Long hair on women in cultural history casts a considerable shadow. Societal, fiscal, sensual, artistic. Japanese, Korean and Chinese folklore contain plaits and folds of hair in knot upon knot, as does Native American tradition. Hair is often culturally read as a woman’s Samson-esque source of sexual power, terrifying enough to lure and ensnare. Which means that removal becomes the flip side of the coin: powerless, powerful, erotic, shameful, removed from the constraints of plaits and male desire, closer to the surface of the world. Head-shaving and close-cropping on women in 2018 can be an act of queer space-creation: here is where butch lives, where androgyny thrives, where hands are asked to run their hands across the curves of an honest skull. It’s a fashion decision with deep consequences for identity and self, and one that has an intriguing, very queer history.
What was your first encounter with shorn women? Perhaps it was through literature. Who can forget Jo in Little Women, surely the queerest ostensibly straight girl in the English canon (aside from maybe Jane Eyre), lopping off her hair out of a sense of duty: “Your one beauty!” cries golden-curled Amy. And that wasn’t even baldness. For the music video generation it might have been Sinead O’Connor, rising from a black background weeping to an absent lover, her furred skull as stunning as her agony — or Skin from Skunk Anansie shrieking across the screen, or Grace Jones gleefully flicking her tongue like a panther. In films it’s often had a military tinge: Demi Moore with a streak of mud across her face, or Natalie Portman’s rebellion in V For Vendetta, or an exhausted Sigourney Weaver in Aliens 3, tired of everybody’s shit. The resurgence of the 90s now means that, in my university town, girls are working dungarees and turtlenecks and number-one haircuts again, glorying in the fact that when you’re 19 your youth can endure all things and never be diminished. They know, perhaps, that they’re stepping into an ancient pattern of queerness and queered desire — though possibly they’re just tired, like Weaver, of hair getting in the way of the fight.
A bald woman is not by definition a queer woman. But there is something, a spark there. It deserves pursuing.
Queer history is not a static thing. The practise of tracing what we now view as “queer” behavior in the past is inevitably colored by how we view “queer” now, and what we desire from history. Is it ever possible to uncover queerness in people who’d never used the word, never shaped the idea in any way we could understand? I would argue no — but that queer history doesn’t end on that point. Queering history is a way of looking. “A queered history,” historian Jennifer Evans writes, “questions claims to a singular, linear march of time and universal experience and points out the unconscious ways in which progressive narrative arcs often seep into our analyses.” Queer is political: breaking out of dominant narratives of heterosexuality, conventionality, gender, sex, desire, reforming it in fresh ways, watching it restructure around you. To queer history is to examine it through an interrogative lens, on the lookout for the undersides, the slip-throughs, the cut-off parts that swim unnoticed down the plughole.
That’s not to say that baldness in women is always a mark of distinction from the mainstream. Baldness can be glory. Fashion shifts, and the bald woman has inhabited both sides of conventional, acceptable femininity. In the Upper Kingdom of ancient Egypt, men wrote poetry about the wigs atop the fashionably bald heads of women. Noble-born women of the fifteenth century in Europe plucked their foreheads high and wide, then accentuated their false baldness with velvet ropes. The Masai traditionally shave their heads as part of a strong pan-African tradition of beauty in baldness. It’s celebrated in Black Panther as part of the ‘uniform’ of the royal all-female guard, the Dora Milaje. Throughout history men and other women have been ravished by women’s skulls. Baldness, like all other aspects of adornment, is flexible, open to the patterns we press on it.
And then there’s the other side of the story. Bald women have often queered conventionality and challenged the idea of femininity as growth and fecundity. Rather than showing fertile fields of ever-growing hair, they’ve shorn the produce off. Their heads have acted as ￼rejections, alternations, projections. Joan of Arc was famously close-cropped, as part of her slipping through the bonds of traditional medieval French female behavior and assuming the mantle of God’s instrument. The image of Elizabeth I as bald under her tyrannical red curls, her scalp cleared by smallpox and hair-bleaching, may not be historically accurate, but it’s long-lasting: a woman who wore the markers and symbols of power, and carried the whole weight of kingdoms on her bare, raw head.
This is the kind of baldness that carries intentionality, and also works in tandem with virginity. In a European context where profligate, sexual Mary Magadalene was depicted repentant with long hair that covered her naked body, hair was sex. Going bald moved beyond that idea entirely.
But baldness in women also has a history of punishment and of holiness, often as two parts of the same act. A Netherlandish prehistoric bog body pulled from the peat and called the Yde girl may have had a part-shaven head, though it’s unclear whether that was inflicted after her death or when she was discovered by Dutch villagers. The Huldremose woman found in Denmark, 2000 years old, had been shaven and her hair was placed beside her body, including across her neck. The women may have been punished, or given to the earth as offerings; their baldness may have prepared them for acceptance by the gods, or marked them as outcasts.
In the Bible, baldness is the punishment given to the proud, vain women of Zion, as a sign of God’s wrath about their “flirting” and “ornaments.” White slave-owning women in America would hack off the hair of their female slaves because it “confused the men,” horrifically inverting the power of African baldness. In Deepa Mehta’s 2005 film Water, set in India in the late 1930s, widows must wear white, remain isolated and shave their heads for the remainder of their lives. Bald women show up in startling photos from post-Collaborationist France, their eyes like black holes, as crowds jeer. They’d been caught sleeping with German soldiers, and ritually shaven to show the world their shame. Baldness marks all these women as sexually unclean, spoiled, soiled: outside bounds of behavior and society, separate.
Bald women who clear their heads intentionally (pun intended) carry that context with them like a crown. I see your shame and I have no time for it.
Female baldness is also read as sickness. Chemotherapy causes hair loss; stress on the female body causes hair to be pulled out, to fall into the drain. The bald head on a woman indicates sickness, physical or mental: Britney Spears’ shaven head was a punchline for her mental illness, and head-shaving has accompanied treatment for women’s ailments throughout the centuries. The first person ever subjected to a lobotomy, a Mrs Hammattin in 1936, protested vigorously on the grounds that her head would have to be shaved. The majority of European lobotomies performed between the 1930s and 80s were inflicted on women.
I came close to this kind of baldness once, in my late teens. I had been fainting in irregular patterns, which I now believe to have been my body’s psychosomatic reaction to a terrible relationship (I am rendering you unconscious until you stop this, my brain whispered, trying to move closer to the surface). The MRI showed a strange dark spot in one lobe. I went in for an EEG, which involved sitting on an office chair in a dark room while hundreds of wires were attached to my scalp through my hair with medical glue, one by one. I had a second layer of hair that made my head tip back. Afterward the glue itched and had to be scraped off my skull in the shower, flake by flake. I will shave my head, I thought, that will make things easier. Perhaps I will feel clean.
The queer body has been read as “sick” for centuries. More recently scholars have been using the idea of the queer to explore new concepts of the body and its monstrosities, and how healthy and flourishing they can be.The intersection of queer baldness and chemotherapy baldness sheds light on both: in Audre Lord’s The Cancer Journals, and in Catherine Lord’s The Summer Of Her Baldness, a “cancer improvisation” memoir, the two become intertwined.
The black blossom was a knotted vein; the relationship dissolved; I walked away. I moved countries, which is a shaving-off of its own. My hair is in protective plaits wound around my head. I am not prepared.
Queer history is about desire, and what happens to it. The first queer desire that nudged out of the ground for me all curled over like a fern was for Eve Salvail, the Canadian model with the dragon tattoo on her scalp. A friend explained her attraction to bald and close-shorn women when I told her I was writing this article: The head looks like a clitoris. Another woman added, A bald woman is like a bared tooth. Ferocious, brutal. Hair offers them no protection. They have chosen to come out from behind the curtains and look the audience straight in the eye.
Baldness and close-shorn women are coming into the mainstream again. Danai Gurira on the red carpet and Sanaa Lathan in Nappily Ever After provide new contexts for the connection between baldness and African-American beauty, and fashion is revisiting the look of Robin Tunney in Empire Records, all punk 90s grunge angst and soft fuzz. The trend will wax and wane. Hair grows. Baldness is often a commitment, a continual statement of maintenance: one gardens oneself.
History is cumulative, and fashion understands this. Every shape and colour has referents, echoes, patterns through the past; you are telling the story not just of yourself but of your tribe, the others who’ve gone down this path before. The weight of a fashionable act may be centuries thick, and contradictory. Baldness is a unique act: in scraping clean, in beginning afresh, it recalls hundreds of thousands of other such beginnings, heads brought closer to the sky. Poet Jo Shapcott wrote in 2017,
“You can tell, with the bald, that the air
speaks to them differently, touches their heads
with exquisite expression. […]
It was clear just from the texture of her head,
she was about to raise her arms to the sky;
I covered my ears as she prepared to sing, to roar.”