Unbothered UK is a community celebrating everything it means to be a black British woman today. As our sisters in America mark Black History Month this February, we'll be sharingtheir stories from Roots, a series that delves into the tangled history of black identity, beauty and contributions to the culture.
In August 2018, I shaved off all my hair. If you asked me back then why I did it, I would have said I was “just over my locs” and wanted a fresh start — which was true. But I was also in need of a spiritual reset after a draining relationship with a toxic ex-partner. I wanted to reclaim my power. That’s another story for another day, but stay with me.
I’m not gonna lie: I panicked when I first saw nothing but scalp in the mirror. I thought: what the hell did I just actually do? But upon walking out of the barber shop and being met with a “You are gorgeous!” from a young Black gentleman passing by moments later, I knew the fear and insecurity I felt — though warranted as a result of decades of societal pressure about what femininity should look like — was trivial. In fact, as the days went on, I found that I actually felt the most beautiful I had ever felt. I had, in essence, reclaimed myself.
These days, the idea of existing as a bald, black woman carries an air of stately rebellion. Like me, many black women have taken the plunge as an act of radical self-acceptance, with Danai Gurira, Lupita Nyong’o, and — of course — Grace Jones modelling the blueprint for bald bodaciousness. “Without fully understanding it at the time, I savoured the response to what I did to myself, by breaking certain laws about how I was meant to behave and look – as a model, a girl, a daughter, an American, a West Indian, a human being,” Jones shares in her book, I’ll Never Write My Memoirs. "My shaved head made me look more abstract, less tied to a specific race or sex or tribe. I was Black, but not Black; woman, but not woman; American, but Jamaican; African, but science fiction."
Others, like congresswoman Ayanna Pressley — who recently shared that she has alopecia — have embraced baldness as an act of surrender. “It’s about self-agency. It’s about power. It’s about acceptance,” she said of making peace with her condition. Though she’s embraced wigs, she expressed that, post-diagnosis, she’d never “felt more naked” than the first time she looked back at her reflection while wearing one. “I want to be freed from the secret [of having alopecia] and the shame that that secret carries with it," she said.
The shame of being bald is one that has haunted black women for years. I got teased for being a “ball-headed (baldheaded) lil’ girl” when I was in grade school, mostly by the older black girls in my neighbourhood. While I disliked being picked on, I realise, in retrospect, how these girls’ actions were a projection of the harmful ideologies inherited by those around them — similar to Dr. Phil guest and recording artist Bhad Bhabie’s disparaging comments made toward “baldheaded h**s” in December 2019. Black women have grown up believing in the cultural commandment “thou shalt not cut off all that pretty hair.” And thanks to a long history of policing of both black women’s hair and black natural hair in general, many black women have been programmed to abide by said scripture.
Nell Painter, historian and Edwards Professor of American History at Princeton University, tells R29Unbothered that hair is undeniably correlated to women's appearance and place in society, which, as she notes, can be seen in the ways that many religious communities attempt to control women's hair. “The prevalence of white supremacy decreed that women should approach the appearance of northern European whiteness or risk social exile,” she says.
“Most often, that meant straightening naturally nappy hair to make it approach northern European appearance,” she explains. “Even now, so-called 'natural hair styles' need the application of product to make nappy hair lie down, because unstyled, natural hair either stays tightly coiled close to the scalp or stands straight up.”
Raisa Flowers, a makeup artist and model who opened Rihanna’s Savage x Fenty show last year, says she recalls being “obsessed with having butt-length hair” when she was younger.
“But I could not grow it past my shoulders because I was relaxing it and putting so much product in it. Some black women obsess over their hair because they think having long hair has something to do with being feminine.”
It’s estimated that black consumers spend $473 million on hair care each year. Whether looking for the best shampoos and conditioners to maintain a natural hair care regimen, or keeping up with wigs and weaves, hair is of utmost importance to the black female community.
New York City model Lorelei Black, who can be seen rocking many beautiful bald looks on Instagram, recalls how she actually came into her baldness by accident.
“My mom would always tell me that my thick, kinky curls were my crowning glory,” Black shares with R29Unbothered. “I think that is a large part of why black women obsess over the length of our hair. Our hair has very deep cultural roots, it is part of how we are judged in the world, and a lot of us have been told that our beauty is in our hair.”
“The first time that I cut my hair, I was a junior in college. At that point, I’d wanted to cut my natural hair short. That’s honestly all I wanted, was for it to be a bit shorter!” she continues. “I was home for winter break and my uncle offered to cut my hair. He used clippers and I thought he was just going to take a bit off. However, he cut my hair with no guards! He made the first cut and I initially panicked because it was way shorter than I wanted. It was a bald patch in my hair! And I’d had no intention to rock a bald head.”
That moment would become an empowering one for her when, upon looking at herself in the mirror with a patch of missing hair, she felt “intrigued” by the reflection looking back at her. “There was also nothing I could do about other than to just say, EFF IT, keep going.”
She notes feeling both shocked and unburdened. While she hadn’t originally intended to go short, she gradually fell in love. “It was like I could really see my face/features for the first time without the distraction of hair. It was also a relief to not have to spend time worrying about it after a childhood of broken combs and detangling sessions that ended in tears.”
Despite the present-day stigma attached to women with cropped crowns, historical texts show instances of women shaving their heads dating back to ancient Egypt as a way to stay cool and clean. According to the Encyclopedia of Women in the Ancient World, items such as tweezers, knives, razors, and whetstones — which are stones used for sharpening cutting tools — have reportedly been found in women’s tombs.
A woman shaving her hair carries religious and cultural significance in some African cultures. In Kenya, for example, women who are a part of the Maasai (also Masai) people — an East African tribe occupying southern Kenya and northern Tanzania — are known to shave their heads bald or wear very low cuts. In this culture, it is the men who work to maintain hair length as a representation of power, protection, and masculine elegance —a role reversal of sorts, in which women aren’t bound to an expectation to perform beauty under a patriarchal gaze. Though a form of regulation, it is important to also note that in other African cultures it is believed that by cutting their hair, school girls will be less distracted in class. And Sudanese supermodel Alek Wek, who became the first African model to grace the cover of Elle magazine in 1997, has inspired many African women to embrace themselves through her fearless ownership of her baldness and African features at a time when black models were more commercially accepted if their skin was light and their hair was straight, as The Guardian notes.
"A celebrated model, she was dark as night, she was on all of the runways and in every magazine and everyone was talking about how beautiful she was,” Nyong’o mused about Wek after winning her Oscar for best supporting actress for her role in 12 Years a Slave. “My complexion had always been an obstacle to overcome… when I saw Alek, I inadvertently saw a reflection of myself. Now, I had a spring in my step because I felt more seen, more appreciated."
In today’s society, it seems that having short hair as a black woman is more widely accepted. For many black women, cutting their hair is directly tied to embracing their natural roots. For some, this is a radical decision, somewhat echoing the Black Power era of the 1960s and 1970s.
“It's no accident that natural hair became fashionable during the 1960s and 1970s era of Black Power and its black-is-beautiful aesthetic, when unstraightened or lightly straightened hair expressed black pride,” says Painter.
Orixa Jones, artist and founder of Bad Girl, Good Human — a lifestyle brand that encourages women to embrace their duality — recalls feeling liberated when she first cut her hair. “I am fearless when it comes to my appearance,” she shares. “I was more excited than anything to be honest.”
Jones, who cites Rihanna’s hair from her Rated R era as her inspiration to go low, also points to how the digital world has carved out space for the unconventional beauty, making room for the representation of bald black women from all over the world. Instagram communities like @baldgirlsdoitbetter, which had 54.1K following at the time of this writing, provide a platform for bald black women to be appreciated and support one another.
“Of course, there are still many improvements to be made,” she notes, “but there is forward motion.”