A streamlined new me

Laura Thomas talks through her experience going from red mane to shaved head

Laura Thomas, 13 November 2009

It was 1997, and I was seven years old; my friend and I were sat in her lounge practising our times tables and discussing the Spice Girls. We were deciding which group members were most like our friends and, as always, because of my red hair I was Gerri and, because of her curly hair, she was Mel B.

"I'm so jealous of your hair, I think its so pretty... mine's just boring and brown," she said and smiled at me, dreamily surveying my fringed bob cut.

In my primary school days, I had come to the conclusion that I loved my hair, because everyone else seemed to, and my friend's faces were not framed by such distinctive manes.

Fast forward to 2003, when I was 13-years-old; the same friend and I were stood beside one another drying our hands in the toilets of a village hall, which was the venue for her 13th birthday disco. She had changed schools soon after that Spice Girls discussion and we'd drifted apart as friends and become different people. She was popular with her classmates, which is so important for 13-year-old girls, straightened her beautiful cherubic curls, wore makeup and kissed boys; to put things in perspective, I was bullied and enjoyed talking about my love for platform donning face-painted stadium rockers KISS... occasionally with boys.

This childhood friend and I had become polar opposites in six years, which was expressed perfectly in the image of us in the hall's toilets, a slender designer clothes wearing blonde standing betweenn us, looking down her nose at my tiny boyish frame. My childhood friend ignored me and, admiring her reflection, asked her newer friend whether she "looked ginger". My heart sank with the heavy disgusted tone of her voice, it was something I had become used to, but sounded even worse from the mouth of a girl who'd once been "so jealous" of my hair. They went on to cackle to themselves dropping various ginger-related insults, which I have and still do hear a million times.

I've chosen not to name the culprit, because these are simply examples picked out from many I could think of to illustrate a point.

The experiment

I don't mean to start my article with a sob story, simply a background to my motivation for this experiment. Inspired by Naomi Wolf's The Beauty Myth, I have shaved my head to examine what effect living temporarily without such a big part of myself is like. Woolf exposed the ways in which the beauty industry instills insecurities in many women, then exploits them for financial gain, via their 'miracle formula' anti-aging products and generally forced promotion of an unattainable presumed 'perfection'.

Long haired made-over femininity is still seen as the norm, not just 'normal', but what we should continue to strive for

In Feminist Subjects, Multi-media: New Approaches to Criticism and Creativity, Penny Florence and Dee Reynolds argue that "the phallus binarises the differences between the sexes, dividing up a sexual-corporeal continuum into two mutually exclusive categories which in fact belie the multiplicity of bodies and body-types." The binary gender oppositions Florence and Reynolds describe are slowly becoming blurred, partly by the consideration of trans people and the complexity of sexuality - and feminism, but heavily opposing traditional gender roles are continually presented as the norm reveals a society still ill at ease with individuals belying easy labeling. I feel that my experiment is an interesting way to examine and expose this, not only in the reaction of outsiders, but also my own experience.

Today I'm happy with my appearance and I like my hair because it's become almost like an outer extension of my personality, but I've decided to examine how I feel without beauty products or hair, and with a diminished ability to express my creativity and personality through my image, which has become increasingly important to me.

The Beauty Myth in practise

In a Holland & Barrett's shop window I saw a before-and-after photo of a woman who apparently suffered the ordeal of having pale skin in summer. She looked mildly discontent in her before shot and, after the "amazing transformation" affected through tanning pills, she posed anew with marginally warmer skin tone and plastic grin.

The advert proudly read: "From pasty... to tasty". In her Channel 4 documentary about British Asian women striving for paler complexions, journalist Anita Rani investigated the sale of illegal skin bleaching creams which can cause serious damage to skin cells blocking natural UV protection in the face. She also mentioned at the opposing end of the spectrum, how its ingrained into the lifestyles of many white women to attain all year sun bed-aided tans at the cost of their health.

It doesn't require a doctor to notice the pattern here; we all know the dangers of sun beds and the host of products promoted as containing UV protection scream at us from the shelf that we need to be safeguarding our future health.

This particular series is aptly called The White Beauty Myth, and screened during the Race: Science's Last Taboo season, so it seemed appropriate that, reminiscent of Woolf's milestone feminist work, Rani chose to use one of the most successful UK Asian women's magazines as evidence for a systematic promotion of the 'lighter complexion ideal'.

My limbs, which I find too skinny, are no more inadequate than my perfectly healthy internal organs - what does it matter as long as they work?

As she confronts the magazine's editor at a photoshoot Rani flicks through the pages in close up, exposing unnaturally pale models. At this point we can see a model in the background with the same washed out fabricated skin tone. What the first episode of The White Beauty Myth reminds us of, is the way that beauty standards are not a set of rules simply prescribed by people in suits and a boardroom; as expressed by the compliments from other women following Rani's 'lightened' makeover and her experiences of women within the Asian community criticising darker skin tones, the beauty myth is perpetuated by products, advertisements and discourse within the media and traditionalist societal values.

Returning to context, since it is how we are represented in the most part via the media, and people's perceptions of how a woman should behave and look operate within a comfort zone of their own making (what women have they known? What do they expect of women?) a long haired made-over femininity is still seen as the norm, not just 'normal', but what we should continue to strive for.

The Reveal

Following my head shaving, I stood there, Mylene Klass mirror-spinning transformations in mind, with a demonic grin plastered across my face. I had just mercilessly hacked away at one of my most prominent physical features and it had felt good.

First examining my facial appearance without hair I knew that it would be a struggle to resist self-expression via my image, since I saw the bald spots not as skin, but a welcoming white canvas. My head looked like a fresh sheet of white A4, since its obvious sun deprivation meant my freckles had not spread upwards from my face. As I was eliminating excess stubble, I already had visions of body paint swirled artistically across my head in bright colours - I envisaged the experiment as a perfect profile photo.

I could have bought a plain scarf, or worn a cap, but in no time I was rooting around in cupboards and drawers for something printed, which would match my outfit. Clearly, I find old habits hard to break. It came as no surprise to myself when I began playfully photoshopping myself to look like a 1930s gangster and a Victorian strong man.

Obviously its difficult to see yourself through another's eyes, but I have always felt myself quite lucky in respect of my appearance; I am not conventionally attractive and have grown up to strive for more than balloon boobs and a skeletal waist, but nonetheless I have still lacked in body confidence sometimes.

As I looked in those intimidating multi-angle changing room mirrors today (think Trinny & Susannah!), without the dominant distraction of my hair, my attention is drawn to aspects of my image, which are feminine, such as my face and body. In primary school when asked to draw a woman, I didn't sketch curves for hips and breasts, but simply added long hair to my example of a man. I'm noticing things about my image I hadn't before and accepting them as part of me.

My limbs, which I find too skinny, are no more inadequate than my perfectly healthy internal organs - what does it matter as long as they work? As I can never resist when trying on clothes, I pulled faces at myself, posing and miming gibberish, watching intently in one of the angled mirrors, wondering if I'd looked like this to the lady who'd just passed me the numbered fitting rooms card, more self confident without hair.

Body image

Personal criticism about my appearance was something I found hurtful, yet acceptable as a child, since it happened so often without those in positions of authority intervening. I remember a boy in my class calling my name across the maths group and holding up a calculator with "Boobless" in numbers typed out - I felt sick. In any argument I had with a boy, it would be finished with "you're flat chested!"

The threat was of course empty and drunken, and I can only assume an extreme overreaction to the presumed threat of their masculinity brought about by my baldness

I didn't feel his decision to make a personal comment about my appearance was immoral, but simply something I would forever have to put up with because my lack of breasts at 11 years of age was a weakness in an argument. It is no wonder, despite all of my confidence - body and brain wise - that there is still a pang of jealousy when I see a passer by with underwear which appears to be undertaking an amazing feat of engineering. Maybe I'm one of the unfortunate masses Susan Bordo was talking about when she wrote that "most women in our culture are 'disordered' when it comes to issues of self-worth, self-entitlement, self-nourishment and comfort with their own bodies; eating disorders, far from being 'bizarre' and anomalous, are utterly continuous with a dominant element of the experience of being female in this culture".

The Verdict

I'm finding it difficult to define exactly how I feel without my hair; sometimes I feel completely genderless, neither more womanly because of the attention my body demands without the traditionally feminine distraction of long hair, nor more traditionally masculine due to how this experience is making me more interested in my brain than my image day-to-day, a mentality often still associated with men over women. I'm certainly re-evaluating my priorities in becoming less reliant on my image and more on intelligence, and specifically the accumulation of knowledge. I have never thought of myself as a materialistic person, but I've become more interested in learning through reading than usual, browsing and buying books in the history section, when I'd have ordinarily walked straight past this section in favour of the cultural studies shelf.

It's been about a month since I shaved my head, and I now have stubble for hair. Since the start of the experiment the most extreme reactions from strangers have been from men between about 20 and 30. I have experienced many "what the [expletive]!", one "if I was ginger, I'd shave my head too!" and a pair of men outside a bar threatening me and my partner with physical violence. The threat was of course empty and drunken, and I can only assume an extreme overreaction to the presumed threat of their masculinity brought about by my baldness. Interestingly it was not only strangers who commented on my baldness; some of my family members told me they preferred me with hair and questioned why I would want to shave it off, I hear it became quite a point of gossip. Some people have congratulated me on my hairless adventure having seen photographs or me in person, and my partner shaved his head in support.

I have always held a conflicting and contradictory relationship with my hair; I enjoy how it marks me out from others with less distinctive features, yet I hate being insulted about it.

Perhaps if you conducted a similar experiment it wouldn't hold this importance for you, because maybe your hair hasn't had much of a relationship with you at all. If you shaved your hair off, would you feel different in yourself? My point is that we all have complex relationships with different aspects of our physical selves, which we can explore on a temporary basis, as I have.

I'm allowing my hair to grow back, but this experience will mean I appreciate it's positive points even more than before, and accept all the negative points as inconsequential, because they don't effect the brain underneath.

Photo by Amre Ghiba, shared on Flickr under a Creative Commons license

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