Tonight we host our 12th Paris Lectures event and I will debut my brand new baldy head. I feel the need to make a public service announcement about it. Although I owe no one an explanation, I want to say: Have no fear, this is normal!
For some reason or another I have fantasized about buzzing my head since I was in middle school. I have always found my thick hair difficult to manage and so have worn it in a ponytail or bun for most of my life. But if I had to pinpoint the moment I began seriously considering doing it, it was just a few weeks ago when I scalded half my face.
A friend and I were canning salsa, making the most of her garden’s glut of tomatoes and peppers. A heavy jar slipped out of the tongs during its final seal and splashed boiling water over half my face. Luckily (and I mean luckily) after running my skin under cool water for twenty minutes there was no permanent damage to my face or eyes. The next few days revealed a small scab under one eye that looked mostly like some kind of weird new mom rash that healed up in about a week.
But in the heat of the moment, and during the hours that followed at the Willett, I wasn’t sure what my face’s future held. As I waited for the doctor with a cool washcloth pressed against my stinging skin and then with my forehead pressed against the eye examine machine so that she could have a closer look at my retina, I contemplated scars and vision loss. I realized acutely how much my self-perception is tied to how others literally recognize me. I realized how much energy I put into thinking about skin and teeth and hair, when really it’s all the same combination of ingredients that make you look like you until you throw scar tissue into the mix. At the same time I was terrified knowing how important it is for the livelihood of myself and my family that I am able to see well, since I make a living using my eyes and hands to make things.
As my face healed, I started thinking more about living in the moment, doing brave things, things I’ve always wanted to do, because you never know when the opportunity will pass you by.
At the same time, I am still reeling from the effects of a new baby and getting used to new domestic routines taking care of two at once. Finding time for myself, I mean five minutes of alone time, is increasingly difficult. The struggle to shower every day is real.
My current life – which for the past ten years has mostly been working full-time in various technology and design roles – is also becoming more absorbed in traditionally female tasks: childcare, cooking, laundry, feeding, nurturing, singing my kids to sleep (Lord knows I never thought my singing voice would comfort anyone, but it does my daughters). These acts reinforce subtle expectations I have in my own head about women, and I feel a subconscious pull not to do those things even though they are exactly what I need to be doing for my family right now.
So in a strange way of balancing all these experiences, buzzing my head became more and more appealing. No upkeep! No bun getting caught on the car as I climb into my seat! No hair for baby B to pull on! And, something new for myself, a bold move, something I’ve always wanted to do. Why the Hell not.
I broached the idea with a number of people before doing it. Reactions ranged from looks of shock and horror to enthusiastic support. Because my reasons are so intertwined, I’m not sure I ever lucidly explained myself, but even so something else became apparent as I divulged my plans that made me want to do it even more. And that is this idea that a woman’s physical characteristics are so tied to her identity and place in society that it holds real power over her and those around her.
I began researching other women with shaved heads, reading about their experiences, discovering female shaved head icons (Charlize Theron, Natalie Portman, Anne Hathaway, Robin Tunney, Sigourney Weaver, Cate Blanchett, Demi Moore and Sinead O’Connor), learning history about the female shaved head. And I was both intrigued and appalled at what I discovered.
There were French and Italian women forcibly shaved for sleeping with Germans (whether they willingly participated in their “crime”or not). Women in the East and Middle East shaved as a punishment for disobeying their husbands. Women at boarding schools held down and shaved by nuns. There was this idea that a woman without her hair was a horrible thing to behold, a real life Hester Prynn. And then modern forum threads revealed every-day women who shaved their heads once and never would again because it was the worst period of their lives. Then there were those who won’t look back, who regret not doing it sooner because of its immense liberation. Women who were ill who shaved their heads as a way to feel empowered. Women who were perceived to be ill because they shaved their heads. Women in tech who shaved their heads and felt themselves to be taken more seriously by their male peers. What a fascinating range of contexts and consequences to experiment with.
So, my birthday this coming Friday, September 30th, seemed to present an opportunity to me. I’m not a stranger to doing adventurous things around the time of my birthday. When I turned 25, I ran a half-marathon on a treadmill in a pub in England to raise money for Doctors Without Borders. At 29, I forced Mark on a goose chase around Toronto in which we “chased” the number 29, following taxi cabs across town, entering a Hindu temple, winding up at the University of Toronto planetarium then a midnight burlesque life drawing session which was part of Nuit Blanche. At 30, I’d had a baby just ten days prior, and that was enough (though I’d intimidated Mark enough in previous years for him to fill a box with 30 joyful presents for 30 joyful days).
With encouragement from Mark ranging from a little to a lot over the course of a few hours, and with the steady hand of our amazing friend Kim, I finally took the plunge, not knowing of course what experiences and reactions my particular shaved head might raise in people. Moo has been a little intrigued and mostly concerned we will cut her hair (we’ve reassured her we won’t unless she wants us to, however it’s a proud mom moment that I am able to creatively challenge her princess-centred world). Baby B has been utterly unconcerned.
I think it’s a valuable experience to have in my back pocket as we raise two daughters, especially this day and age on the eve of the first female U.S. president, persistently unequal pay, and all sorts of other gender biases that have yet to right themselves.
If anything, I hope it does make a person or two question their sense of femininity. The bottom line is that if a man shaves his head, there are no questions asked, no rationale expected. It should be the same for a woman. So while I am extremely glad my showers will take less time, I do hope that on a more profound level, this simple, silly risk inspires others to consider how freeing it is not to be boxed into anyone else’s expectations.