When I shaved my head, I was living in a rural village in Northern Tanzania. Afterward, the villagers — people who had become accustomed to my long flaxen hair — asked me for weeks why I had shaved my head. I would smile and tell them I shaved off my hair so that I could see my head. They would laugh affectionally, assuming I had misspoken in Swahili. But I hadn’t. The most prominent reason I had decided to shave my head was that I wanted to see my own scalp. I wanted to know my body in its entirety. I wanted to know the fullness of every inch of me.
My long hair had begun to feel heavy, which is why, a few weeks before, I had dragged a Swiss Army knife through my hair. In many ways, I had gone to Tanzania to discover something about my most essential self. Who am I with nothing around to protect me? I was watching the sunset on an unusually cold evening and felt myself coming to terms with the illusions and facades I had cultivated in the name of protection. The way I could create an iron-clad suit of armor with my beauty. What am I protecting myself from? How do I feel my own beauty in its rawest form? I wasn’t nearly as self-possessed and composed as I so desperately hoped to appear.
Months were spent in deliberation before I actually shaved my head. My mind was awash in reasons not to do it. Most of those reasons came down to a sense of being unworthy — of never being enough. I was concerned about how other people would see me, which is a funny thing to fear for a woman who had never really felt seen by anyone. While men oftentimes seem to carry around an unfettered sense of self-worth, women remain in a state of constant negotiation with beauty and their bodies. I would have liked to envision myself as a woman immune to that type of bullshit, but it turned out I was not.
Four months into my time in Tanzania, I stood in the bathroom at our hostel running my hands through my hair one last time. I rubbed it around and in front of my face; I pulled it and a shiver slid down my spine. Standing in front of the mirror holding the scissors and considering my tendency towards indecisiveness, I grabbed a handful of hair at the very top of my head and ran the scissors as close to my scalp as possible. No going back now. I laughed at my reflection, already feeling something lifting. I chopped off pieces of hair haphazardly, giving myself horrible layers and bangs.
Shaving my head had not changed who I was but rather had moved me further along on the path towards knowing my Self.
Taking a deep breath and grabbing the buzzer, I slid it across the top of my head. My hand was steady as it slowly peeled away layers upon layers of straw-colored locks. Thick bunches of hair fell into small mountains around my feet. When I had finished I slid my hand across my bare scalp for the first time. While I felt released from something, it was both disappointing and all the while comforting that I felt like exactly the same person. And this is, of course, the truism that can be found at the heart of any book by Eckhart Tolle, or Brené Brown, or Confucius — that wherever you go, there you are. In those first few weeks, I rubbed my head constantly like some Buddha’s belly. I felt as if I could feel the wind differently; and when the clouds mulled overhead it seemed to rain closer to me.
Shaving my head had not changed who I was but rather had moved me further along on the path towards knowing my Self. For years I had curated and cultivated this sense of myself through clothes that complimented my many moods. Or the styles of my hair that depended on those same moods — wild, severe, controlled, sensual. Some days I wore a full face of make-up and others I washed my face and walked out of the door. I spent years of my life without shaving parts of my body — a small revolution against anyone who said this made me less beautiful. The men that loved me loved me no less for this. Having unruly body hair never impaired my ability to feel sensual and beautiful. Which is to say I, in a sense, defied all convention. After all, women’s beauty is so often defined by where they do or do not have hair. Long silky hair on your head? Beautiful. Bushy coarse hair in the armpits? Not so beautiful. Dark black hair on your legs? Not beautiful. The one rouge hair on your boob or your chin? Definitely not beautiful. Our internalized ideas about body hair and beauty are far more than cosmetic though — considering that women will spend an exorbitant amount of money on hair removal over the course of a lifetime — approximately $30,000 for waxing or $9,000 on shaving. When I was able to quiet the socially imposed ideas of beauty, I realized that my sense of beauty and my ability to feel seen came from somewhere within the deepest parts of me. I saw myself. I desired myself.
Temporal beauty is only the vehicle towards the affirmation we so desperately crave — the affirmation of being known by someone.
Attention paid to hair is not something born of the twentieth or twenty-first century. In fact, it is nearly antediluvian. For most of human history, hair has been imbued with a symbolic and mystical nature. Across many cultures, hair has also been prescribed in myriad ways for women — whether covered for religious reasons, kept short in schools, or forced to comply with toxic and often racist standards of beauty. Our hair matters. Our hair is political. It is spiritual. What we do with our hair means something. What women do with their bodies, and therefore their hair, directly positions women’s identities in the theater of the political. As Rose Weitz writes in the article “Women and Their Hair: Seeking Power through Resistance and Accommodation”, a woman who dares to shave her head represents,
A manifestation of a lack of control and control; at once both female and male; pious and rebellious, isolating and freeing; ugly and beautiful. More than anything else, a woman’s bald head is an unmissable hint that women contain infinite variety and potential, that the inner individual is the outer world, or can be, if only we’d tap into her, ascribe her value.
A woman who dares to shave her head defies something other women cannot quite put their fingers on, but they no less desire to find. When I spoke to a friend who had recently shaved her head, she felt that it, “empowered her and other women.” While she struggled with the similar sentiments of doubting her ability to be sexy and feminine without her hair, she also recognized the amount of ancestral trauma that we hold onto in our hair. Moving past fear, she said after shaving her head, she, “looked in the mirror and thought this is me… I am my warrior self now.”
So much of our existence, as women, is cultivated for the male gaze. We cut and paste and curate for the sake of another — the sake of being considered beautiful. Imagine for a moment all those pristine marble statues of Greek goddesses that line museum vestibules throughout the world; women contorted into all sorts of shapes. Imagine, instead of a male sculptor gazing upon and building their bodies, that the women themselves sculpted the voluptuous shapes and curves of their own forms, that with every chisel, they paid homage to that spectacular curvature and skin, the edges and imperfections. Imagine turning that same eye inward, how much more forgiving your own gaze could become. I no longer craved attention for my beauty, because I knew now that beauty is not something bestowed upon you by another. I craved to be seen for who I was far beyond my skin. Temporal beauty is only the vehicle towards the affirmation we so desperately crave — the affirmation of being known by another; by someone saying, I see you.
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