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why shaved hair is such an important part of the lesbian identity

From full skinhead to floppy emo undercut -- whether you're a butch or a femme, everyone should try shaving their head once!

by Sophie Wilkinson
17 August 2018, 7:00am

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In The Descent of Woman, the 1972 feminist anthropological book by Elaine Morgan, her aquatic ape theory goes that, in pre-historical times, women’s hair grew lustrous and long so that our children, in the water, could have something to hold on to. And today, in 2018, my theory is that lesbians cut their hair short because it looks really sexy.

Last week, actress, writer and producer Lena Waithe shaved off her dreadlocks, telling Variety that the cut was something she’d long dreaded: “I felt like I was holding onto a piece of femininity that would make the world feel comfortable with who I am.”

However, now she’s done it, she feels: “So free and so happy and so joyful”. And if the presumptive worst happens, “If people call me a butch or say ‘she’s stud’ or call me 'sir' out in the world -- so what? So be it. I’m here with a suit on, not a stitch of makeup, and a haircut -- I feel like, ‘Why can’t I exist in the world in that way?'”

It’s true: an ideal world, the prevailing logic would have it that just because women have an unrivaled capacity to grow lovely long hair, doesn’t mean they should have to. But the ideal world doesn’t exist yet, and logic is the enemy of bigots, so Waithe lives proudly, yet still in anticipation of those who think short hair is so unsuited to a woman that short haired women aren’t women.

Because sexuality that doesn’t centre around men means nothing to present-day capitalism, women are still, even in 2018, implored by market forces to attract men with their bodies. To do this, they daren’t compete with men, rather do what the men can’t do: tits, boobs, waist and hair. Only in the right places, mind: eyelashes, and head.

A woman with long hair is such a default, that to get a crew cut, a side-panel, a buzz-cut, a strip of hair shaved off on the underside of your head, where no-one but your lover will find it, is considered a departure from femininity. Either you’re going through a crisis -- to this day, Britney’s rock bottom is widely considered to be the exact moment she shaved her hair off -- you’re obscenely trendy (in that, it’s a phase you’ll literally grow out of) or you’re a lesbian.

The thing is, what’s still so hard for too many to grasp, is there’s nothing wrong with looking like a lesbian, passing as a lesbian or paying tribute to your lesbian forebears with your haircut. Plus, the rules are so wobbly, so encouragingly accepting, that lesbian hair is basically whatever women want it to be, whatever they think looks sexy to other women, and, perhaps, whatever makes men feel excluded. Sorry, guys, you get lesbian porn, we get lesbian life.

I asked a bunch of lesbian friends -- because asking friends for favors is our culture -- the haircuts they consider most sum up their lesbianism. One described a 2008 haircut as “Shaved/ short on one side, sweeping fringe, half undercut at the back with a side rat’s tail”, so basically a neater version of what Zayn Malik had when he was in Japan. Another cited a blue, purple and blonde mullet, basically Andre Agassi’s finest ‘do on E-numbers. Another, more femme lesbian, admits that the closest she’s got to lesbian hair is “an undercut on a grade 1”. See, the definitions are as bent as we are, and everyone is prized. While butches with their short hair heroically bound outside the restrictive frame of the male gaze, femmes with their long hair battle the notion that to tow one line is to tow them all. When lesbians are, by virtue of being women, universally filtered through the male gaze, neither attention or repulsion is preferable. Though hair can be used as an important signifier of sexuality, social media has enabled easier ways to make ourselves known, and what we share, what defines us, is so much more than follicle-deep.

When I was seven, I didn’t want long hair anymore. I wanted to play kiss-chase at my single-sex school without feeling a ponytail bob on my head. I wanted to pretend I was a little boy called Billy, because boys seemed to have it easier. I had no idea what a lesbian was, but I knew exactly what was expected of girls each and every time a hairdresser refused to cut my ginger ringlets off. Finally, after being sent away close to half a dozen times by people who were happy to sell other desperate young women “The Rachel” alongside the mis-sold promise it would make them as charming as Jennifer Aniston, someone agreed to shave my head. I’d clamber onto her little dentist chair and look at the wall adorned with old records as the tickling whir of the clippers turned to tingles throughout my body. Funnily enough, she ended up leaving her husband for another woman. Sadder, though, is that I grew my hair out -- I was mistaken for a boy during arbitrarily sex-segregated games at kids’ parties and got shouted at for going into girls’ toilets. My bid to leap out of one box, to feel more comfortable with myself, only tipped me into another, far scarier box. It was only in my late teens, when a hairdresser went a little too far and left me with the sort of mullet only ever previously seen on Danny from McFly, that my hair went short again. Again, I’d pass for a boy, dressing up in suits, fending off the paws of men who’d made a habit of going to the same clubs as underage girls. I’d later get into gay bars with a fake ID and no friends, but still feel instantly part of the scene.

Isn’t it lovely, now, that all that acceptance is so quickly accessible these days? Instead of having to go into a hairdresser with a photo of Shane from The L Word, crumpled up with embarrassment, girls and women nowadays can simply mention Christine and the Queens, who’s got a great butch new ‘do. Or Cara Delevingne, or Kristen Stewart, or even Katy Perry, if they so choose? Seeing these short do’s, and not the sorts that Toni + Guy has been bestowing on straight women ever since Frankie from the Saturdays got a pixie bob and lesbians everywhere had to re-set their gaydars, is refreshing. See, there are a million ways to do womanhood, that aren’t all about looking the way men want us to!

My return to London from university at a strait-laced provincial market town coincided with a return to that same crew-cut I’d had age seven. It lasted for two years, yet after being called a “young lad” by too many drunk straight guys and leered at by too many drunk gay guys, I endured the hell of grow-back. Once that difficult stage was over, and the hair got past my ears, work became easier, as colleagues considered me softer, and were hard enough to tell me so. Life became easier, because even in the lesbian community, there’s an expectation for butcher lesbians to pursue other women. And clothes became easier -- when you’ve got long hair, you can dress in cargo pants and dad trainers without being glared at so often. Gloating, too, a cinch: while all the boyfriends of my exes and missed chances sport hair that’s thinning faster than the odds of them marrying, I see a power in me boasting thick, long, pre-Raphaelite hair. I still have, though, that little undercut underneath, a four-finger-width band of bald on the nape. Nestled in there is hope, that one day, like Lena, I can once again be brave enough to go as short as her, as bold as her, as beautiful as her. To ask that the world mould to fit me, not the other way around.

This article originally appeared on i-D UK.

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