When Britney Spears had her “famous meltdown” in 2007, and proceeded to shave her whole head, the media was horrified. Almost 15 years later, when Doja Cat also decided to shave her head, and apparently rid herself of the signifier of her “femininity”, the media was equally distressed. Although the reasons behind why each of these musicians cut their hair differ, one thing remains the same: when breaking social norms regarding hairdo, there will often be a backlash.
It goes without saying (but I will nonetheless say it), that hair is gendered. Although hairstyle trends change from season to season, the association between ‘femininity’ and long hair (on your head only) is an ancient one. Long hair basically means “this is a woman”. It has become a sign of beauty, sophistication, and attractiveness, thereby imposing strict ideals on women and sanctioning the ones who don’t walk the line. We saw this play out last year, when Iranian women, and women across the globe, decided to film themselves cutting their hair in support of the women rights’ protests, simultaneously defying beauty standards and a repressive patriarchal regime.
What length, style, and colour your hair can be is highly politicised and has been weaponised to exclude certain groups from the workforce and leadership positions, especially women of colour. What hair is deemed appropriate and professional in a workplace environment stems from Eurocentric, gendered, and racist ideals on beauty. The system of white supremacy deem straight hair as more desirable, “clean, and professional”, whilst afros and dreadlocks are associated with “wild, radical, ghetto, gross”. Back in the 60s during the desegregation period in the United States, Black women had to meet specific hair requirements to access employment. Requirements that their natural hair could almost never comply with, forcing them to straighten it or wear wigs in order to be taken seriously by their coworkers and managers. Remnants of this othering of kinky and curly hair still remain to this day. Even when it comes to hair, there seems to be a hierarchy.
Historically, hair has held significant roles in traditional African and South American societies, including being a part of the language. For example, in Colombia, enslaved women would make ‘maps’ and deliver messages through their cornrows – a particular number of braids could indicate possible escape routes or even be used to signal a meet up time. During the 1960s and 1970s in the United States, the Afro hairstyle became symbolic of political change. This hairstyle was celebrated as a symbol of power and resistance.
Considering the discrimination faced by people of colour when sporting their natural hair, it is interesting to note that those same hairstyles sometimes receive praise when worn by white women. The famous “Kardashian braids” that were worn for years by teenage girls around the world are actually cornrows, a hairstyle worn by women of colour for thousands of years. The cultural appropriation of black women’s hairstyles benefits white women, without creating any real change for women of colour. It is also important to mention that buzzcuts and “androgynous hairdos” are usually only accepted if worn by thin, white, and fashionable bodies. Talk about a double standard!
In 2007, Glamour magazine editor gave a presentation entitled “the do’s and don’t of Corporate Fashion”. The first “don’t” depicted a Black woman with an Afro. As for dreadlocks, she commented that it was “shocking” that “some people” still think it is “appropriate” to wear those hairstyles to the office. These statements are clear indications of the structural racism and barriers that women of colour face. More and more people of colour are embracing natural hairstyles, but many still feel pressured to conform to Eurocentric hairstyles and still experience negative consequences stemming from the choices they make regarding hair.
This definition of femininity, and womanhood, is also an ableist one. People with alopecia, or those undergoing various treatments who lose most of their hair, are often confronted with the stigma that comes attached to having short hair or no hair at all. Many feel less feminine, or are treated as less desirable, or even have their sexuality questioned, due to their lack of hair.
For queer people, haircuts can be a way to transgress and subvert existing norms regarding gender and sexuality, or what is considered ‘masculine’or ‘feminine’ by society. Queer hairstyles are also about identity and belonging, and cutting one’s hair, in whatever shape or form, or dying one’s hair can be a liberating and empowering experience – like a big middle finger to the patriarchy and expectations of what a queer person should look like as well as a way to just embrace a gender expression that feels like authentically ‘you’ outside of the binary feminine/masculine.
Hairstyles are a form of political expression and have no gender. From the flappers in the 1920s, to the 1960s Afros, to the anti-establishment 1980s punks, hair has the power to shock and to disentangle (pun intended) existing social structures. People should have the choice to maintain, remove, dye, cut, change, shave, basically do whatever they want with their hair. This should not influence the way they are treated or allowed to exist in a social space.
And if you’re ever scared to shave your head because you think you’ll be less “feminine,” just know that if Vivian Westwood can do it, you can too.