This month, the cover of Rose McGowan’s forthcoming memoir, titled Brave, was released. The cover features a black-and-white image of the back of McGowan’s buzzed head, with the letters emblazoned vertically toward her spine. Running parallel to the title, at the edge of the frame, is the pair of clippers that we see McGowan is wielding herself.
Obviously, those clippers are more than just a styling tool. They’re a pen, writing the words “fuck you” to the man who victimized her—the now-disgraced Harvey Weinstein—and the men who allowed his abuse to go unchecked.
McGowan, arguably, played as big a role in Weinstein’s downfall and the ensuing cultural cascade as anybody. She was one of the first to come forward, long before people would take her seriously. She’s stood her ground, even when it’s hurt her career. And so her weaponized buzzcut (which has now grown out slightly into a weaponized pixie) nods to the best weapon men have against women: compliance to standards that men have put in place, from the internal—like the ideal, cheerful, feminine agreeability for which we are all pressured to strive—to the purely external, like smiling on command or having long hair.
A woman like McGowan, outwardly flaunting her rejection of social expectations, can only mean she’s capable of god knows what. A woman who lops off her hair has stopped caring what anybody thinks of her.
Baldness among women is fraught, because hair on women is fraught. In pop culture, the sight of a woman who has cut her hair very short—either by her own volition or somebody else’s—often is used as shorthand for trauma or loss. Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road, Eleven in Stranger Things, Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones. Anne Hathaway in Les Mis. Britney Spears, attacking a car with an umbrella. When a woman has been robbed of her femininity by cruelty of circumstance, the world should watch out for its recompense.
And yet for many women, chopping off their hair is freeing—an act of noncompliance that centers on themselves and their own needs, not a cry for help or an act of anger.
Insecure creator and star Issa Rae wrote that going short was “the most freeing thing” she’d ever done—she shaved her head as part of “the big chop,” part of the process women of color with chemically straightened hair undergo if they choose to transition to natural hair. Vox political reporter Jane Coaston buzzed hers off before going natural as well, and had people similarly give her look a very specific read. “I cut it all off when I was 15, and then started buzzing the sides in college and afterwards,” she says. “Now I get the sides buzzed while the middle is shoulder length. And yes, people did treat me different. I was very overweight at the time and lots of people misgendered me (called me sir). Now it's something that makes me recognizable and I get a lot of compliments, but a lot from people saying how ‘brave’ I am.”
Other women shave their heads because they have to. When Lara, in her thirties and from Pennsylvania, buzzed her thick Zooey Deschanel-like hair off, it was for practical reasons. She was undergoing chemotherapy for breast cancer. “It really freaked out my husband, to see me just unceremoniously take an electric shaver to my own head,” she says. “I was pragmatic about it—my scalp hurt because my follicles were all dying—this was the only solution and baldness was inevitable.”
Lara would sometimes whip her wig off as a “hilarious party trick” and eventually embraced her baldness, dying her hair blue as it grows back. But during much of her treatment, she says, she covered her hair and tried to “pass” for somebody who wasn’t sick. “I didn’t have the emotional energy for strangers’—and some friends’—emotional, often wildly insensitive questions and comments about my bald head… Sometimes you don’t want the attention at all, you are just trying to get through the day. I performed—and still perform—a lot of emotional labor around other people’s feelings about both baldness and cancer of all kinds.”
Still other women who have buzzed their hair say they did it to rebel. One woman, who was raised in a strict religious household, got an undercut despite the fact that her parents forbade her from cutting her hair. Only a few people in her life know.
And, for some queer women, shaving all or part of their hair has nudged the world into seeing them the way they see themselves. “I thought it would be a way for me to communicate my queerness to other people without saying anything,” says Shelagh Dolan, who shaved part of her hair off in college. “I have dated both men and women but most people don't assume that when they meet me because I'm relatively feminine presenting. I sort of wanted a way to send out a bat signal to people like me, I guess.”
Laura Royden shaved her head for the first time when she was 18. “More people call me ‘sir.’ I think the biggest thing is that I’m read as queer right off the bat by most people, whereas I never am with long hair because I dress fairly femme,” she says. “I’ve only experienced positive response from people—every time I buzz my hair, people are like ‘whoa! so bold! you’re so brave!’ which is low-key silly but I guess also nice to hear.”
Regardless of the intent behind the cut—from illness to rebellion to a fresh start for natural hair—women who have buzzed their heads tell The Daily Beast that the world reacted to them differently once they didn’t have hair, treated them like they were tough or badass or even scary. The word dozens of women most used in speaking to me was “intimidating.”
But the way women felt about their own hair often diverged from this consensus; one word they used to describe how having a shaved head made them feel was “confident.” Many told me they loved how cute it made them feel, or feminine. They learned to love the shape of their heads. “I'm more confident in my own skin,” says Xiomara Blanco, an editor. “I carry myself with the peaceful knowledge that if I lose my hair, it's not the end of the world. Not even close.”
“I felt like I moved with more assurance and speed (once) I wasn't constantly worrying about my hair,” says Renee, who cut hers off for the big chop. “It was hat-proof, weather-proof, bed-head-proof. Hair can be especially fraught for black women, and it was nice to lay that burden down.”
“I felt more aware of being seen, which made me feel both more confident and self-conscious at the same time,” said one woman who shaved hers for the first time on a trip to Thailand. “It did make me pay more attention and have more respect for women who choose to live out of the gender box in terms of hair—whether it be head, legs, or armpits. Rule-breakers make the world a little safer for all of us to express our individuality.”
Perhaps the buzz cut isn’t as much an aggressive fuck-you as it is an “I don’t give a fuck,” a gesture designed to tell a male-dominated society that none of this is for them, that none of it can be for them. Maybe there’s something terrifying, as a man, to suddenly see evidence that somebody you thought you were entitled to no longer cares what you think.
From talking to women who have cut their hair very short, it seems the fear or intimidation that buzzed hair on a woman prompts isn’t a reflection of how she feels about herself. It’s panic over the fact that that this woman, for one reason or another, is not putting men’s needs or desires first. She’s not necessarily holding up a middle finger to the world, although she might be—and, if you’re Rose McGowan, the world deserves it. But mostly, she’s just deciding to care about herself.