What Shaving My Head Has Taught Me About Gender, Bravery, and Sexism

Shaved Sage Harrington - Happy Gland Band

Shaved Sage Harrington - Happy Gland Band

People keep telling me I’m brave for having shaved my head.

Thank you, really, but—what?

Brave—that’s the same word we use to describe people who run into burning buildings to save baskets of kittens or a perhaps a half-eaten sleeve of Oreos.

Me? I’m just a girl who had her boyfriend take a dog grooming kit to her head, for totally selfish reasons (no charity-drive head-shave motivations here, unfortunately)—I had previously given myself a shitty haircut.

I’ve gotten a variety of reactions—there are the folks who seem to think I might have cancer (“You look like you have cancer!”) or that someone close to me might have cancer. Then there are the (admittedly drunken, filterless) people who are totally, viscerally, loudly perplexed. (“Why did you do that?!?”) And there have been a lot of people who just took a long while to recognize me. There are also people who seem totally unfazed, and even those who have complimented me on the way it looks, without preamble. (“I love your shaved head. You look great.”) I like this type of reaction best, for obvious reasons.

But I’ve also I’ve gotten a lot of: “You’re so brave!”

I want to talk about this because I’ve heard this fairly often, since I first cut my hair cut short as a teenager.

Why? Why is it considered brave for a woman to have short hair? WHY? This is so utterly perplexing to me. Hair is this strange evolutionary phenomenon—many thousands of tiny strands of body parts that are dead, but still attached to you—to which we have apparently assigned a great deal of importance.

It clearly has something to do with gender. Do we call men with shaved heads “brave”? Do we automatically assume men with shaved heads are battling cancer? Do people notice a man’s shaved head the way they’d notice a woman’s? (Related question: how do people notice women’s clothing versus men’s clothing?)

Why does it mean that a woman with short hair might be a lesbian, or a feminist (hey, that’s me!), or ill, or perhaps, if you were photographed on the streets of NYC, exceedingly fashionable?

Why must we acknowledge a short-haired woman in the way that we do? Why must we acknowledge short hair at all? Why can’t it just mean that she (me) had cut her hair, didn’t like the way it looked, and wanted to start over?

Why does it mean I was brave?

Bullshit. I may be brave for some things (riding a bicycle? growing kale? driving at any time on any street, given the rate at which people die doing such things?), but cutting my goddamn hair is not an act of bravery. It is an act of vanity and to call it bravery cheapens the word.

Or does it?

Being brave enough to cut your hair short reveals something telling about the culture we live in. It is, apparently, a world in which a woman with short hair has committed an almost revolutionary act. Gasp!—this one is different than what we’d expected! This one doesn’t follow the template! Might she have some kind of social or political agenda? Maybe she is strange, maybe wonderful, badass, free, empowered. Maybe she is fresh, sexy, full of energy and vitality, totally fucking rad.

Dude—gender. Why are these things so contorted and strange? Why must we humans make things so hard on ourselves?

Oh, and by the way, FUCK SEXISM.


  1. Love this essay! Kudos for all the wonderful questions your “revolutionary act” poses, and for answering only those most key to YOU.

  2. i think brave can have two different meanings… It’s one type of brave to run into a burning building and save kittens, even heroic.

    But some may consider it brave because many women would be afraid I’m a sense to shave there head. So it is an act of courage in a sense.

    It may not be heroic, but it isn’t something all women can do without bravery or courage to do it.

    Like riding a roller coaster, some may find this terrifying and would consider those who do it brave. And similarily with shaving your head.

    And maybe it is a culture thing, but either way to a lot of people brave is an appropriate adjective.

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