“A woman’s hair is her crowning glory”, says the Bible. That is, perhaps, the reason a woman’s shorn head will draw a second, and sometimes third, glance. Historically, there has been a lot of negativity when it comes to the shaving of a woman’s hair.
In 1944, French women suspected of collaborating with Nazis had their hair shorn in public as punishment. Slaves, including women, were often shaved as a sign of servitude. Later when the feminist movement came about, women spotted shorn heads as a statement against what they considered to be the traditional man-pleasing femininity.
To date, a woman’s shorn head is viewed as an outward sign of stress, illness, rebellion, and sometimes madness. International female celebrities who have shaved their hair for reasons other than a role in a movie have been branded as having lost their minds or drug abusers.
In 1997, Britney Spears’ decision to shave her hair created a furore in Hollywood, with fans and foes convinced that she was either abusing drugs or had completely lost her mind. In some societies, cutting your hair you will elicit suspicion that you are bisexual or a lesbian.
Needed a change
Long shiny locks have been the symbol of feminine beauty all over the world, a standard that has cost women globally a lot of time and money to adhere to. True to form, women in Kenya spend hours and thousands of shillings every month polishing their manes.
“A woman can never be too broke to primp her hair,” says one woman who runs a salon in Nairobi. That is perhaps one of the reasons salons are some of the leading businesses in Kenya today.
African hair is beautiful. However, it takes a long time to grow and needs extra care to thrive. That is one of the reasons the salon business is vibrant. Often an African woman has to grow her hair for several months or even a few years for it to get to shoulder length.
The expression no pain no gain applies to our hair care. From using hot combs to having our hair pulled in different directions and styles in the name of beauty, a Kenyan woman will have endured a lot to grow her hair to a length considered attractive.
It would, therefore, boggle the mind if the same woman just up and shaves her glorious mane after years of meticulous care, gruelling hours sitting in the salon, sometimes in not so comfortable locations, and thousands of shillings spent.
Asked that question, most women will tell you that they needed a change, a few will plead an active lifestyle that does not augur well with a perm or weave, some will say they shaved it when constant braiding ate away at their hair lines, and others will blithely reply that hair grows, it is no big deal. Talking to men, they claim that it is a big deal.
Amos says that he does not understand why a woman would willingly shave her hair. “It is a complete turn-off for me. Shaving makes a woman look plain, if not uglier.” He claims that it is much better for a woman to spot the dreaded weave than to shave her hair and actually cringes as he spits out that little gem.
A few of the women I talked to were candid enough to admit that downing their manes had a psychological connotation. Some shaved their hair when undergoing major changes in their lifestyle, careers, and relationships. They claimed that it helped them turn over a new leaf, so to speak.
Quite a number made the decision when a relationship was on the rocks and felt that once they shaved their hair, they were finally able to let it go as well as the baggage that came with it. Others were able to finally gather courage to leave unfulfilling jobs or even change careers once they shaved the hair.
Others were finally able to take control of their eating habits and exercise consistently to lose weight after shaving their precious locks. Conversely, a few woman admitted to shaving their hair as an admission of hopelessness. They claim that at the time, they felt stuck in a rut from which they saw no escape.
Most interestingly, most of those scenarios involved a man. As mentioned above, most men do not appreciate short hair, leave alone a clean-shaven head on their woman. It could, therefore be construed as an act of defiance for a woman to chop off her locks.
A silent war, if you wish. It could be that the man forgot his responsibilities of providing for his family or did not spend enough time with his wife or even cheated on his woman.
Any of these reasons could make the woman feel either unattractive or that the effort she puts into her appearance is not worth it and in a show of defiance downs her locks. So did it work to reform the man? I will let you be the judge of that.
Shave it all
Gladys Achieng, 26, a paralegal officer at a local NGO, shaved her hair recently. Asked why she did it, she replies that she felt as if she was stuck in a rut and had no control over her life.
“I was stuck in a job that did not pay me enough to support myself, my daughter, and the big dreams I had for us. I honestly believed that if I quit, I would not be able to find gainful employment anywhere else.
My relationship with my then boyfriend was also rocky but I felt stuck because I did not want to deprive my girl of a relationship with her father. I cannot remember the exact moment the decision to cut my hair took root but one Sunday afternoon, instead of sitting in the usual chair where I have had June, my favourite hairdresser, treat my hair for eight years, I sat in the barber’s chair and asked him to shave it all.
He refused and asked if I wanted a trim. I insisted that I wanted it all shorn. Suddenly everyone at the salon became involved in the conversation, all pleading with me to let the hair be.
I remember they even insisted that I take photographs of my long hair so I can remember the day I made the worst decision of my life. I took the photos but when I look at them I remember the day I finally took control of my life.
A week later I started sending out my CV to other employers and two months later I was sitting in a new office and enjoying a higher pay. As for the boyfriend, I finally sat him down and explained to him that he was not fulfilling my expectations and what those expectations are. We are getting married in August. Did I regrow my hair? Not yet”
Stella Wamai, 24, an assistant administrative officer at a local company, cut her hair two years ago. “I was overweight and unhappy. I was always on one diet or the other and would quit barely a week in.
As for exercise, I always had an excuse, the most frivolous one being that sweat messed up my hair. In May 2011, I finally shaved it and paid for gym membership. At the same time I began to clean up my diet. I fell off the wagon many times but I never gave up. In a year-and-a-half, I attained my goal weight. I am now growing back my hair, but there is always that fear at the back of my mind that I could regain the weight.”
Angela Morara, 30, project manager at a tier one bank, faced the barber’s shears a few weeks ago. “I was just tired of sitting for hours at the salon, contorted in weird positions in the name of getting braided. I envied my fiancé and how fast his visits to the barber were and I just decided to emulate him.
I have shaved my hair twice before in my adult life and several times as a child. I have what my mother calls steel-wool hair. I remember growing up, my brothers would not pass up the opportunity to remind me how ugly I looked whenever I dared to shave my hair.
Later in life I would get complemented by the man in my life after a visit from the salon but whenever I got my hair trimmed he would remain mum; his version of diplomacy. When I shaved my hair a few weeks ago, my brothers jumped in, like clockwork, to inform me, in not so subtle words, what a terrible decision it was.
My man was not too happy, but as usual he did not say a word. The only indication of his feelings on the matter was his abandonment of his barber, who is now my new barber. The only compliments I have received so far were from women and I have been informed by my meddling brothers that the women who have complimented me are only happy that I am now more unattractive than them. Personally, I think men notice me more now but I’m afraid to tell my brothers because I know they will endeavour to take me down a peg or two”
Mercy, who would only reveal one name, says she shaved her hair to guilt her husband.
“He had stopped providing for us. I basically did everything and felt that I was wasting money on salon visits when I was virtually living on a shoe string budget. I knew that he was a proud man who is fastidious about his appearance and mine and true to form, the moment someone asked him if he was unable to cater for my beauty regime, he immediately gave me money to go to the salon. That was three weeks after the shaving.”
As we spoke her hair was already in braids. Asked whether she would ever shave again, she said “Yes! If it drives the point home.”
Disappearing hair line
Sheila Okumu, 32, a businesswoman, says she shaved her hair to cover up her disappearing hair line.
“I have always struggled to grow long hair for as long as I can remember. In spite of that it has never gone past shoulder length. Even worse, the braiding seemed to have devoured my hair line and I looked terrible. I was advised that the only way to bring back my hair line was to shave my hair and give it a long break from braids. To be honest, I feel naked without my hair and I feel as if everyone thinks of me as less attractive. I had self-esteem issues before I shaved my hair and now those issues have tripled. I can’t wait for my hair to grow back.”
It is unfortunate that everyone has something to say about a woman’s decision to shave her hair and that hair or lack thereof is used as a standard of a woman’s attractiveness. However in Kenya, society is more forgiving of women who have shaved their hair. Perhaps this has cultural roots — in some communities like the Maasai, the men were allowed long hair while the women were required to shave. If a queen takes off her crown for a moment, does she cease to be one? Should hair be that big a deal?
After all, it does grow back — most of the time.