A Woman Shorn: The Disruptive History of the Female Shaved Head

Nine years after Britney Spears famously buzzed off her hair, we look back at the shifting significance of women who shave their heads—from Joan of Arc to Grace Jones.

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2016 02 17, 12:12pm


Screnshot via Youtube.

This article was first published on Broadly.

A woman's hair has long been regarded as the key to her femininity and a potent symbol of her sexuality. Whether kept long, short, natural, braided, or dyed, a massive amount of emphasis is placed on a woman's hair. Because of this, the image of a shaved head signifies a certain defeminization and is still a look with the power to shock.

A bald head is a look as ancient as history itself, from Ptolemaic beauty regimens to Hindu funereal traditions. The symbol of a shaved head has signified devotion, rebellion, and even sometimes, a sign of a mental break. Women have shaved their heads out of convenience, to stay clean, and as an act of repentance. While the function of a buzzcut ranges widely, the effect is powerful: A bald head subverts what has come to be a traditional and patriarchal idea of what a woman should look like.

Ancient to Medieval Times: The Pretty, Pious, and Punished

The first recorded instance of a shaved head is rooted in ancient Egypt, where both men and women shaved their heads in order to beat the heat and stay clean. Tweezers, knives, and razors were unearthed in the tombs of Egyptian women, indicating that the process of removing hair was an arduous but prioritized task.

Skip ahead a few centuries to the Late Middle Ages and early colonial period: when upheaval in the Catholic church, widespread famine, and the outbreak of the Bubonic Plague gave way to violent conflicts, filthy living conditions, and inhumane methods of punishment. One of the most well-known icons of the era is the young and inexorable French rebel, St. Joan of Arc, who kept her hair cropped and wore men's clothing in order to avoid the sexual advances of men throughout her military career. Ultimately, it resulted in her receiving the death sentence in 1431, after she was convicted of heresy by cross-dressing at barely twenty years old. Executioners forcibly shaved her head and burned her, not once but three times, at the stake.

Another feverish young saint, St. Rose of Lima, shaved her own head when her beauty began attracting suitors. In penance to God, she tortured herself in various ways—fasting; whipping herself; wearing a crown of thorns with 99 barbs, which she rotated regularly "so that all parts of her scalp would remain perpetually wounded"; and smearing her face with pepper to dispel potential suitors. She died early in her thirties, presumably because her body was weakened from the habitual abuse and torture she inflicted on herself, single but devoted to her cause.

St. Rose of Lima with the Baby Jesus. Image via Wikipedia.

Teens and Tondues

The Progressive Era saw remarkable changes in urban environments after the Industrial Revolution gave way to rapid expansion in city populations, which was matched by a rise in poverty and squalor. Unemployment put many young women on the streets for work or otherwise, making them perfect candidates for religious conversion. One of these women was Annie Sigalove, who in the 1890s was plucked from the dance floor of a club on Coney Island and taken into custody by Episcopalian nuns. Against her will, Sigalove was enrolled at The House of Mercy at Inwood, a reform school for "fallen women", where sex workers, club dancers, and rebellious teenagers alike were kept under lock and key with the aim of converting them into respectable women.

According to historical documents, conditions of the home were deplorable, and the nuns took to shaving the girls' heads when they misbehaved. Because of this, Sigalove filed grievance and became the center of a scandalous news story. "We find the girls do not like to lose their hair," one of the nuns told a reporter, "and that the fear of having it cut off tends to make them more obedient." The house was shuttered by the 1930s and demolished soon after.

We find the girls do not like to lose their hair and that the fear of having it cut off tends to make them more obedient.

The dramatic act of shaving a woman's entire head forced her to physically wear her contrition in a way that was highly visible, marking her like Hester Prynne—a woman outside of society. It wasn't merely a religious punishment: After World War II, for instance, French women accused of sleeping with German soldiers were publicly humiliated by having their heads shaved. (Interestingly, many of their prosecutors were German collaborators themselves, hoping to distract from their own crimes.)

"Les femmes tondues," or "the shorn women," were paraded through the streets bald and stripped to their slips with swastikas painted on their chests and foreheads, oftentimes with their own lipstick. Some 20,000 women were reported to have committed "collaboration horizontale" and were shorn accordingly. Sadly, what is absent from these reports is whether or not these women consented to their crimes—meaning that many women may have been punished and shamed for their own rapes.

French women accused of collaboration. Image via Wikipedia.

Bold and Bald

During Women's Lib and beyond, the look of a shaved head came to be associated with control and nonconformity, as women took to buzzing their heads themselves—not so much in loyalty to a divine patriarch, but to destabilize notions of traditional femininity and to embrace radical notions of gender performance.

Enter Grace Jones, the inimitable eighties pop icon who presented a gender-bending and powerhouse persona that transcended social norms and aesthetic boundaries. In her memoirs, titled "I'll Never Write My Memoirs", Jones says of her look, "My shaved head made me look more abstract, less tied to a specific race or sex or tribe. I was black, but not black; woman, but not woman; American, but Jamaican; African, but science fiction." She goes on to say that shaving her head lead directly to her first orgasm. How's that for erotic power?

My shaved head made me look more abstract, less tied to a specific race or sex or tribe.

An equally dynamic and controversial star, Sinead O'Connor, shaved her head after record executives wanted her to take on a softer, more sexualized look by wearing shorter skirts and keeping her hair long. She refused, and went straight to the barber to get the rest of her hair buzzed off. O'Connor is quoted as saying she intended to opt out of the male fantasy, saying that "it was dangerous to be a female" in the male-dominated music industry she had entered at the tender age of seventeen.

Grace Jones at Studio 54. Image via Flickr.

It's Britney, Bitch

Perhaps the most recognizable image of a woman with a shaved head in recent history is that of Britney Spears during her famous 2007 meltdown.

After weeks of bizarre behavior, Spears cruised to a local salon in Tarzana, California with a trail of paparazzi slime behind her, where she demanded to have her head shaved. The owner, Esther Tognozzi of Esther's Haircutting Studio, refused, suggesting that Spears was having a "hormonal moment". According to an eyewitness, Spears was heard saying, "I don't want anyone touching me. I'm tired of everybody touching me," while she took control of the clippers and emotionlessly buzzed her entire head.

It's worth noting that up until that point, Spears' longest relationship had been the one between herself and the public; raised by Disney and groomed for sexual stardom, she was arguably poised to snap.

Later in the weekend, after getting a tattoo and physically attacking a photographer's van with an umbrella, Spears booked herself into a treatment facility, citing exhaustion. Strands of her hair swept from the salon floor later appeared on Ebay and allegedly reached $1 million in bids before the auction was removed. A later report announced that Spears cut her hair to avoid a drug test, but this claim has been disputed.

Image via New York Daily News.

The Bald Truth

Throughout history and around the world, women have parted with their hair for various reasons. Religious purification by way of a buzzcut enabled young saints to transcend a world of temptations while that same hairdo forced scrutiny on women who misbehaved and were penalized. A woman's sexuality is often seen as a threatening force and removing her hair is thought to neutralize its potency. In response, many women shave their heads as a statement of power by reclaiming control over their bodies and celebrating the right to express themselves how they choose.