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Hair today, gone tomorrow

December 22, 2010
tags: ,

Why no, I can rarely resist the appalling pun.

So. Not so long ago, my altogether awesome friend and NaNo buddy L, aka Dendrodoa, was on the point of departure for the distant shores of Japan, and invited us round to clear out her house. I helped eat the contents of her fridge, was introduced to her resident skull, drew a Bush Ninja on her chalkboard (do not ask, because I can’t remember) and assumed ownership of a bag of soy beans, a frozen mango or three, a wooden cat which is now guarding our television from evil influences, and a gorgeous bright-green wig.

The wig, however, came with strings attached. Well, one string. The string was that there was clearly no point me adopting the wig unless I was going to use it, and so I had to promise that I’d shave my head. L, who has had her fair share of hair adventures, insisted that it’d be the best haircut I ever had. We shook on it.

I am a dreadful coward when it comes to people I respect, usually groundlessly. Nobody in the department batted an eyelid when I showed up at the start of term with parti-coloured red and blonde hair; I have no idea why I thought that shaving it all off would provoke any more of a reaction from the people I’d been discussing queer theory with the week before. But still. I waited until term was over. (I also waited until after we’d visited J’s mother, on his advice; apparently neither his teenage-goth make-up-and-nail-varnish phase nor his later eyebrow piercing went down well.) Cut it short a fortnight or so ago, and then properly shaved it on Sunday evening.

Now, an announcement in the interests of public safety: Electric razors were invented for a reason, and that reason is that it’s a damn sight harder to hurt yourself. Me, I ended up doing it with a cheap disposable one when J’s ancient electric shaver refused to work, and it a) took ages and b) I did what I always do when shaving, which is end up bleeding something ridiculous because I’m impatient and don’t have an overly steady hand. The obvious razor-scabs – little straight lines in groups of three – somewhat spoilt the overall effect.

First impressions? Well, my head is cold. This is a no-brainer in mid-December, obviously, but I hadn’t quite clocked exactly how much heat even short hair keeps in. Also, I’d never realised just how insensitive scalp is, or at least my scalp; there can’t be many nerve endings up there. I have only the most general sense of things or people touching the top of my head.

The hair on my head is very dark in its natural state: identifiably brown, but pretty much the darkest shade of brown you can have before it starts looking black. (By contrast, other major outcrops of hair are several shades lighter, and the dusting of hair on my arms is blond enough to be invisible.) So even when it was shaved down to the skin, to the point where there was nothing to feel, it was still perfectly visible, which was weird. I have no idea if other people get this, but: my brain appears to expect that bits of skin that look different should also feel different. As a kid, I used to draw bracelets on myself with highlighters and get bizarrely spooked when what was perfectly clear to my eyes wasn’t registered by my nerves. It’s still odd that my tattoo now feels no different to the rest of my back. Hell, I still get occasionally blindsided by freckles. Anyone? No? Okay, it’s just me.

It’s now grown back to the point of tangibility and my head feels like sandpaper. It’s not like having stubble anywhere else – there’s too many ends, too close together, for me to feel them individually and so they meld into this generalised roughness. Very strange.

An additional result of having very short, very stiff, very sharp hair is that in contact with anything with loose loops of thread – which, at that small a scale, is nearly everything – the effect is that of Velcro. Pulling clothes on and off over my head is actually painful, because they glue themselves to my scalp and have to be peeled or wiggled loose. I am exceedingly grateful that I am not sticking to pillows, because that would just be one million kinds of bad.

I don’t look that different to myself. I’ve never been terrifically invested in my hair – it’s more sort of just there, sitting on my head – and it’s never been the focal point of my appearance, so I don’t miss it particularly; and it’s never been long enough to weigh much, so my head is not suddenly lighter to the degree that some ex-long-haired friends have described.

One thing that intrigued me was seeing my hairline all the way across for the first time, without any actual hair hanging down to obscure it. Across my forehead it’s dead straight – seriously, you could have drawn it with a ruler – which I’ve known for a while, but I hadn’t noticed till now just how blocky it is. It goes down to my ears in steps, perfectly right-angled. I have no idea if this is normal, but it’s certainly interesting given how relentlessly non-straight and non-right-angled bodily features tend to be.

So that’s the purely physical observations out of the way.

The amateur sociologist/drag king in me wants to get out there and see how people actually react to a woman with a shaven head. So much significance is put on women’s hair: long, luscious straight hair is this sort of ultimate marker of femininity, and if your hair is insufficiently straight (see also: the chemical horrors often used by black women whose natural hair is deemed unacceptable for the workplace) or insufficiently luscious (see also: the crap gotten by women with PCOS, alopecia or eczema who lose some or all their hair) or insufficiently long, you’re liable to get all sorts of unpleasantness.

L – tall, Geordie, and with that particular way of carrying herself peculiar to people who can own your sorry behind (she’s a boxer; an acquaintance who’s a tae kwon do black belt has it, too) – recounts getting variously read as a skinhead and a Buddhist monk; I, being four inches shorter and lacking her +5 Aura of Do Not Mess, would probably get somewhat less ‘skinhead’ and somewhat more ‘cancer patient’.

One thing L didn’t mention in her hair post, and which I should probably ask her about, is how often people read her shaven head as some sort of shorthand for her sexuality. People tend to jump straight from “short hair” to “lesbian” – sometimes with reason, to be sure, as lesbian (and especially butch) culture does have a long history of rejecting mainstream hair norms as part of a larger reimagining of female gender/s. (There’s an excellent graphic and essay showcasing and some examples of, and discussing the significance of, “the W4W buzz” here.) But a lot of the time, as always, people conflate gender presentation with sexuality, especially when they’re trying to insult you about it.

I don’t actually know, because I haven’t been out with it yet. I’ve been out of the house, but only with my head covered – I have a red-and-black keffiyeh-style scarf-thing that’s been doing a sterling job – and that’s been interesting in itself: people look strangely at a young white woman in a headscarf. While head-covering scarves are obviously highly racialised (well, religified, but that isn’t a word), I think there’s also a gendered element: a white guy of the same age, in the same clothes – jeans, boots, military-style jacket – wearing the same scarf would probably be instantly classified as a punk. Weird how people’s assumptions intersect.

This being December, it’ll likely be a while before I get out in public scarf-less, so when I do I’ll have at least slightly more hair. It’ll be interesting seeing how people react, even if I obviously don’t know what’s governing the reactions of randoms on the street. (Back in first year, Seamus and I started writing a story about a bunch of people with ‘superpowers’ that didn’t become vigilantes, and didn’t get into world-altering conspiracies, and mostly just tried to get on with life. One of the characters I never got round to introducing was the thought-reader who used her powers for sociological research.)

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Paul Skinner permalink
    December 22, 2010 6:59 pm

    Is it acceptable to ask for pics or GTFO in this circumstance?

  2. Paul Skinner permalink
    December 22, 2010 7:01 pm

    Not meaning to bring the tone down quite so drastically of course… just can’t picture it.

  3. December 23, 2010 12:31 am

    There MUST be a sequel

  4. December 23, 2010 4:21 am

    I second the call for pix!

    Sorry to hear that your scalp is a bit numb though! It must be different for everyone – Mine had a similar sensitivity to the inside of an elbow or the back of a knee. Very tingly.

    And to answer your sexuality question – Yes, with a shaved head, people read me as lesbian pretty much consistently. Then again, even with long hair down past my elbows, people assumed I was a lesbian. I think it’s that “+5 Aura of Do Not Mess” that you so succinctly describe!

    A good way to fix the velcroey-ness is to get one of those spongey pan-scrubs (The ones with the green scrubby stuff on one side), or if you’re feeling hardcore a steel one, and (Preferably in the shower, with shampoo but not conditioner) gently scrub the whole of your scalp in tiny round circles. Once you’re out, whilst you’re still a bit damp, moisturise it. Voila! Soft, fluffy scalp.

  5. December 27, 2010 3:27 pm

    “Then again, even with long hair down past my elbows, people assumed I was a lesbian.”

    I have – or had, really – sort of the opposite problem: I have a Tomboy Fetish, and as a result I have found myself trying to flirt with lesbians on more than one occasion. Not to the point of serious embarrassment, fortunately, but still kind of funny.

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