It’s an instantly recognisable image: Britney Spears clutching an electric shaver, shearing off her long hair.
The 2007 moment has been revisited in newly released documentary Framing Britney Spears in which the pop star’s hair stylist recalls Spears grabbing the shaver and declaring she was “sick of people touching [her] hair” before giving herself the now-infamous buzz cut.
Spears’ head-shaving moment came at a tumultuous time — involving tensions with her ex-husband, and a stay in a rehab clinic — and is commonly regarded as a sign that the pop star was unravelling.
But it’s unfair to assume a shaved head is a sign of a breakdown. For some women, head-shaving is an empowering moment — or simply a way of reflecting one’s true identity, says Dr Hannah McCann, a lecturer in cultural studies at The University of Melbourne.
Rejecting expectations of femininity
Long, luscious hair is often seen as central to normative ideals of femininity — and against that backdrop, a woman intentionally shaving her head can be read as a way of “rejecting that stereotype and expectation”, explains Dr McCann.
“It’s about not conforming to those expectations of femininity and womanhood; asserting yourself and control over that part of your identity; and feeling like you don’t have hair for someone else to objectify you and find you beautiful.”
For some, that can be empowering — and it’s possible that was the case for Spears, says Dr McCann, whose work covers critical femininity studies, beauty culture and sexuality.
“Obviously Britney felt this weight of expectations being this kind of blonde ‘It Girl’ character that was like the epitome of virginal femininity. And in shaving her head perhaps she was expressing the desire to be free of that expectation,” says Dr McCann.
“Was she feeling empowered? I don’t know.”
Melbourne-based wellbeing specialist Lucy Richards has been playing with the idea of shaving her head for more than a year. For her, it’s a way to experimenting with her identity as a woman.
“It feels like a really good way to reset my identity and to build my confidence that I’m good enough as I am, that people like me regardless of how good I look and if my hair looks cute today,” says Lucy.
“It offers this stripped-back idea of my identity and womanhood that I can then explore within and, as it grows back, rebuild from.”
Sporting a shaved head can also be closely tied to expressions of sexuality or gender identity, adds Dr McCann.
A number of high-profile LGBTQ+ women have sported shaved heads that intentionally challenged heteronormative beauty ideals.
1980s pop icon Grace Jones wrote in her memoirs that she liked how her shaved head made her “look more abstract, less tied to a specific race or sex or tribe”.
More recently, openly pansexual model Cara Delevigne has described shaving her head as a “liberating” act that made a point about “not needing hair to be beautiful”.
Taking back control
Head shaving can also be about asserting control over your image when options are limited.
Last year, Dr McCann surveyed more than 380 Australians about their experiences of beauty practices under lockdown, and found that many had shaved their heads.
“A lot of people in the survey in general felt control was a massive issue. They either felt out of control if they couldn’t visit the salon, or if they did these DIY practices, they felt in control,” she says.
For some, the buzz cut was an appealing way to quickly and cheaply style themselves.
“It’s the easiest DIY haircut right? You just need an electric shaver,” says Dr McCann.
The idea of taking back control also played a part in Brisbane-based ABC journalist Lucy Sweeney’s decision to shave her head.
Lucy has alopecia universalis, a condition where you lose hair from all over your body, and she decided to shave her head after her condition began causing noticeable bald spots.
“I felt empowered taking control over something that had been weighing on my mind for so long,” she previously told ABC Everyday.
“It’s such a badass move, if I do say so myself.”
The reactions and assumptions can be telling
The responses to a woman’s decision to cut her hair tend to vary — with Lucy Richards finding that women tended to be curious about her plan, but men failing to understand why the decision to shave her hair would feel daunting.
“For men, it was like, ‘Stop making it such a big deal,'” she says. “They just didn’t get it.”
Dr McCann — who has short (although not shaved) hair herself —says she’s had some men tell her she’d look prettier if she grew her hair out.
Others still mistake the decision to shave one’s hair as a sign of a woman breaking down -—- a charge that has often been levelled at Spears, despite her explanations to the contrary.
That’s an assumption that needs to change, says Dr McCann.
“I think that’s a really sexist, often homophobic assumption about people with shaved heads,” says Dr McCann.
“It’s a way of controlling people, to say that you are mentally unstable if you shave your head because you’re suddenly deviating from these expectations of how you present yourself.”
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