How the World Finally Stopped Shaming Women with Shaved Heads

Ten years ago, when Britney Spears walked into a salon and shaved her own head, it was seen as the ultimate sign that she'd lost her damn mind. "SHEAR MADNESS" the cover of the New York Post screamed the next day, as the news spread rapidly around the world.

The incident turned head shaving into a kind of pop culture shorthand for having a nervous breakdown. Hair and beauty website, NaturallyCurly, refers to head-shaving as "often a drastic decision driven by emotions," while health.am lists "shaving head or body hair" as #7 on a list of 10 Warning signs of schizophrenia as identified by family members.

Katy Perry has been referencing it as a means to prove her own mental stability since 2010. At the 2017 Grammy's alone, Perry made two separate references to the Britney incident, saying "the only thing left to do is shave my head, which I’m really saving for a public breakdown." Perry also told Ryan Seacrest that night that she was "taking care of [her] mental health" and that she hadn't "shaved [her] head yet." The backlash on Twitter was fast and furious and just two months later, Perry ate her words and, most unexpectedly, shaved most of her hair off -- an incident that was surprisingly under-reported, considering the degree of irony involved.

VALERIE MACON/ AFP/ Getty Images

The online backlash that Perry received, as well as her subsequent hair U-turn in front of a disinterested press, were the first indicators that 2017 might finally be the year that women with shaved heads are no longer considered taboo, threatening, or ugly.

In Western culture, shaved heads are traditionally associated with hyper-masculinity in men (see: the military, prison, skinheads) and a symbol of deviant behavior for women -- whether they shave it themselves, thereby rejecting mainstream beauty standards, or have the cut forced upon them as punishment for being bad.

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Historically, shaving women's heads as a form of punishment was firmly established during, and in the aftermath of, World War II. Both women at concentration camps, and French women accused of colluding with Nazis, received the punishment. What, after all, could be worse than taking away one of women's most potent symbols of femininity?

Back in 2007, after the Britney incident, an article in The Guardian noted: "Shaven heads are still seen as a crisis for women because flowing hair is so tied up in notions of female beauty and, in the days before dyes and extensions (although even ancient Egyptians sported wigs), a visible symbol of their reproductive power." In other words, without hair, women cease to be attractive.

The film industry has since doubled down on that message, using head-shaving in movies like V For Vendetta and G.I. Jane as a means to de-sex female characters. At the time of filming the former, Natalie Portman even noted in an interview: "Some people will think I'm a neo-Nazi, or that I have cancer, or I'm a lesbian."

Natalie Portman in 'V For Vendetta'.

While Moore's G.I. Jane head-shaving was considered extraordinarily brave, just last year, Moore's daughter, Talullah Willis, shaved her own head with zero fanfare, telling Nylon: “I actually watched G.I. Jane two days before I shaved my head. I don’t think I was 100 percent inspired by it, but I think it may have manifested the idea in my mind.”

In the last two years, both Charlize Theron and Kristin Stewart opted to shave their heads for movie roles that didn't specifically require it -- Theron for the dystopian Mad Max: Fury Road, Stewart for Underwater, in which she plays a mechanical engineer. The press and public have been complimentary about the new looks, and both actresses have been vocal about the positive effects of cutting it all off. Theron said: "It's the most freeing thing, I highly recommend it. I think every woman should do it." In March, Stewart told the Today Show: "I've been wanting to do this for a long time. It feels amazing. I just want to head-bang all day."

Both stars' responses to the cut were deeply refreshing after listening to what Anne Hathaway had to say about shaving her head for her role as Fantine in 2012's Les Miserables: "I looked in the mirror and I said ‘I look like my gay brother. I’m just Man Hathaway.’ I realized I couldn’t take it back. It had the effect of changing my identity. I was reduced to a mental patient level of crying... I was inconsolable.”

There is still, even now, an element of going bald that still treats the style, not as a privilege, but rather as a sacrifice. In 2013, Jessie J raised £500,000 for the UK's Comic Relief by shaving her head. This year's winner of RuPaul's Drag Race, Sasha Velour, stays bald in honor of her mother's battle with cancer. And, in July, Kathy Griffin shaved her head in support of her sister's battle with cancer, having already lost a brother to the disease three years ago.

Despite this, it is true that when women keep their hair cropped close these days, and its not related to either a role or charity, it barely registers with the press or the public. Contrast Solange Knowles having to defend her super-short cut online in 2009 ("im not trying. to make this 'a style' or a statement. i. just. wanted. to. be. free. from. the. bondage. that. black. women sometimes. put. on. themselves. with. hair") with Lupita Nyong’o talking about a similar style last year ("I like myself a lot more now that I’m not constantly fussing over my hair"). Two years in, we've grown accustomed to Rose McGowan having a shaved head, and if Amber Rose grew her hair out now, she would be positively unrecognizable.

Kate Hudson is the most recent star to shave her head -- in this case, for some as-yet-unspecified collaboration with Sia -- and the news has been received with a shrug. Today's nonchalance towards women with shaved heads feels lightyears ahead of where the world was in 1990 when Sinead O'Connor first emerged, shocking everyone with her lack of hair before she'd even had a chance to start ripping up photos of the Pope on live TV.

The world no longer needs to have a discussion every time a famous woman shaves all her hair off, and it's a clear signal that we are finally reaching a new point of freedom for women's self-expression. Aside from anything else, in the age of the internet, we are all inherently less shockable.

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Back in 2007, Dr. Martin Skinner, a social psychologist, told the BBC: "Hair is so significant because of what it is and where it is. It is part of us, much more intimate than things like clothes. If you cut it away, you are cutting away a bit of yourself. Whatever we do with it is very much part of our identity." The increasing visibility of shaved hair on female heads is symbolic of the fact that in the 20-teens, forcing celebrities to adhere to traditional performative gender roles is increasingly less of a thing -- and it's about damn time.

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