For Women, a Shaved Head Isn’t About Getting Attention; It’s About Being Seen
In April 2018, Varuni Narang wanted attention.
“I wanted to see how people would react,” said the 26-year-old, of her decision to shave her head.
Her father stopped speaking to her for several days. In the months since, Narang, who lives in Delhi, has been stopped from riding the ladies’ carriage of the metro. She routinely gets double-takes and is often asked if she is sick, or if she shaved her head for religious purposes. Sometimes, she explains the reasons for her “social experiment,” as she calls it; other times, she chooses not to.
“Baldness is something monopolized by men. It’s not always [a] choice for them, but … [men have] taken over this identity and appearance,” she says. “I wanted to understand if that is something that can be changed. If that’s something I can be a part of.”
It wasn’t an easy decision. She was scared to do it, she says. She thought she would look like “a cartoon.” It went against everything she had ever known.
“It brought me such immense joy, to find myself beautiful without the thing that defines beautiful,” she says. “I was an ugly teenager. I used to do crazy things to my hair to take focus off my face.” In the Delhi school she attended, “women start grooming at 14 …. I was a late bloomer. But I did start realizing, ‘Okay, I have to be beautiful. Having an interesting hairstyle is what beauty means. Not having hair on my legs is what beauty means.’ That’s when I realized I wasn’t as beautiful as the women around me.”
Women’s hair has long been prescribed. Schools only allow a limited number of restraining styles. Religions dictate it be covered. Work environments silently judge its professionalism. It’s all part of a code of polite conduct that encourages women to efface themselves in the name of what’s proper. Women who adhere to it are rewarded with ‘positive’ (male, sexual) attention; women who contravene it are met with negative flak and insults aimed at putting them back in their place. “The most important thing I have to say is: Hair matters,” Hillary Clinton told Yale University’s Class of 2001. “Pay attention to your hair. Because everyone else will.”
But attention isn’t the same as being seen.
“There was just this moment of silence.”Anky Guchait
Anky Guchait knows all about attention — but it wasn’t until she had to sport a partially shaved head in Class X that she felt seen for the first time. Guchait had severe epilepsy as a child and spent the first 13 years of her life bouncing from doctor to doctor, being misdiagnosed. Even when they saw her seizures, people wouldn’t accept it as a medical condition, she says. Classmates would whisper about her, she remembers, and teachers wouldn’t believe she’d been ill. “Throughout my entire schooling life, I struggled a lot getting visibility accommodation,” that is, recognition of her disability in the form of assistance — getting a writer to assist her in exams, for instance, or extra time to complete them. “The school would always be like ‘No, it’s not a disability; she’s lying.’”
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By Class X, she finally had a correct diagnosis and brain surgery scheduled to treat it — she also had her Class X exams looming. After the surgery, for which doctors shaved roughly one-third of her head, Guchait tried to keep a low profile. Her hair growth slowed around the surgical site, leaving a large patch of her scalp bald; she would style her hair so it covered the hairless area. “You try to be as normal as possible, which is bad to say when you’re going through an ill condition. But I was very young.”
Then, Guchait remembers approaching the school principal with her mother to ask to delay her exams so she could better balance her recovery and studying. The principal not only refused the extension but also refused to believe she’d had surgery — until Guchait flipped her hair to reveal the shaved surgical site. “I legit showed that to her, and there was just this moment of silence.”
For the first time, Guchait says, and because of her partially shaved head, her disability was seen, acknowledged.
Guchait is 24 now. She has moved to London, where she studies medicine. This is the first time she has discussed her experiences with epilepsy; now, she wants to speak up, to educate — to help others be seen.
“Using the body as a political tool continues to place women’s bodies at the center of women’s identities,” writes Rose Weitz, who has studied how women use their hair to negotiate power.
It’s a contradiction that Weitz suggests may be a double-edged sword. But women’s hairless heads have always been thus — a manifestation of a lack of control and control; at once both female and male; pious and rebellious, isolating and freeing; ugly and beautiful. More than anything else, a woman’s bald head is an unmissable hint that women contain infinite variety and potential, that the inner individual is the outer world, or can be, if only we’d tap into her, ascribe her value. For the women interviewed, the fundamental irreconcilability of hairlessness, whether by design or circumstance, has allowed them to spotlight themselves as individuals, as well as participate in shaping larger social conversations.
“Their eyes sparkle when they see me. They genuinely want to find that inspiration within themselves.”Varuni Narang
“I’ve had very deep conversations with random women in airports, on planes, in coffee shops. … Their eyes sparkle when they see me. They genuinely want to find that inspiration within themselves,” says Narang. “I’m defying things they aren’t able to defy. I’m a representation of the battles they’re too scared to fight.
“In the society I come from, women are constantly suppressed. … Young girls sitting in a family setting and [who] start laughing loudly [are] asked not to. You can’t be free in any realm of life. You don’t have the space to be yourself and express yourself. … The kind of patriarchy I’m talking about crosses class and caste. It’s everywhere. You could be a self-dependent woman, but when you go home, you have to make sure your father gets his meals served hot.”
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For this reason, every few months, Narang uses a trimmer to take her hair down to one to two millimeters of stubble; at times, she has used a razor to scrape away the hair entirely. She went into her hairlessness thinking it would be a temporary state – a few months at most; now, it’s a permanent rebellion.
For her, the social experiment was a success. Within a week of taking off all her hair, her father not only resumed talking to her, but also went and shaved his head, too – in solidarity. “I’m getting one step close to my father,” she says, “and I’m making him move one step toward feminism and progressiveness.”
“I just felt so much more confident. I felt like I was in control of my life,” says Natasha Noel.
Noel, 26, who lives in Mumbai, seems to be the last person who has trouble being seen. An Instagram influencer with a following of more than a quarter-million, Noel posts daily images or videos of herself in yoga poses and workout gear, or doing goofy dances with a charmingly toothy smile spread across her face, above messages of personal growth and self-love.
“For the longest time, I allowed and believe[d] that my hair was my worth.”Natasha Noel
Since shaving her head, people have called her ugly, Noel says. People have also reached out to tell her they want to shave off all their hair, too. She has no time for the former, and to the latter, she says, “don’t do it because someone else did it; do it because YOU want to do it. … Never [do it] to prove something, but for yourself — because you want to grow as a human.”
Before shaving her head in May 2019, she says, she would make sure her hair looked long and thick – basically, like “any shampoo or coconut oil commercial — that’s the ideal standard of beauty.” And it would be swept artfully across half her face before she clicked any photo.
That was exactly why it all had to go, she says. “I always thought I needed to have that kind of hair. I always thought that my hair would define my beauty,” she says. “For the longest time, I allowed and believe[d] that my hair was my worth. It isn’t. It never was.”
If men have monopolized baldness, they have also monopolized self-worth. The recent challenge to male self-worth, the much-discussed fragility of masculinity, stems from a sudden repositioning, after centuries of impunity, of the bar for value and goodness. It’s a small taste of what women have experienced for ages, for femininity was created to be fragile from the start. Femininity has always been a constant, incremental shifting of value to just beyond reach; just one more product, one more trend, one more child, one more chore, one more inch of hair, one more appreciative glance, and a woman can be validated – be seen. But she seldom is.
Unless she shaves her hair off. Because while hair might draw attention, hairlessness is a reminder to everyone — as Noel sings in the video post wherein she debuts her shaved head — “that you are more than your body.”