“Oh, and I thought there was a nice young man sitting there!” exclaims a female colleague as she approaches the coffee corner. “Nope, sadly there’s a nice young lady sitting here,” I answer with a smile and a dry tone of voice.
I hadn’t felt for a while the need to start reacting to someone’s tone deaf comments. It’s embarrassing, but despite how often these situations happen, they still feel like a slap in the face. Fair enough, it takes time to get used to the sight – I rarely see other women with a buzz cut in this rural Estonian town.
Of course, my answer prompted a retreat to a safer topic with the comment, “But it suits you!”. I was ‘forgiven’ my boyish hair, because I was deemed, despite everything, still pretty. Oh, what an effing relief! We could end this topic there, but that was just one of the many times my choices were somehow greeted with backhanded compliments.
I cut my hair five years ago during a January exam season because I felt I needed a change. These things usually end with hair dying, but I started to wonder. What would change? How would I feel in this society, fulfilling the social role of a woman while bald?
In hindsight, it feels like I pulled back a thick curtain and finally saw the dust floating through the air.
The next few months offered plenty of insight into what constitutes a ‘woman’ in Estonian society. You could say my day to day life became more varied. At first, dancing at student parties was a challenge – I had to adapt because all the dance moves I had learned before became pointless. How does one dance when they don’t have hair they can sexily whip about? All my life I had been using moves taught to me by my environment and peers (see also ‘ritual dancing’), which focused heavily on the display of hair (see also “I’m fertile, yo”).
By and large, long hair is a mark of pride and is considered in Estonia a pretty definitive element of a ‘hot’ hetero woman – for reference, one only needs to glance at the photos and ads of our famed song festival or the packaging of the soft cheese and the statuettes of golden haired maidens that are sold to tourists. Long hair on a woman and short on men is the accepted norm in Estonia and Western society as a whole. The norm keeps the populace together, but those that stray from the norm are mentally denied the status of being accepted. One can feel rejected and, in worst cases, discriminated against.
During the years I have met a number of different opinions, and both my choice and the decision of shaving my hair (and keeping it that way) have been met with scepticism on many occasions. It’s interesting to watch how people cannot get over why a “proper young lady” would shave all of her hair. I’ve spent years answering, “No, I’m not a lesbian / suffering an illness / Buddhist / [insert other stereotypes]”. The trial has been to remain civil after answering the same questions for years.
Seeing a bald woman brings forth an automatic unfiltered reaction in most people and they blurt out the first thing that comes to their mind. Thus my friends and relatives wishing that I would grow my hair out (“at least so it’d cover the ears”); the offhanded comments regarding my non-feminine looks by friends and strangers alike, and (the worst of it) people coming to touch my head without my permission – all of it became a weird refrain of my everyday life.
We learned from history that at times of war prisoners’ hair would be cut as a mark of humiliation. And it’s humiliating when it’s not your choice and the action has been forced on you. But shaving my head was my decision through and through. These past years I have felt to a greater or lesser degree being pressured to conform, but my fear of feeling as something less by being bald has proven to be unjustified.
Quite the opposite, cutting my hair has changed my life and has enabled me to re-enact the power play on a micro level — to see how the power to decide and the ability to make a decision is taken from one and given to another. I took on the role of the decision maker and this, in turn, has enabled me to take charge and keep the power to decide in other aspects of my life. Enriched by this experience, it has become a great deal easier to look at society, at both the micro and macro level, with a more critical gaze and to speak up when injustice or pressure is present.2