I’ve always known that women who chose to shave their head were perceived as different. I remember the faint sense of dread I felt, waiting for my mom to pick me up from my school in Scotland. She was beautiful and friendly, but my fear was that kids would make fun of me because she didn't fit into the normal conventions of an Edinburgh woman. She was black, English, and instead of having long straight hair, she — as well as her twin sister, my aunty Pauline — often wore their afros shaved down to the grain.
Black women’s hair has a social significance that’s pretty unique in modern culture. In the U.K. we black people spend more than $6.55 billion on our hair — six times more than white people — and in the U.S., that figure rises to $19 billion. Despite a resurgence of the natural hair movement, many of us still feel a pressure to emulate the straight tresses of our white counterparts, with our afros often viewed as being unwieldy, unprofessional, or straight-up ugly. So taking to the clippers can be a political act, just it was for punk women in the 1970s and '80s. It is doing the exact opposite of what western beauty conventions ask of you — and this applies for white women as well as those of us who are black and brown.
After years of chemical straighteners and painful braiding experiences, the idea of following my mom's lead and shaving off my hair now seems more and more appealing. And I’m not alone: I’ve begun to see a trend of creative, successful women from all ethnic backgrounds deciding to take to shave their hair. Many of the eight women interviewed below have faced rudeness or challenges to their femininity as a result of their hairdo, but they also described feeling empowered by their choice. Read on for their thoughts.
1. Liv Little, Curator and Founder of gal-dem
"When I was 15, I got a relaxer and pixie cut. I was paying to get it done every six weeks, and the burns from the straightener would just be insane. I’d be like, 'Keep it on for longer, keep it on for longer, I want it to be perfectly straight. I want to look like Rihanna.' I’d always wanted to shave my head, and just before uni I decided to change it up. I thought, Fuck it, if there ever is a time, this is the time to do it, and I haven’t really looked back since.
"I just feel like I’m living my best life when my head is exposed to the world. I suppose it is [political] because I don’t feel like I need hair to define who I am. With my hair so short, I like that I’m just here. This is me. There’s nothing to be distracted by. I’m not buying into any industry that exploits us and tells us that the way we are naturally isn’t a beautiful thing."
2. Laura Mvula, Musician
"I first shaved my head after my cousin did it. [At the time] I just thought it was cool, but now it represents a lot of different things. Making music for me is as much about connecting to my vulnerabilities as it is about overcoming them, so there’s definitely something in being comfortable with a shaved head that lends itself to the process.
"I went through a period where I was wearing an afro weave instead — at the time, I needed something that I could hide behind a little. But there’s something very liberating about having a shaved head, and I get a really broad range of reactions to it. I once had a lady ask if I was sick — she was outraged at the idea that shaving my head was a choice I had made. I’m trying to grow it out a little at the moment, but I think it will be short for a while longer."
3. Ruby Tandoh, Baker and Writer
"Because I work in food, I'm used to having to assimilate to a professional world that prides itself on a kind of old-fashioned homeliness and class. The food press is anchored in the domestic, white, and heteronormative. Just existing as a queer WoC in the world of chic, straight baking felt really difficult, like I was being stretched too thin across these disparate ideas of what it was to be me.
"When I wore cute tea dresses and grew my hair long, I could preserve an identity that didn't rile the foodie public, the conservative food press, or my publishers. And though that afforded me a certain comfort, it didn't feel right. I had to make a definitive statement: I am not the quiet homemaker that you want me to be. And if I ever am a quiet homemaker (because what's wrong with that?), it'll be with a shaved head, wearing the clothes I want, preaching the politics I believe in, for my girlfriend in the perfect queer home we've made together."
4. Louise Chen, DJ/Party Promoter
"The DJ world is still very much a male-dominated industry, and we are often belittled, or we have to tone down our femininity to be considered credible. Men don’t ever have to deal with the amount of worrisome questions that go through a woman’s head before doing a Boiler Room, for example. Being exposed means you’re forced into paying attention to your look.
"I first wanted to shave my hair when I was 17, and I have to admit that postponing my desire was led by the fear of losing a part of my identity. But one day, I stared in the mirror and realised how far I had come: I felt great in my body, I was confident in my work, I was in love and supported. So I just did it. My boyfriend clipped it to a zero, and 10 minutes later I was meeting me for the first time. I recently DJ’d in New York and all day long I was getting compliments about my look, and how sexy it was. Even Moodymann complimented my hairdo. It’s been a very freeing experience, like being reborn."
5. Bridget Minamore, Writer
"Cutting my hair was a revelation. I love it. It felt so natural and normal straight away, and with the exception of one wobble — when a man trolled me on Twitter and focused on how 'ugly' I look with no hair — I haven't regretted it once. I feel so free, and now suddenly I don't look quite so much like a teenager, and I feel less like an imposter.
"It's so interesting to see how the world has changed its perception of me. I get catcalled a lot less, but the catcalls I get are a lot more... personal? Far more 'You look so beautiful' and less 'Do you have a boyfriend? You look sexy.' I haven't quite worked out why this is. But a lot of black women and women of color have shorter hair now, so I’m not alone.
"There's something so powerful, I think, about taking clippers to your hair. Black hair is so political, and for so many years black women have had to put up with shit about it from all angles. Choosing to sidestep all of that, to face the world bare, especially when the world already says long hair is what women must have, and black women aren't feminine? I feel like a fucking badass."
6. Alanna McArdle, Musician and Writer
"The first time I shaved my head was actually for a music video around three years ago. [The song] was about an abusive relationship, which had left me feeling completely insecure. So shaving my hair seemed symbolic of taking control of myself after having my autonomy slowly taken away.
"The role that hair plays in your personal, political, and creative lives is enormous. At school it was (correctly) rumored that I was queer, and once I cut my hair I was unintentionally opening myself up to being read as different. The last time I shaved it off completely, people would shout 'lesbian' or 'dyke' at me in the street, or make jokes like, 'Do you have a dick.' On a good day I can brush these things off, but mostly it's tiring and it makes me feel incredibly unsafe and scared. I recently decided to grow my hair out because it was getting too much. In itself, it has made me feel powerless over a decision I ultimately made to give myself a feeling of control over my appearance in a world where women are so alienated from themselves."
7. Poppy Ajudha, Musician
"Before shaving my hair I always felt as though I had to uphold normative beauty ideals in order to be attractive. Long hair held a kind of ultimate femininity. But I did grow up in south London where my dad owned a night club, and I’ve always been surrounded by the history of counter culture that resides in the SE music scene, which has influenced my sense of style.
"I get a lot of comments from strangers, and I’m always surprised when older, more conservative looking women stop and tell me that they really like my hair. I’m not so surprised when older men stop to tell me it’s not very feminine ('Oh, you look like that footballer'), or that they think girls look better with long hair. They try to squash me into the only box they think I should fit, but I feel more beautiful with no hair because I’m doing what I want, instead of what society imposes on me."
8. LAW Holt, Musician
"I’m mixed-race and until I shaved my hair off, I felt like people always defined me by it. Look at every sofa advert: there’s always a mixed-race girl with a big curly mop. One day I’d had enough so I went to the barbers — a proper black-owned barber shop — to get it shaved off. You should have seen his face when I told him what I wanted, but when I saw the hair on the floor I just immediately felt so much better.
"I do think sometimes people want to read a big story into it where there’s not one. A woman came up to me and said: 'Oh, that’s so brave!' I was like, 'Fuck off, it’s not brave. The amount of people in this world who are sick, or are dealing with war or famine...' In comparison, shaving your head is not bravery."