Facing the prospect of looking like a vagabond or giving myself a shitty quarantine bowlcut, I decided to just shave my head and be done with it. I’ve had variations on the same haircut–short and gelled–all my adolescent and adult life, so this was quite a change, but the past few years of my life have been all about making changes and breaks from what came before, and, on a more practical level, I wanted to make sure I can pull it off in case I needed to.
“You look like a balding Italian guy.”
Not the kindest way for my ex-wife to put it, but no less true for that. It was 2015. I was overweight, depressed off my ass, and still trying to slick my hair back. I hadn’t considered the possibility that I would go bald. After all, my Mom’s side of the family is made up of thick-haired Norwegians and Germans, so I never worried about it. I discovered this was an urban legend when, looking in the mirror, I realized my hairline had slowly but perceptibly receded. I didn’t have the hair island atop my forehead yet, but you could see where things got shallow before meeting the mainland. When my hair got wet, it was even more noticeable.
85% of men show some degree of hair loss over the course of their lives, and whole industries are devoted to remedying that. Being a concrete symbol of aging, it’s the subject of much fear and angst on the part of men, though there’s no real cure for male-pattern baldness. After the divorce, as I headed out into the dating world, I felt that anxiety. Thick, dark hair is one of my best features! I thought. Was I headed towards resembling some of the oilfield guys I knew, with the Homer Simpson look? What would I do? Every time I got a haircut, I asked my barber if things were getting better or worse, and to her credit, she never blew smoke up my ass by saying better. Finally I decided that when and if I did really start to go bald, I’d just shave it. Shit, it works for Jason Statham. I’m no Jason Statham, but I started to wonder if I could pull it off.
Of all the inconveniences of quarantine, haircuts are mentioned surprisingly often. Or perhaps it’s not surprising. After all, extraordinary changes are often felt as much (or more) in the little things. Most of us have consigned ourselves to the reality that we will have to cut our own hair (or have someone we live with do it), and an increasing number of folks, men and women both, have taken to completely shaving their heads. What can I say? I was curious. Standing in front of the mirror, beard trimmer in hand, I decided to take the plunge. It took me about an hour, and I cut the back of my neck, though not badly. But there I was at the end, a stubbly bald with a shaggy quarantine beard.
The social and symbolic connotations of baldness are interesting. A much-cited study found that men who were going bald but did not shave their heads were perceived as weak, but men who went ahead and shaved were seen as more dominant, confident, and masculine, though slightly less attractive than men with hair. Historically and fictionally, we’ve viewed baldness as a symbol of impotence–just look at Samson. But it’s not quite that simple.
Baldness can signify a rejection of the social order. This may be religious; monks both Buddhist and Christian shave part or all of their heads as a symbol of their vows. But it could just as well connote madness or evil. In both Joseph Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness and its film adaptation Apocalypse Now, the villain Kurtz’s baldness is treated as a sign of his insanity. As Conrad puts it, “And the lofty frontal bone of Mr. Kurtz! They say the hair goes on growing sometimes, but this—ah—specimen, was impressively bald. The wilderness had patted him on the head, and, behold, it was like a ball—an ivory ball; it had caressed him, and—lo!—he had withered; it had taken him, loved him, embraced him, got into his veins, consumed his flesh, and sealed his soul to its own by the inconceivable ceremonies of some devilish initiation.” To this we might add Walter White from Breaking Bad, or, on the real-life end of things, Hunter S. Thompson, who wasn’t a villain but was undeniably pretty fucking crazy.
But, paradoxically, baldness can also symbolize strength, authority, and a warrior spirit. The greatest Aztec soldiers were the Quachic, or “Shorn Ones,” Mexican berserkers who shaved their entire heads except for a strip of hair in the center, like a mohawk. Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) warriors went almost entirely bald except for a scalp lock. Shaolin monks. Our modern military. The Rock. On the fictional side of things, Mike Erhmantraut (Jonathan Banks) of Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul and Bjorn Ironside (Alexander Ludwig) as portrayed in Vikings. In my immediate reality, a good half of the guys I box with.
I was a bit anxious to post photos of myself after shaving my head, but the response was generally positive, if surprised. The consensus seems to be that it makes me look older but tougher, which is a trade-off I’ll take. The most unflattering review has been that I look like “a morose Portuguese sailor,” which is still better than “balding Italian guy” (ironically, I’m neither Portuguese nor Italian).
A piece in The Cut interviewed 17 of the people who shaved their heads in quarantine, and all said they didn’t regret doing so, with many attesting that it was a freeing experience. For men, it was a way to better express their masculinity. For women, it was a challenge to traditional gender roles. Many said they planned to keep shaving after quarantine ends. I may be one of the latter, because this has been freeing. I never realized how much anxiety I put into my hair, or how much I perceived it as a ticking-clock symbol of vanishing youth. It turns out there’s life after hair. Just ask Jason Statham.