The undercut is the must-have hair cut for “all men”–and for a few daring women. Recently, the undercut has gone through a “feminine reinvention.” It is the haircut for the chic chameleon woman: masculine when slicked back, feminine when let down. Down, it represents a hidden queer or alternative identity, while still allowing its wearer to “pass” in everyday life. Up, it makes a woman feel tough and un-messable; if she can shave her feminine hair bare, she can defend herself in other ways, too.
Spoiler: I recently got an undercut. After years of Barbie-long locks, I got a bob, and then a few months later, decided I needed to clip my head. But how? I wasn’t ready for a “boy” haircut yet–I still wanted to play with my hair, touch it, braid it. I needed something versatile, but more masculine, less “sweet” than my cute little bob. So, obviously, I went for the undercut.
Though I find the undercut empowering, new, and different, what are the cultural and historical implications of my bare head? Where did the history of women with shaved heads actually begin?
Shaven Head Shame
Having a shaved head has not always been an empowering thing for women–or a choice at all. The Bible presents a bald woman as a captive; her head was shaved at the beginning of captivity. If her captor still found her attractive (despite her lack of hair) at the end of a month, he could rightfully wed her. Later, this practice translated into women being required to cut their hair upon being wed.
In the Middle Ages, a shorn head was a sign of submission. Women adulterers often had their heads shaved as punishment, as their hair legally belonged to their husbands. Conversely, women would also shave their hair lines to make them appear higher and accentuate their foreheads. It also made their hair easier to hide under veils; exposed hair was seen as “erotic.”
During the Holocaust, women prisoners had their heads shaved. One young girl described the experience: “I look around and I see young girls with scissors and clippers cutting hair off clean to the scalp… when the cold scissors touch my scalp and my hair slowly falls down, I can’t help it, my tears fall down, mixed with my black curls.” A shaved head was seen as a dehumanizing uniform for prisoners in concentration camps.
Fast-forward to post-WWII France, and women accused of “collaboration horizontale” with the Germans had their heads forcibly shaved in public. The women, often prostitutes, were sometimes beaten to death. Unfortunately, France has a history of desexualizing women by shaving their heads.
Today, women are still shave their heads as an act of contrition. Most natural hair used for wigs and extensions come from countries where long hair is seen as a badge of beauty–but women are poor enough to consider selling it. Hair historian Caroline Cox says, “Working-class women’s hair is used to bedeck the head of those who are more privileged. It’s been going on for hundreds of years.” In Russia, women prisoners have been known to have their heads shaved, and the wardens sell their hair for money.
As a woman, shaving your head can also be a sign of rebellion. After Britney Spears and Miley Cyrus clipped their hair, the media released a torrent of “Are they crazy?” headlines. But for the pop stars, and countless other celebrity women who have dramatically cut their hair, their new do’s were a sign that they–and not the media, society, or managers–were in control.
In China, women shaved their heads in 2012 in protest of gender discrimination in university admission policies. While shaving their hair off, the women reportedly sang together, “I am as strong as you are, and am putting all I have into chasing my dream.”
Bold, Bald Beauties
Some women shave their heads (partially or in full) to divorce themselves from the most physical and obvious symbol of their femininity. Free of their egos, they can discover how they identify themselves and how they are feminine, apart from just hair. An unfortunate side effect? One woman writes of baldness’ unfortunate side effect for women:
The most common reaction in public is that people assume I shaved my head due to bad health. It’s quite peculiar getting so many sympathetic looks from strangers. Although people mean well, is it a coincidence that we generally assume a woman would have a shaven head out of weakness, when we assume a man does it to show strength? Society’s popular perception of ideal femininity is so often rooted in weakening women. We are meant to look youthful, gentle and soft. Strength in ‘feminine’ beauty is rarely actually about looking strong, resilient or empowered, it is about looking sexy.
Some female Buddhist monks (Bhukkhuni) shave their heads, like male Buddhist monks do in order to show commitment to the Holy Life.
Stay tuned for a history on the undercut! Spoiler alert: its origin may surprise you.