One big difference is the stereotypes you might be subjected to. If you’re a man, people could think you’re a far-right sympathiser or someone who would – to paraphrase a former boss of mine – mug an old lady for her pension (which is ironic given that most skinhead men in major cities are techno-loving gay men who only ever wear white t-shirts and wish they lived in Berlin).
These same assumptions don’t really apply if you’re a woman, but there are plenty others. A common stereotype you may come up against as a woman with a shaved head is people might assume you fall somewhere on the LGBTQ+ spectrum, or want to be seen as masculine, or androgynous – not a bad thing, obviously, but something that historically has been used to de-feminise women with shaved heads.
“I have a lot of people who ask me gender questions related to it,” says Jennifer, who buzzed her hair this week, “but I just think if you want to shave your head, just do it regardless.”
“There’s a very gendered perception of how we see hair and women’s hair,” says Kitty, who also recently acquired a buzzcut. She touches on the assumed link between long hair and femininity – and how that stereotype isn’t exactly true and can be subverted. “I’ve always associated hair with ideas of beauty, particularly when I was younger and had very long hair. So it’s nice to present myself in a way which isn’t controlled by people’s ideas of feminine beauty.”
Robyn, a journalist whose shaved head selfie has amassed over 2,000 likes on Twitter, has similar thoughts – “Probably the biggest surprise is that I look no less feminine that I did before.”
Unlike men, who can largely go about their bald head life without much of a second look, women are subjected to another thought process when they shave their head – the idea they might be sick.
“I went for a run yesterday,” says Robyn, “and people did give me quite a wide berth. I didn’t have any make-up on and I’m quite pale naturally so I got the impression people were looking at me like ‘should she be out?’ As if I’d had chemo or something.”
Grace, a blogger based in Brighton, has had similar experiences in the two years she’s rocked a buzz-cut. “A lot of people think that I’m sick,” she says, “because I have very short hair and wear a headscarf. Once this kid saw me in a shopping centre and shouted ‘mummy, why does that lady have no hair!?’ I just laughed to myself and carried on – I thought it was cute. But then her mum pulled her to one side and I heard the mum say ‘shh – don’t say that, she’s probably very ill.’”
She continues: “I thought ‘no, I need to correct them.’ So I said to the little girl ‘hey, so I have my head shaved because I wanted to raise money for charity –’ I actually have been sick, I had a brain tumour – then I said to her mum, ‘[But] please don’t assume I’ve been sick.’ She did look a bit sheepish and apologised.”
Grace originally shaved her hair as a way of raising money for the Brain Tumor Charity – a counselling service which had helped her during her illness. But having a tumour wasn’t a direct factor in her haircut. Despite this, it’s still an assumption she comes across from time to time, which seems to be extremely gendered – in all the time I spent with a shaved head, I never once got the impression people thought I was undergoing chemo. Perhaps one upside of the lockdown is that the increasing number of women with shaved heads might put a stop to gendered stigmatisation.
But though the optics of shaved heads may differ by gender, one thing links them – shaving your head is an extremely cathartic stress response. Joely was travelling in Peru when the pandemic struck, where the lockdown was a lot stricter than it is in the UK; she couldn’t go out to exercise, there were police everywhere and when she did go out, she had to wear a mask at all times.
“Nothing exciting had happened in a long time because I couldn’t really do anything,” she says. “So shaving my head was an enormous release. I thought, ‘I’ll do something interesting, that way at least when I come home, something exciting will have happened.” Taking matters into your own hands is something that echoed in conversations I had with both men and women who shaved their head.
“The pandemic is a stressful situation for everyone,” says Kitty, “being stuck at home, not being able to go about your life as normal. Shaving my head felt like a way to control something – it was kind of a stress response, I guess. It was quite liberating.”
For Robyn, shaving your head is a way of making the best of the pandemic. “This is such a window of opportunity for people,” she says. “It’s a time to do something that you’ve always wanted to do but have never had the guts to. For women, it’s really cathartic and it’s just a good way of knowing your relationship with your hair a little bit more.”
Besides, you might as well. What else are you going to do?