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Last Updated: Tuesday, 20 February 2007, 12:24 GMT
Mark of a woman
A punk, Gail Porter,  Nazi collaborator and Britney Spears
A shaved head has many connotations

By Denise Winterman
BBC News Magazine

That pop star Britney Spears is having a few problems, few would disagree. But after months of reckless behaviour, shaving her head is seen as her most shocking act yet. Why?

It's been a hectic few months for Britney Spears since filing for divorce. Forgetting to wear knickers on numerous nights out, swapping clothes and partying with strippers, drinking in the street, smoking too much, driving with a baby on her lap - we've all seen the pictures.

But after all the gloating and mocking in the media, the once virginal pop star has crossed the line of what will be tolerated - she shaved her head at the weekend.

Nicki Hastie
We need to... accept there are different layers of femininity and masculinity in one person
Nicki Hastie
For most it is confirmation that her life is in free fall, that she is on the edge of a breakdown and in need of help. But why is shaving her locks equated with losing her mind, and why does it still have such a power to shock?

Any significant social movement in recent history has been characterised by hair, be it a punk rocker's Mohican or a hippy's centre-parted locks. It is unusual for a clique or a group not to use hair to make a statement.

"Hair is so significant because of what it is and where it is," says Dr Martin Skinner, social psychologist at the University of Warwick.

Bad hair day

"It is part of us, much more intimate than things like clothes. If you cut it away, you are cutting away a bit of yourself. Whatever we do with it is very much part of our identity."

In Britney's case the act holds so much symbolism because her blonde locks were her trademark. The cultural significance of a woman's hair means it is one of the most public sanctions that can be imposed on them by themselves or others, say psychologists.

Britney Spears
Britney's famous blonde locks
So why is hair - particularly long hair - viewed as such a defining part of a woman and inextricably linked to femininity?

Zoologist Desmond Morris suggests that women traditionally have long hair because their ancestors, the aquatic apes, developed long hair to give their babies something to hang on to.

In recent times, he argues, that women have styled their hair to reflect their self-image, with long hair suggesting a certain availability.

Nature also plays a role. People are programmed to take notice of hair because it is a secondary sexual characteristic.

Graceful

"Thick, healthy, long, glossy hair or fur is seen as a sign of good hormonal health and is one of the things animals use to select a mate - humans are no different," says evolutionary psychologist Nick Neave, of Northumbria University.

Why long hair is so linked to femininity could come down to many things, say experts. It is about youth, health, grace and movement.

Natalie Portman
Natalie Portman, shorn for a film role
Just look at shampoo advertisements, typically featuring models swinging their long, glossy locks. And look at how much the average women spends on her hair - £600 a year, according to one study. Men spend just £90.

How this association started is not so easy to answer, but it has been entrenched in what is seen as the feminine for centuries, says psychologist Lorraine Sherr. "As far back as cavemen, there are drawings of women with longer, glossier hair."

Historically a shaven head has also always had meaning - and in a woman's case, mostly negative.

It has been used as a badge of shame, often linked to sexual promiscuity. During World War II, for example, French women who fraternised with German soldiers were punished by having their heads shaved.

The reason why it is still so shocking is because it steps outside what society considers to be "the norm".

"When a woman does something like shave her head it is not what society would expect of her, or dictates to her," says psychologist Simon Moore. "People don't like it because they don't know how to act, they don't know what it means.

Illness

"By shaving her head Britney Spears has put herself outside of the box marked 'pop princess'. Before it was one of her defining features and now she is flying in the face of that girlie image."

To make sense of such an act, society falls back on more stereotypes and labels. When Natalie Portman shaved her head for a film role, she felt the reaction would be entirely predictable: "Some people will think I'm a neo-Nazi or that I have cancer or I'm a lesbian."

A shaved head being a "cry for help" or a sign of illness are "acceptable" reasons and people know how to respond. Television presenter Gail Porter went from dizzy lads' mag favourite to dignified woman after her hair loss was revealed to be down to alopecia.

Sinead O'Connor
Sinead O'Connor used a shaved head to stand out
Looking for any other reason would involve thinking, something people just don't have time to do in today's hectic world.

"We rely on visual cues to make snap decisions," says Mr Moore. "People lead busy lives and like anything that allows them to make judgements quickly. Hair is a hugely important cue."

Nicki Hastie, 37, shaved her head nearly 20 years ago in what she describes as "an act of self-love" which makes her feel alive and attractive.

"It's not an act of self-loathing or being mad or close to the edge," she says. "It's about doing something for yourself, despite all the pressures out there to conform."

Reactions over the years have ranged from shouts of "Sinead" and "GI Jane" to people laughing out loud in the street.

"We need to widen what's acceptable for women and men, and accept there are different layers of femininity and masculinity in one person."

She says far from it being a sign of losing control, maybe Britney shaving her head could be an attempt to empower herself.

Hair is often used as a prop to declare a change and the start of a new chapter in a life - it is just a very extreme way of doing it. But then Britney's life, played out in front of us all, has never been normal.


Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

For a man, a shaved head is perfectly acceptable. I think when women shave their hair, especially in this case, it's rebbelling against society and showing a "free spirit". I think it's great that whilst most female celebs are competing to be the thinest and most "attractive", Britney is basically saying "I'm going to do what I want, when I want and I don't care what you think about it!"
David, Birmingham, UK

I agree with Nicki Hastie. I don't think this is a sign of Britney's impending breakdown, but the exact opposite. I think this is her way of saying, 'right, no more playing around. Time to sort myself out'. It is the same as when a friend of mine coloured and restyled her her after a break-up. It was her way of saying, 'This is the new me. Look out world, here I come' Personally, I love the bald look. It creates an enigmatic air, and some of the most beautiful women I've ever met were shaven.
Alan, Bridgwater

Cutting hair to a woman here in my country is looked to be a bad habit. Why? Because women cut their hair in certain situations, like loosing someone dear because she is mourning for someone close to her. If she decides by her will to do so people will start laughing at her. It is like a shame for a wamon to cut her hair without a specific reason. Here we consider that having the long hair is a style for the women, but the short hair for the men.
kitenge loddy jean de Dieu, kalemie/katanga/drcongo

For a long time I had very short hair because I was an archaeologist and long hair, mud and hard hats don't mix. I liked it so practical and easy to look after. Not sure why it is long now but it might be that I sit in an office. No way do I spend £600 a year on my hair, probably not even £60 it isn't all that important.
Vanella, Southampton. UK

Obsession with hair and image only seems to be associated with Western culture where apparantly there's nothing more pressing to worry about. Alot of women in sub-saharan Africa keep their hair really short - its neat and its practical and it certainly doesn't obscure their femininity.
Jo, York

I find the shock at Britney's shaving her head laughable. A cry for help bceause she shaved her head? What about all of her previous antics? As a woman who has had a shaven head for most of her adult life I was bemused at best to read that a shaven head woman is objectional, not sexy. I have had no complaints. I shaved my head for 2 reasons- I am lazy and do not like to comb my hair and I am better looking with short hair which emphasizes my cheek bones. I have never had a shortage of boyfriends. So get over it!!! Much ado about nothing.
Anne, Cayman Islands

These days, I have more hair in my armpits than anywhere else. Go on girls, get shaving - you don't know what you're missing!
Roberta, Wallasey

I think the reaction to Britney shaving her head has been well OTT as usual. I think she looks visually stunning. A friend of mine said looking at her made him feel physically sick. I could've hit him. Britney is still a beautiful woman. You Go Girl!
Roberto Deavario, Liverpool, Merseyside

Maybe Britney chopped off her locks because having hair extentions and dye put on them over the years have left the hair in a bit of a state. Shaving her hair off will allow her natural hair to grow back in a better condition.
Shirley Gardner, Peterborough Cambs

A woman without hair is like a picture without a frame. It just looks odd, and detracts from the overall beauty of the face.
Robert Phillips, Cardiff, UK

I shaved my hair a year ago and was at first horrified. I kept forgetting about it and seeing my reflection was shocking.Then I became really liberated. My hair-care routine was a shower! I had never known that freedom before, being accustomed to going monthly for a marathon hair appointment to colour roots then put in streaks, then cut and blow. Interestingly, all my young male friends were somewhat embarassed, whereas my bolder male friends thought it fab. My French friends called it "Très Anglais" while my English friends called it "Typical French chic". The most extreme reaction was from a lady in her 60s. She said she felt sick when she looked at me. I did do it when feeling either depressed or just desperately in need of a jolt. It certainly worked. Maybe that's exactly where BS was when she took metal to skin. Well, you know, hair grows. Britney - you will be amazed how soon you have a full head of hair again and THEN you can choose. I have a "normal" short style now and am back to ordinary. Would I do it again? I don't think so....
Janice Heath, Rivehaute, Frabce

I shave my head aprox 3 times a year. I find it a form of cleansing . If I have any worries or concerns, I cut them away when I shave my head. It is very liberating. On a practical note, it saves on shampoo and all the other hair products on the market.
Frankie, Cornwall

I think we're really, really spending far too much time obsessing about Britney Spears's hair. I realise that by posting here I am buying into it, which may well be why she did it. Who knows? Who cares?
Ollie

There are people being killed daily in iraq and we're supposed to care if some pop singer shaves her hair off? The world really has gone mad.
Sean, merseyside

A woman without hair is like a picture without a frame. It just looks odd, and detracts from the overall beauty of the face. Robert Phillips, Cardiff, UK. Or another way of looking at is that a frame on a picture suffocates and in some case takes over the picture which is what we are meant to be looking at. I feel shaving your head can be seen, as has been previouly suggested, of a form of liberation. I notice it is mainly men who are objecting to it, and hair does grow back.
Ben Jones, Gateshead

If men shave their heads, why is it so wrong for women to shave their heads? It's a persons individual choice and should not be judged. Having said that some women look extremely sexy with their head shaved....Sinead O'Connor for one, and some men look absolutely ridiculous bald. Britney Spears has more issues than a bald head to worry about though.
Leon , Brit in West Palm Beach

I've heard lots of people say Britney is having a breakdown, which I think is nonsense. Lenny Kravitz was famous for his dreadlocks and decided to shave them all off as a new start. I think with everything Britney has gone through recently, she wanted a fresh start and shaving your head certainly does that.
Mike Richer, Didcot, Oxfordshire

The point made on the shaved head as a punishment, or shaming, is well taken and connects to strategies of reconfiguring those violent connotations. Perhaps similar to the Gay Rights Movements taking the word "queer" and empowering it as a lable of pride. How predictable that shrill voices claim Brittany Spears is having a breakdown. Perhaps she is breaking out of the chains of fame and fortune. Perhaps not. Regardless, it is a decisive act of courage AND Nicki Hastie is on the money (no pun intended) with her analysis.
Merry Gangemi, Woodbury, VT

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