Mannika Mishra explores the history and the present of women with shaved heads, and discusses why femininity is still so closely linked to a woman’s hairstyle…
A woman is walking through the streets of Paris holding a baby. There are hundreds upon hundreds of people around her, but the woman seems numb. Her eyes look dead – glazed over.
Her head is shaven. So are the heads of a dozen other women she is walking with. The people around her are jeering, on the brink of violence.
It is 1944. Cars have been invented. Radar, vacuum cleaners, planes – even an automated tea maker. And this scene, this barbaric scene straight out of the middle-ages, where a woman accused of adultery was punished by shaving her hair off, seems not to have changed at all. That one act of humiliation should survive through thousands of years, is incredible. Prisoners of war were protected from mistreatment and violence at the hands of their captors by the Geneva Convention; and yet, truckloads of women with vile signs around their necks and shaved heads were being driven through the streets of liberated France amidst jeers.
The liberation of France was supposed to be a moment of joy, a triumph of good over evil. The war was over. The people were saved. Below this surface of jubilation, however, ran an undercurrent of viciousness that showed that, after all, people aren’t that different from each other. Women suspected of having sexual relationships with Nazis were paraded through the streets as traitors, their heads were shaved as the most prominent symbol of their humiliation and punishment. Unconsciously or consciously, this was in cruel juxtaposition to almost exactly the same treatment meted out to German women suspected of sexual misconduct after the French occupation of Rhineland. These systematic acts of humiliation and parading were spread wide across social and class lines, and aristocratic and penniless women were shorn alike.
The fact that this practice of shaving women’s heads to make them penitent dates back to the time of the dark ages is shattering. It tells us that the way society thinks of women hasn’t changed very much at all, not really. Even if women have risen to positions of power and excellence, their perception, society’s most basic understanding of them, is still tied to the same primitive notions of very specific appearances of conformity and sexuality.
Femininity seems to have a narrow threshold that is determined just by the length of a woman’s hair. These scenes of humiliation and the assertion of some perverse morality have been repeated many times over, from Joan of Arc to the nameless shorn women not only in France, but also in Italy, Norway, Belgium, and the Netherlands after WW2.
There has been a shift, however, from these traditional connotations of a forced humbling. The rise of LGBT culture in particular, led by an androgynous and fearless Grace Jones, has given way to a slow reclamation of the female appearance and notions of sexuality. Skinheads in 1960s Britain, women and men alike, shaved their heads as a symbol of a wider socio-economic alienation and a rejection of traditional values of austerity.
More and more, there has been a tendency to express political and economic views through one’s body, leading to a very slight, but undeniably present, change in perceptions of gendered appearances. These perceptions now have evolved to include musical tastes, political affiliations and disease. Not all of them have positive connotations – illnesses like cancer, most obviously, and also as skinheads are now unfortunately almost unanimously associated with neo-Nazism and the far right – and still, women with shaved heads are still considered to be a source of deep discomfort. They often end up alienating even their closest friends and families by committing what is decreed to be a rash and disturbing act for a woman. A woman’s hair is still connected to rigid notions of sexuality, but there needs to be a deeper understanding of what it means to be a woman. There needs to be a movement away from strict codes of feminine beauty and superficial appearances. That a woman should be judged because of her hairstyle is deeply unsettling.
There have been outliers like Sinead O’Conner and Rose McGowan who have flouted convention and initiated discussions about difficult things such as the commodification and overt sexualisation of women in popular culture, and the rise of the ‘Disney’ culture of moulding child actresses in a specific way, but they are a small minority and limited to the West. Women in developing countries are far removed from this fledgling reality and are still bound by conventions determined by strict social norms and religions. They do not have the same freedom, or platform, and acceptance is a million miles away. They are bound by the same archaic rules and expectations that the developed world seems only now to be shunning.
Shaving one’s head should be whatever we want it to be. No one should be limited in their ability to make choices about their appearance by archaic expectations. Ideas of masculinity and femininity have both evolved, and our cultures and norms should evolve quickly with them as well.
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