britney, the less-kind members of the tabloid media managed to align her baldness with her mental illness, until her previous reputation as the petite busty blonde and four-time chart-maker of the FHM Sexiest Woman in the World poll was well and truly defunct. Instead, sexy lad-mag shots were replaced with fearsome close-ups of her in similar melt-down mode to Britney, inebriated, raging and embarrassing to all associated with her.

In spite of the negative press coverage since her illness, Gail has continued with her presenting career, mostly recently making a humanitarian documentary on the plight of Asian orphans in the wake of celebrity adoption. It seems highly unlikely, however, that she will ever regain her sex-kitten crown, and, these days, she is most likely to be described as 'brave', and 'battling' at best, 'former hottie' and 'bonkers-bald' at worst.

Although both Sharon Blynn and Gail Porter have confronted a culture which does not tolerate female baldness, neither had really actively chosen to become bald. They were victims of their biology. Admittedly, they could have donned wigs, and so from that perspective, yes, they did indeed elect to brave the world hairless. But had it not been for their respective illnesses, neither would have chosen to be bald. Western society may not warm to women that go bald due to illness or old age, but at least, however grudgingly, it accepts that their state is beyond their control.

The same cannot be said for a woman who chooses to shave her head because she finds it aesthetically pleasing, or personally liberating. In Western society, baldness is always a sign of deviance, whether it is intentional, for example as a statement of lesbian identity, or unavoidable, in the case of illness. Where is the role model for a healthy woman who simply chooses to shave her head as an alternative to the tiresome effort required to maintain socially acceptable tresses, as an alternative to navigating the multitude of choices on how to wear her hair, and the glut of products with which to style and arrange it? Where is the woman who shaves her head simply to allow her to fit in an enlivening walk before work, to take more time with her children or her partner, or to nourish herself with a beneficial extra half hour in bed?

Well, perhaps unwittingly, Britney's baldness may have produced such a role model. Some resourceful company has speedily produced a wondrous bald 'Britney Shears' doll, complete with optional straightjacket (just in case you doubted my suggestion that the media actually believe that she's gone completely mad). But before we automatically dismiss this doll as a gross act of bad taste, capitalising on the personal tragedy of someone suffering in the public eye, is it possible that it could, instead, become a pleasing alternative to the bottle-blonde, bottle-shaped Barbies that saturate the Western toy markets, and that previous Britney dolls have taken the form of themselves? A representation of woman presented to influential little girls that doesn't decree hair an absolute for adult femininity? A representation of a shorn woman that isn't ill or insane? Why, how refreshing that might be, how empowering that could prove! Just as long as, before you pass it to any impressionable child, you take off the straightjacket.

About the author

Nichi Hodgson

Nichi Hodgson is a 23 year old recently graduated English student trying to hack her way into literary journalism, all the while resisting the temptation of gender politics and overdosing on modern life's soul sedative (commonly known as the gym)

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