Shaving My Head Helped My Take Control of My Life When an Illness Took Away My Independence

Make no mistake: although this came from a moment of utter despair, it was what I wanted.
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Siobhan Simper
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Make no mistake: although this came from a moment of utter despair, it was what I wanted.

Grace Jones. Sinéad O'Connor. Sigourney Weaver. Miley Cyrus. Lupita Nyong'o. Demi Moore. What do these names bring to mind? Power. Strength. Beauty. And, of course, they are all women who have shaved their heads.

As a child, I already felt the burden of long, thick hair. It took forever to wash and dry. It obscured my vision when loose and gave me a painful headache when tied back. My bedroom floor might as well have been covered with a human-hair rug with the amount of hair littering the floor that no vacuum could pick up.

When I received my first short hair cut at the age of 13, it was a liberation. No more headaches, no more pain. And I felt stylish! As a young woman, I was finding my own "look," and having my hair cropped short was the first time I felt I'd really taken ownership of my style. I figured I looked just like Nicky Buckley, whose picture I had brought to the hairdressers to emulate.

From then, I've never had my hair longer than my shoulders, and more often than not, it's been in a pixie cut. I loved going to the hairdresser's and trying out new cuts and colours, but always in the back of my mind I wanted to shave it all off, Sinéad O'Connor-style. "Later," I told myself.

Being diagnosed with severe myalgic encephalomyelitis put my plans on hold. ME is a debilitating illness, that leaves no aspect of my life unaffected. Its brutal and systemtic devastation of my body has transformed me from a confident, clever young woman, studying psychology at university, volunteering and riding my bike around town, to a shell of my former self. I am mostly house-, bed- and wheelchair-bound, and have spent the last six years of my life being cared for full-time by my parents.

Struggling daily with this all-consuming illness is hard enough, let alone dealing with the trauma inflicted on me by medical professionals in the past. The daily grind of disbelief is near impossible to bear, and almost more damaging than the illness itself. After a particularly few stressful weeks, combined with the ever-diminishing network I can now rely on for support, I didn't know how I could cope.

So, in a moment of grief, loss and despair, I decided to shave my head. Like those in the old testament, my sadness was so deep that I felt compelled to remove my hair. (I would've worn sackcloths if I didn't love clothes so darn much.)

Make no mistake: although this came from a moment of utter despair, it was what I wanted. I was delighted that I could fulfill one of my dreams which I never thought would come true. But it was also a way to channel my hurt and pain into something external; to take some agency back from a body that has denied me so long.

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I was sobbing as I held my head above the bathtub and chopped my hair off with scissors, before hacking at it with my brother's beard trimmer. My tears came not from my actions, but from all the emotions I had bottled up inside me from my illness. I felt I could finally grieve for the Siobhan who had died, and maybe, just maybe, create a new me from the ashes.

In our society, shaved heads on women still have the power to shock. They reject traditional notions of femininity, and subvert conventional female sexuality. Consider the reaction to a man shaving his head for summer: there is none. But a female celebrity shaves her locks, and is suddenly the subject of intense media speculation. Women's bodies are not considered their own, and are often infused with a mystical power that only ever benefits others.

Rapunzel's hair was a symbol of her beauty, but not for her: Dame Gothel used it to climb up a tower (ouch!), and cut it off when she realised it did not benefit her alone. In many religions or cults, such as the Exclusive Brethren, women are forbidden from cutting their hair. Others suggest hair is a symbol of shame or sexuality (or both). Women's hair is so laden with meaning that the act of cutting it is a profound political statement.

When Sinéad O'Connor started making music in the '80s, record executives wanted her to grow her hair long and wear short skirts, to convey a less threatening image of femininity. She responded by shaving her head. In an era when male record executives felt entitled to their young protege's bodies, Sinéad rejected the conventional trappings of femininity to protect herself. "It was dangerous to be a female," she remembers.

In more recent times, the image we most closely associated with shorn heads is one of a traumatised Britney Spears in a salon, taking hold of the clippers and shaving her head bare. It's not hard to imagine what drove her to this point. Britney had been the property of Disney and the general public since the age of 11. Paparazzi stalked her every move, and her image was tightly controlled by her management. Her fledgling relationship with Justin Timberlake was more like a reality TV show than a teen romance. Britney had been incubated in the public gaze: no wonder she felt driven to take some ownership back of her body.

Please be assured that I am nowhere near as psychologically fragile as Britney allegedly was at the time. However, I understand how she felt when took control of the clippers, muttering, "I don't want anyone touching me. I'm tired of everybody touching me." Britney had lost her body to the ravenous media, and decided to take it back.

As a chronically ill person, my body is no longer my own. It has been taken; both by this illness and the medical establishment. My abusers in hospital stripped this body from me and left me an empty shell. I could not reclaim it as my illness has my body in full control: from the moment I wake up in the morning to when I shut my eyes at night, my illness dictates my every move. I am a prisoner in my own body.

Although done in a moment of despair, Britney's actions had the same underlying purpose as I and her hair-chopping predecessors did: she wanted to take control of a body she felt was not hers alone. Now, like many others, I understand the power of taking back a dispossessed body.

And how do I feel about my hair now? I love it. I feel strong and beautiful, like I never have before. I used to sweep my fringe in my eyes to avoid detection, but now there is nowhere for me to hide. I can take the world full on, as I am. In fact, the only problem is, I have so few places to go that I can't show off what a babe I look. I just strut around at home feeling cool af.

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And although I've always been a feminist mad witch intent on destroying the joint, shaving my head has made me question even more about the gender constructs which underpin our society. Caring for a shaved head is so easy, I almost can't believe it. Showering takes an instant, and far less energy. My hair products sit redundant on my dresser. It makes me wonder what else is easier for men.

That said: I don't think shaving your head should be mandatory. You can be a feminist whether your have long hair, short hair, no hair or carefully cultivated curly underarm hair. Hell, I get around in 50s style frocks! But if you are interested in shaving your head, and something is holding you back - go for it! What that something usually boils down to is not inside you, but some form of societal expectation.

Taking ownership of my body was a poignant moment, and one that will nourish me through these barren times of relapse. In these dark and desperate times for women, I hope all my beautiful woman friends have something similar to cling to; a reminder that there is a part of us that nothing can take away.