There’s a meme populating the internet and Instagram feeds right now, hailing the future being female and not having “time for styling products.” The creator chose four bald womenthree fictional characters from Black Panther, Mad Max, and Stranger Things and placed them alongside bisexual teen activist Emma González, whose name and face has entered the zeitgeist in the last week after her high school was subject to a violent shooting.
While in theory the meme is celebrating baldness as a sign of strength and action, it is actively participating in the misconception that women who have hair and might even (gasp!) style that hair are somehow less strong and active. It’s a misplaced message with good intentions, but the anti-feminist rhetoric andfemmephobia it exudes is worth examining at a time when women’s bodies (including their hair) are still highly controlled and commented on.
A few weeks before the Parkland, Fla. shooting González and her peers were subject to, she was featured on a local Instagram account where she talked about her decision to go bald.
“I decided to cut my hair because it was a pain in the neck, if you’ll forgive the pun,” she said. “It was really hot all the time; it was very cumbersome and very heavy, leading to a lot of headaches. It was expensive to keep it up, and as prom time came around, I figured it would be cheaper to not have to worry about doing my hair,” she said. “The more my parents said no, the more I wanted it. Actually, I even made a powerpoint in order to convince them that I should do it. I figured I would look really good with it, and I do. So, it all worked out fine.”
She clarified that she was not taking a “feminist stand,” though she is a feminist. (“It’s Florida. Hair is just an extra sweater I’m forced to wear.”)
Her choice to shave her head may be read as feminist (a woman making a still atypical choice for her own body), but she didn’t shave her head because she’s a feminist.
When Charlize Theron chose to shave her head before Mad Max, it was, too, because she wanted to change her hair.
“My hair was really fried,” she said. “And I had a night where I thought, ‘You know what? What if we just shave it?’”
She noted in that same interview that it was “freeing” to spend less time on her hair, but also a curious statement about what it means to be feminine.
“There’s always something nice,” she said, “when you kind of take that importance of your femininity and make it about something more than just your hair.”
Bald women are not incapable of being feminine; femininity is not a sign of weakness. There was an altogether different connotation of baldness for Danai Gurira, the actress featured in the top left panel of the meme. One of Gurira’s most beloved moments in Black Panther is when she flings off a wig during a mission, revealing bald black head.
“I love that moment,” Gurira told ESSENCE at a recent press junket in Beverly Hills, Calif. “She’s like, ‘What is this? I don’t wear wigs. I wear my bald glory.'”
Gurira’s baldness, though, has more to do with the rejection of American beauty standards for women of color.
“It’s such an Eastern standard of beauty versus a Western standard and such an African thing to say,” Gurira says. “It’s a subverted standard of beauty. I’m sure people have to pick up on that. That’s the first thing I thought. It so subverts the idea of feminine beauty.”
However, she continued, she doesn’t see the baldness and the fierceness of her character as a “compromise for femininity.”
“They’re both allowed to coexist and we don’t see that enough,” she said, “and we don’t know that enough societally as little girls growing up. You can be both. You can combine those two things and how fun is that?”
How women wear and style their hair certainly has a lot to do with how they are received in the world and, often, the world sees a bald woman through a lens that reads more masculine or androgynous. Women bearing buzzcuts (think: Cara Delevingne, Kristen Stewart, Grace Jones, Sinead O’Connor, Demi Moore in G.I. Jane, Natalie Portman in V for Vendetta) are read as queer simply because they are eschewing traditional beauty standards that decide that hair (especially of a certain length) dictates femininity, and that femininity is the opposite of the kind of toughness a woman with bald hair is purported to be instilled with.
Gonzalez is not fierce because she is baldshe is fierce because of her words; her thoughts; her actions. Were she to have braids or a ponytail or a Rapunzel-esque mane down to her shoes (boots? heels? espadrilles? who cares!), she would be no less a symbol of hope in the movement she’s drawing attention to.
Women who have lost their hair to cancer or Alopecia or other illnesses do not trade in femininity for strength because, as Gurira says, those two things can and do co-exist. Commenting on a woman’s choice as to how she wears her hair (or lack thereof) says more about those commenting than the women being commented upon. Is the lack of hair less feminine because it’s less attractive to men? Is it because long hair is feminine, therefore making men with long hair less masculine? (Interestingly, women shaving their heads has also been a sign of mental instability, such as Britney Spears’ infamous salon moment or the suicidal Deb in Empire Records.)
Baldness as a choice for any woman is empowering because it’s a choice she’s making for her own body. It is not, however, more empowering than the decision for a woman to use styling products if she damn well wants to.