Why Is Everyone Shaving Their Heads In Isolation?
Mr Ewan McGregor in Trainspotting (1996). Photograph by Miramax/Landmark Media
If you’ve spent much time on social media recently – and given the current state of affairs, who hasn’t? – then you’ll have noticed a dramatic rise in the number of head-shaving videos, before and afters and/or “look what I dids” (almost as many as homemade sourdough loaves). On the most basic level, this is an easy trend to explain. Barber shops have temporarily closed due to COVID-19, but the horrors of video conferencing mean that we’re still obliged to look presentable even though we’re divorced from even the most basic of upkeep routines. As isolation winds on, we’ve been forced to take hair maintenance into our own hands and the buzzcut is the easiest (read: hardest to screw up) haircut to do by yourself, and so has naturally emerged as the default choice.
Is that actually why so many of us have opted to shave our heads, though, or is it just a convenient excuse? Are we genuinely so concerned about looking a bit unkempt in front of our colleagues on Zoom that we're willing to reach for the clippers? Or have we all secretly been waiting for a good moment to finally find out what we look like with no hair? The number of people male and female to have done the deed within just a couple of days of lockdown – far too soon for their hair to reach a critical state of dishevelment, in other words – seems to suggest that there’s a certain amount of opportunism going on here.
Whatever the case, there’s no denying that the shaved head is now a genuine, fully established, celebrity-endorsed trend. If you haven't already done it yourself, you almost certainly know somebody who has. And as more and more people jump on the bandwagon, questions are being raised about the significance we place on our hair, why it’s a source of so much anxiety and pride and what exactly was holding us back – in the time BC (before coronavirus) – from cutting it off in the first place.
“Religions around the world have long used a shaved head to represent spiritual rebirth and the rejection of earthly pleasures”
These are questions that affect both men and women, of course. However, you could argue that the matter of shaving your head is more pressing for men, who often have a complex psychological relationship with their hair. For millennia, male hair has been associated with virility and strength, associations that can be explained by the fact that as we grow older and become frail, our hair has a tendency to fall out. We’re terrified and ashamed of going bald, then, because we see it as a sign of fading youth. But the rational part of our brain tells us that going bald is an inevitable part of the ageing process and that, beyond a certain point, it makes more sense to embrace it than to desperately cling on to what’s left of our hair. Sure, nobody wants to go bald, but nobody wants to be the guy with a combover, either.
Yet, embracing baldness is not just about inner acceptance. It also requires a physical act. We may know in our hearts that we are at peace with going bald, but that doesn’t make the decision to pick up a pair of clippers for the first time and drag them repeatedly across our scalp seem any less daunting. And like many of life’s tough decisions, we’ll look for any excuse to procrastinate. We’ll convince ourselves that now’s not the time, that we should wait until we start a new job or move to a new town. But the longer we put it off, the harder this decision becomes. Inaction breeds inaction, until the day arrives when we realise that nobody ever chose to have a combover; they just failed to take the necessary steps to avoid it.
But if not now, then when? This unusual state of affairs has presented the world’s prematurely balding men with a golden opportunity to at least try shaving their heads, get used to the way it looks. (By the way, if this applies to you, then be sure to read our recent guide on this very subject.)
But a desire to proactively tackle male pattern baldness is not the only driving force behind this trend. A shaved head can signify a transition into a new way of life, too. Take the US Army, for instance, which has been shaving the heads of its new recruits since WWII; in a practice that was originally done for hygienic purposes, but has since become a rite of passage. Similarly, religions around the world have long used a shaved head to represent spiritual rebirth and the rejection of earthly pleasures. At a time when the whole world feels like it’s going through a major transition, the ceremonial value of a shaved head seems oddly appropriate.
Conversely, the reason a shaved head feels so appropriate right now is also the reason why under normal circumstances we’re so reluctant to give it a go. There’s a faint aura of psychosis around shaving your head, perhaps best illustrated by the case of Ms Britney Spears, who took a pair of clippers to her own locks during a very public breakdown in 2007. The press reaction to the infamous “Britney incident” was to cast her as a woman who was spiralling out of control, but of course that was assuming that the world around her was operating as usual. When you take into account that she was a young woman in the middle of an acrimonious custody battle who was being exploited mercilessly by the paparazzi, it suddenly seems like a more rational response.
Even so, those tired associations with madness persist. It’s hard not to automatically assume, when someone shaves their head, that they did so off the back of some kind of psychotic episode. Cast your mind back, if you will, to a time before coronavirus, and imagine that one of your colleagues was to stroll into the office – remember offices? – on a Monday morning with a pale shadow where their hair used to be. You'd have questions. You’d want to know why they did it. And, “I just wanted to know what it felt like” wouldn’t be a satisfactory answer.
But if we’re so afraid of making decisions about our hair because of what other people might think, it raises the question of who our hair is even for in the first place. “I’d love to ,” said a colleague over Slack, “but I’d need to know that I had a two-month buffer before seeing anyone.”
“I’ve realised that the only reason I have hair is for other people,” said another, and he happens to have some of the best hair in the office. Perhaps if we can take one positive from this terrible outbreak, it’s that it has given us a new sense of perspective?