My friend Stephanie recently shaved her head for charity. I was instantly impressed by what a strong, independent woman she was to pull off such a bold hairstyle like a badass. But I was simultaneously surprised at my own reaction: why did something as trivial as changing her hair cause me to see Steph as a different person?
A second year law and economics student, Steph made the decision in March to shave her head to a buzz cut after years of growing her dark black curls down to her back. ‘I had entertained the thought of shaving my head for a couple of months,’ she explained, ‘but it was always just a fleeting impulse’.
This changed when she heard of the World’s Greatest Shave, a fundraising event for the Leukemia Foundation, and instantly thought of family and friends who had been deeply affected by the condition. ‘Two weeks and one buzz cut later, we had raised over $2300,’ Steph recalled.
Another friend, Celine, recently dyed her hair purple to raise funds for the same organisation. Until then, she had worn it mostly blonde.‘My hair is totally something I consider an addition to my personality,’ she said of the change.
Both women said they felt a difference in their sense of identity and self-expression after drastically altering the appearance of their hair.
Throughout history, hair has been an important part of defining a woman’s femininity. From Ancient Roman and Greek women who wore their hair in ornate long braids, to the elaborate pin curls of the 1500s, to the punk and glam styles of 90s teens, hair has been closely tied to a feminine identity.
Short hair has commonly been viewed as a symbol of women’s empowerment due to its association with typically masculine traits. This was exemplified in the 1920s by the Flapper movement, where women raised their hemlines and cut their hair in a bold new ‘bob’ style to represent their rebellion against traditional systems of beauty.
Steph also referenced the illusive ideals of hair constructed throughout history by sex symbols such as Elizabeth Taylor and Marilyn Monroe, sensing that these still very much informed the reactions of those around her to her stylistic choices.
Accordingly, Steph described her experience with short hair as ‘equally terrifying and liberating’.
‘Before the shave, I definitely associated my identity as a woman with more traditional ideas of beauty that came from the way I did my hair or the way I chose to do my makeup.’
She found that shaving her head challenged her perception of womanhood – and the views of those around her. But rather than feeling like less of a woman after the cut, Steph said she felt more empowered, confident and accepting of herself through making this choice.
Celine similarly reported that her hair dying experience had an impact on how she perceived herself.
‘I feel a lot freer and more expressive of my personality,’ she said. ‘I feel significantly more empowered.’
Yet in conversation with the women, both felt that changing their hair so drastically allowed them usurp idea that it defined their worth or identity.
In a visual culture where the male gaze still powerfully informs women’s perception of their value, my friends felt that having autonomy over how they styled their hair was important to controlling their personal liberation from these standards.
‘Trying to accommodate all women inside a seemingly narrow construct of ‘femininity’ is to ignore the voices of so many women,’ said Steph. ‘Those who are proudly androgynous or ‘masculine’ women, those with hair loss as a result of cancer treatment or alopecia, and those with short or shaved [hair].’
My friend also stressed that she did not see women having long hair as reductive to the cause of female empowerment. Rather, she encouraged a greater acceptance and celebration of the wide array of hairstyles which women may have that fall outside the conventions and norms of historical femininity.
Celine similarly expressed her sadness and concern over the narrow boundaries that may be placed on women for their stylistic choices by those around them. In particular, she referred to a friend whose boyfriend said he would no longer be attracted to her if she changed her hair.
‘That’s a huge no from me,’ she said clearly. ‘Love it or leave. Hair is not another thing that society (or boyfriends) have the right to comment on or control in any way.’
‘Your hair, your choice,’ Celine summed up.
In reality, talking with both of those strong, empowered females revealed to me that their strength and autonomy came from within them.
Regardless of what hairstyle they wore, it was not a defining factor in their identities as independent individuals. ‘Hair is just that – hair,’ said Steph. ‘Buzzcut to billowing waves, you aren’t your hair – you’re a beauty either way.
This article appeared in the autonomous wom*n’s edition, Wom*n’s Honi 2018.