Long Reads

This is why so many black women are shaving their heads

“Having a shaved head makes me feel empowered in the sense that it’s just my face that people see.”

One of the most policed parts of a black woman is her hair, meaning that the relationship between black womxn* and hair is an intense and inherently political one. Many of us have been - and are still on - a tricky hair journey, marked with societal pressures, stigma around certain hairstyles - some can cost you your job - and often a lack of knowledge around where to begin with taking care of our hair. For some of us, completely shaving off our hair has been part of that journey.

I first shaved my head in the summer of 2016. By this point, I’d had a short cropped style for a number of years. When I was younger, I had damaged my hair a lot through constant relaxing and straightening so cut most of it off, but I was still finding it too much maintenance so shaving it all off felt like the next logical step. I remember seeing a few black womxn with shaved heads, such as my friends Tia Simon-Campbell and Liv Little, and thinking how effortlessly beautiful they looked; it gave me the final push I needed. As soon as I got home, I asked my dad to get his clippers and take it all off.

Paula Akpan

Paula Akpan after having her head shaved for the first time. Image: Paula Akpan

Watching my hair fall to the ground around me was terrifying. It meant that I had nothing to hide behind and made me vulnerable. But as the years have gone by, I’ve discovered that that is probably one of my favourite parts of having a shaved head. I had to find new ways to explore my beauty and femininity that didn’t revolve around hair, such as expressing myself through the things I wear and how I carry myself. Not having hair encouraged me to go for weeks without wearing any make-up. Because I already felt so bare without hair, it encouraged me to embrace other forms of that nakedness and parts of me that I had been reluctant to do so before.

I spoke to seven brilliant black womxn about what why they first shaved their heads, and what empowerment and femininity can look like without hair.

Rene Matich, 21, Artist

I shaved my head as soon as I left home at 18. I always admired black womxn with buzzcuts but it had never occurred to me that I could be one of those womxn. That was the first moment that I realised I actually had agency over my own body.

I never struggle with feeling femme but I struggled with feeling sexy. I still look at myself through the scrutinizing lens of the male gaze and I’m still trying to unpack those confined binary constructs of ‘sexy’, ‘femme’ or ‘womxn’ that then intersect with the way I feel about my blackness and/or my queerness.

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Black womxn have so much to deal with throughout their day, everyday. We have to navigate a world that is actively working against us and frankly, having no hair makes time for other things in your day. It reduces the amount of people objectifying and touching you. You save money from not buying products. You find other, healthier ways to recognise your beauty because you are not defined by your hair.

Remi-Lyn Browne, 25, writer and housing professional  

I first shaved my hair of my own accord in 2010 when a relationship ended. I needed something to make me feel new, different and free - cue India Aire’s ‘I am not my hair’.

I think baldness adds a nuance to femininity that is incredibly stunning. I feel empowered by it. I live in Brixton which is somewhere that feels hypermasculine with men ready to comment on your physicality. Being bald feels like a way of chipping away at some of the assertions that are made by men about womxn. Also, when I take up space in barbershops being my assertive self, there’s a feeling of pushing back against the idea that there’s only one way for a black woman to be.

Our hair is so political so to be able to almost depoliticise yourself whilst saving time in the morning is appealing. Here’s to more heads being shaved in 2019.

The founders of the collective Sistren

Sistren

The founders of Sistren (from left): DJ, Michelle and babirye Michelle. Image: Olivia James

Michelle Tiwo, 28, poet and actor

Shaving my head and exploring my non-binary identity has meant not having to focus my efforts into performing femininity the way I once did. Because for me, it was - and is sometimes - a performance. I feel that shaving my head actually relieved me of that pressure and allowed me to embrace the balance between my masculine and feminine energy which was the initial goal.

My shaved head, much like a superpower, unknowingly helps me clear away the weak and ignorant-minded by their reactions to it. I’ve been able to accept the androgynous shape-shifter I am wholly. Also, I finally understand the power men feel when they leave their barbers’ chair after a haircut. It’s like you’re untouchable, unattainable even.

 DJ Tiwo, 25, model and stylist

I first shaved my head in January 2017, Michelle actually helped me. I can’t lie, I was scared. If I didn’t like it, if I changed my mind, I couldn’t go back. There was no unshaving. But I was done with hair so I felt lighter after it was gone. I looked at my face in the mirror and said, it’s just you and me.

When I was younger, I was obsessed with having long hair. I would put blankets over my head and pretend it was my hair. It used to upset me that it didn’t grow fast enough or fall to my shoulders. Cutting it off took away all the power I had given it. I decided I wasn’t going to allow myself to feel bad that I didn’t fit into the standards of European beauty.

babirye, 27, poet, actor and playwright

Having a shaved head makes me feel empowered in the sense that it’s just my face that people see. It’s just this face that I’ve hidden for so long under big hair. Naked. And that is definitely liberating.

The power of #blackgirlmagic has allowed us to re-imagine and re-define what society has told us we should look like and how we should feel. We’re tired of the box that equates our blackness to hair length. You can’t be what you don’t see, so the more of us that are empowered by shorter hair styles, the more of us will know that if we want to go short, we can. Whilst having short/bald hair is nothing new in the black community, seeing black women with shorter hair styles commercially definitely made me feel more confident to go bald for sure. There’s power in community, there’s power in us.

Tia Simon-Campbell, 26, DJ and co-founder of BBZ London 

Tia Simon-Campbell

Tia Simon-Campbell first shaved her hair off when she was 18. Image: Franklyn Rodgers

I first shaved my head when I was 18. A friend and my boyfriend at the time kept goading me to do it and one day, I told my boyfriend to shave my head for me. After refusing at first, he did it and then we broke up. I was very scared when the hair first came off but the day after, I was just walking around London and felt so liberated, especially when I saw so many older black women looking at me and giving me the nod. Plus, I ultimately broke free of an awful ex.”

On my mum’s side, hair has always been quite a big deal, however, on my dad’s side, my Ugandan grandmother has a shaved head and that’s a standard thing so I’ve been quite lucky growing up in spaces where that hasn’t been a marker of my femininity.

I think when I was younger, I struggled a little bit more with feeling feminine and that was also a result of being in spaces that didn’t value my identity, and also me underestimating the power of my identity. I was forcing myself into a lot of straight white spaces so when I did finally shave my head, there was confusion and awe but people didn’t really understand it. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve found my tribe and people I identify. I’ve embraced my femininity, or lack of, as well as my masculinity.

Laura Kirwan-Ashman, 30, filmmaker and screenwriter 

I first properly shaved my head about two years ago. Looking back, it definitely had to do with my increasing exploration of my identity, particularly my blackness and queerness, as well as the fact that I was increasingly presenting as more masculine of centre.

I’ve learned that my personal femininity is an internal thing and I feel most my version of female when I look more traditionally masculine which just goes to show that rigid heteronormative ideas of binary gender are nonsensical. This isn’t to say that a shaved head is inherently masculine at all, it just personally lined up with the direction my individual identity was heading in.

I think this is a way for black womxn to experiment with their evolving identities. Hair is so tied up with how the world sees black womxn so I think shaving your head is a way of exploring how you mind feel actively stepping outside those preconceptions.The more we see examples of how beautiful it looks, the more it feels okay to try it for yourself.

*womxn is used as an alternative to women in an attempt to get away from patriarchal language, and is often used as a term that is inclusive to trans women and some non-binary people.

Images: Unsplash, Paula Akpan, Olivia James, Franklyn Rodgers

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