Blondie by Yves Rees
This personal essay explores the gendered dimensions of hair, fetishisation of ‘natural blondes’ and its relationship with white supremacy.
Blondie by Yves Rees
The clippers sat unused for weeks before I summoned the courage to switch them on.
It was a cordless contraption, bought online, that resembled a dildo with teeth. Heavy for its size, gleaming silver, the clippers sat snug in my palm, waiting to be awoken.
Once oiled and electrified, the blades came alive, gnashing together with a hungry whine. I considered the possibility they’d slice open my skull. This seemed feasible, but not so likely as to warrant calling off the whole endeavour. After all, we were in hard lockdown: there was no one to shave my head but me.
All that morning, I’d been propped up in bed with a pot of tea, trying and failing to read. My brain was preoccupied with the problem it’d been chewing over for months: should I, dare I, shave?
Over the five months since the pandemic hit, I’d managed only a single visit to the hairdresser—something I normally did every five weeks. Deep into Melbourne’s second wave, and with no end of lockdown in sight, my hairdresser would not reopen anytime soon. On my head, things were getting out of control. My queer haircut, one of those asymmetrical creations perched atop an undercut, had entropized into a mop that ran down my neck and fell into my eyes. No amount of gel or hairspray would hold these locks in place.
But hair over my eyes wasn’t the real problem. I didn’t particularly mind not being able to see. After all, stuck at home all day, what was there to see, apart from my cats?
No, the problem was the return of my femininity.
It had been four years since I’d first cropped my hair.
On the day Trump was elected in 2016, I directed a bearded Chippendale barber to remove the mane that hung down my back. He pulled the locks into a ponytail, then amputated with one neat snip. As a red stain seeped across the United States, a mountain of blonde accumulated on the tiles beneath my chair.
That day, I couldn’t tell you why. My natural blonde hair was, everyone told me, my greatest asset. There was no logic to discarding this fortune, this source of status. I felt only an inchoate urge to do something drastic.
In hindsight, that first cut was a step towards coming out as transgender. Two more years would pass before I could name myself as trans, but that day in 2016 was a beginning of sorts. It was the moment I first chose to be myself rather than be pretty. It was the moment I first dared to thumb my nose at the demand that ‘women’ highlight their femininity. Fuck femininity was the real meaning behind the gold hillock on the hairdresser’s floor.
Over the four years since, my hair grew shorter and shorter, ever more androgynous, as I remade myself from a woman called Anne into a transmasculine person called Yves. My short hair was what made this transition feel real. I wasn’t on testosterone, hadn’t had gender affirmation surgery, so still had the physiognomy of a ‘woman’. Apart from a new wardrobe of menswear, only my cropped hair marked out my transgender self.
Because my hair carried the weight of my transition, I stomached the exorbitant cost of salon haircuts. I penny-pinched over groceries, could be wracked with guilt over a four-dollar flat white, but would happily hand over ninety bucks every five weeks to keep my hairstyle fresh. On the walk home up High Street, I’d stroke the fresh undercut and search for my reflection in shop windows. The sharp cut carving a path through the coffee-scented air. All was right, again.
Now, thanks to the constraints of a pandemic, my hair was growing back fast. Yves was disappearing before my eyes.
Each day, my hairstyle lost definition. Sculptural forms collapsed into soft waves around my cheeks. Each day, the fresh growth shoved me back into womanhood. Each day, the urge got stronger and strong to climb out my skin.
This was what doctors called gender dysphoria.
This was what I called being terrorised by my own body.
Hence, the clippers. If I couldn’t get a haircut, the only alternative seemed to be: shave it all off. Start afresh. A clean slate, so to speak. Why not? Surely there was no better time than a pandemic, with its social distancing and enforced WFH, to take the plunge into egg-head territory. If necessary, I could hide out at home, away from people and cameras, until my hair grew back.
But still, I prevaricated, like a swimmer frozen on the edge of a frigid pool. Even without a girlish mane, I still relied on my golden hair to win praise and attention. Being a ‘natural blonde’ was a safety blanket and a form of currency long taken for granted. I’d never experienced the world without its comforts and privileges.
Who would I be without any hair at all?
From childhood, blonde hair defined me. It was my signature, my calling card, the thing that made me recognisable in a crowd.
“You’re so easy to spot,” friends would say. “Your hair’s like a beacon.”
My hair was the thing that made me special. The source of my worth.
I learnt this fact early.
“Don’t you dare cut your hair!” exclaimed my grandmother, when, aged six, I voiced a passing desire for a haircut. “It’s so long and beautiful, you can’t cut it off.”
This is one of her only lessons that stuck.
Hair was what bound me to my mother. In terms of face and build, I have few traces of her side of the family. I’m tall and lean whereas she’s short and curvy; she’s got neat, symmetrical features, while I boast the bulbous nose and strong jaw recorded in photographs of my paternal ancestors.
But I did inherit Mum’s straight blonde hair. Somehow this was enough to mark us out as mother and daughter. Our identical hair would overshadow the fact that, in every other way, we are carved from different moulds. We were the blonde girls, mother and mini-me, walking hand-in-hand down the street. Our common inheritance, our treasure.
For decades, every hairdresser visit followed the same script.
“Oh my god, is your hair natural?” the stylist would ask.
“Yep. Yep, it is.”
“Wow, that’s incredible! People spend, like, hundreds of dollars to get hair like that. You’re, like, so lucky.”
Lucky. That was always the word that was used. It never failed to rankle, to induce a queasy sensation in my guts.
Why, exactly, did being a natural blonde make me ‘lucky’?
I didn’t live in a bubble. I knew that blonde hair was high status, something that aspirational women spent good money and long hours to obtain. In the early 2000s, during my teenage years, magazines and billboards featured a relentless parade of blondes in spaghetti straps, straightened hair cascading from a central part towards a tanned midriff.
My hometown crawled with surfers, and surf culture loves a blonde. At school, the hot girls, the popular ones, always looked like they’d stepped straight from a Billabong ad: tan, thin, salt-crusted—and, most importantly, armed with long bleached hair.
Marilyn Monroe, Princess Diana, Grace Kelly, Cate Blanchett, Britney Spears—all those pin-ups and movie stars, elevated by their fair hair. ‘Gentlemen prefer blondes’, after all.
I was ‘lucky’ because I’d been handed that trophy for free. My hair just grew like this: instant blonde bombshell, straight from the womb. No effort required.
But why was blonde hair so desirable to begin with? Was it because it was rare—and hence precious? After all, blonde hair is a recessive trait. Only an estimated two percent of the global population are natural blondes. I was part of a tiny global minority.
But then again, red hair is even less common, and women don’t dye their hair crimson en masse. We speak of ‘bottle blondes’ but not ‘bottle redheads’. Instead we mock ‘rangas’ for their ginger locks—a hangover from the anti-Irish prejudice widespread during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Red hair was a symbol of “Irish otherness”, explain Amanda Third and Diane Negra. It signalled their “off-whiteness” or “not-quite-whiteness”. Today, the Irish are no longer questionably white, but the ambivalence around red hair remains. This history was invoked in the 2020 season of The Bachelor, when contestant Zoe-Clare went viral after she accused fellow contestants of anti-ranga prejudice.
Apart from red hair, there are many other human attributes just as rare as blondism yet without the same cachet—being intersex, being transgender, being albino. These are all estimated to feature in around one percent of the population. Rare and ‘special’, indeed. But no one is pretending they’re intersex to get a promotion or a Tinder date.
So no, the rareness argument didn’t hold up to scrutiny. The real basis to blonde cachet was white supremacy. Blonde hair is, after all, a symbol of whiteness, the hallmark of the so-called ‘Nordic race’ from northern Europe. From Hitler to Trump, there’s a long history of blondes being fetishised in the name of racism and eugenics. Within this schema, the blonde (and ideally, blue-eyed) person is acclaimed as the apotheosis of whiteness—and hence, of desirability. As whiteness scholar Richard Dyer observes, ‘blondeness and beauty are synonymous in Western myth and fairytale.’ By extension, dark hair is coded as inferior. The hierarchies of beauty are mapped onto the hierarchies of race: the fairer the better.
The same logic shaped modern Australia. In the wake of World War II, when the country opened its doors to migrants from wartorn Europe, ‘Beautiful Balts’ were given priority because Australian officials admired their fair hair and blue eyes. Unlike other, more melanated Europeans, these blondes were no threat to White Australia. “[Prime Minister] Chifley liked them blond,” was the word on the street. Viewed in these terms, the hype over natural blondes felt like white supremacy by another name.
Then there was the association with youth. Blonde hair is more common in children than adults. Many people born blonde will go darker over time. The cherubic infant, crowned with golden curls, becomes the adult with unremarkable dun locks. (This was the fate of my brother, whose white mop went brown before puberty.) Blondeness is hence evocative of childhood and its imagined innocence and purity.
This would be fine, if blondes weren’t also hypersexualised. So, a trait associated with peak female status and desirability is a trait concentrated among pre-pubescent children. What does this say about our culture? That we sexualise little girls or that we want adult women to be infantile—or both? Either way, it’s perverse.
All in all, the hype over blondes felt a little too much like the mutterings of a Klu Klux Klan stalwart with paedophilic tendencies.
And so I would squirm under the hairdresser’s hands as they marvelled at my tresses.
“You’re so lucky, this colour is amazing.”
Every time it was the same. I’d grimace at their exclamations, and wait for it to be over.
And yet: I was not immune to the blonde mythology. I was human, after all. I squirmed at the compliments but also fed off them, ravenous for the honeyed warmth of a stranger’s praise.
Best of all, the hair praise soothed my gender anxieties. I was a woman, or so I’d been told, and therefore I was meant to be attractive. But my face was no one’s definition of pretty. Big nose, deep-set eyes, strong jaw. As the mother of a boyfriend told me, I had “strong features.”
Handsome, maybe. Striking, perhaps. Pretty? No way.
There were ways, I knew, to cultivate prettiness. Potions and lotions, products and rituals. Yet I was baffled by the rituals of female beautification. It was a world as alien and impenetrable as outer space.
But was I really a woman, then? Perhaps I’d missed the moment in the womb when femininity was implanted.
Blondeness was my saving grace here. Otherwise unfeminine, I relied on high-status hair to secure my place as a legit woman. Shining in the sun, my mane compensated for the parts of me that were wrong.
I saw how it worked: men chose me because they wanted a blonde on their arm. They weren’t interested in me; they were in the market for a Barbie doll brought to life. With my hair, a short skirt, and a smear of lip-gloss, I could be that Barbie for a night.
On a date at a Southbank restaurant, the man opposite took my photo to text his brother.
“I want to show him this blonde girl,” he said.
Later that night, he bought me Jaeger bombs at Crown then fucked me in his car. I was just a mix of hair and holes.
At a gallery opening, in Collingwood, an older man crossed the room to spin me round the dance floor.
Next morning, in bed, he explained: “I saw this little blonde girl and couldn’t resist.”
Years later, on a Sydney summer eve, a man on Crown Street picked me up, took me out for beers, then insisted on buying me dinner.
“I was walking behind you, and saw your amazing hair, and thought ‘I have to meet this blonde girl’,” he told me, before sticking his tongue down my throat.
Then there was the predictable pick-up line.
“Are you Swedish? You must be, with hair like that,” the men leered again and again. Everyday hunters, looking for a tasty morsel, in cafes, on buses, in grocery stores.
The evidence was clear: the hair drew the men, like honey to a pot.
When men chose me, I felt secure in my impersonation of a woman. Their mauling hands and wet kisses were evidence that I’d tricked them, that I could perform ‘woman’ like a natural. Perhaps, if enough men made me their blonde, their generic fuckable girl, I could trick myself into forgetting that it was all an act. I could forget, for a night, that I was no woman at all.
The men were, as individuals, irrelevant. They were as generic to me as I was to them. I couldn’t tell you their names. They’re just a blur of hungry mouths and swollen crotches and lustful eyes—an assemblage of male desire that existed to validate my tenuous femininity.
Blonde hair was my secret weapon in all of this. And so I kept it long, washed it daily, and carried a brush at all times, so it would always gleam in the sun—and, through gleaming, distract the eye from everything else. All you’d see was a Barbie doll, brought to life.
This kind of overcompensating is common among trans folk. Like actors cast in the wrong role, we may exaggerate and overact our assigned gender, desperate to keep the illusion alive.
Transfeminine people, also known as MTF (male-to-female), might have a hyper-masculine phase prior to transition. The writer Vivek Shraya was a keen body-builder before coming out as trans. Then living as a gay man, Shraya gorged on protein shakes and haunted the gym in an attempt to cultivate the masculinity she’d been shamed for lacking. “I lift weights despite incurring injuries,” Shraya wrote, “hoping to be both wanted and left alone, all the while reprimanding my body for not conforming”.
The same impulse sends future transwomen into the military. In this most masculine of spaces, MTFs are found in disproportionate numbers. As the authors of Serving in Silence explain, incipient MTFs are “motivated to enlist to conform to social pressures to align to hegemonic masculinity.” Not yet living as women, and struggling to be men, gyms and army barracks envelop transwomen-to-be in the masculinity that adheres to these spaces.
For me, while still Anne, hair served much the same function. Not yet able to name my trans-ness, and ill at ease in the role of woman, my blonde tresses cloaked me in compensatory femininity. It was my permanent Barbie costume.
To get maximum effect, I wore my hair out. No ponytails or buns for me. Just a river of blonde, cascading down my cheeks. With a full mane and big sunglasses, you could barely see my face. I could remain hidden in plain sight.
That first cut, in 2016, then all the ones since, had ushered Yves, my trans self, into the world. No longer was I trying to be woman. But even so, my hair remained a crutch. Its blondeness, and the white privilege that conveyed, helped compensate for the tattoos, the hairy legs, the men’s shirts, the undercut—all my parts that were deviant and strange. Even short, my hair protected me.
Non-binary writer Roz Bellamy feared shaving their head because “I knew it would make it a lot harder to pass as straight, which was a safety mechanism I still relied on at times.” The same fear churned in my guts. After the clippers, there would be nowhere left to hide. There would just be my raw face, and my queerness, plain for all to see. A shaved head would mark myself out as a gender traitor. A shaved head would invite the discomfort and scorn of others. I would become a walking provocation. As Bellamy notes, short and especially shaved hair on seeming ‘women’ constitutes “an act of defiance.”
The world doesn’t take kindly to those who defy gender rules. Hair, in particular, is often a site of contention. In the 1920s, the fashion for bobbed hair in women provoked hysteria precisely because it appeared ‘unfeminine’. By cutting their locks, women made themselves androgynous. Shorn of their crowning glory, they muddied the division between women and men. It was an insurrection, and it was met with fierce backlash. Barbers refused to crop women’s hair; husbands and fathers denied permission for the cut; some workplaces and churches banned the bob altogether. In the United States, the Bobbed Hair Bandit—a woman who held up a Bronx restaurant in 1924— fused androgyny and criminality in the public imagination.
Then, in the 1960s, the opposite occurred: men grew out their hair, becoming disturbingly ‘effeminate’. After the long reign of the short-back-and-sides, Long Haired Hippies were suddenly everywhere. The gender binary was under threat once more. Men resembled women, throwing conventional ideas of masculinity and femininity into disarray. What next? pundits asked. Was this a slippery slope towards to the collapse of civilisation? Again, these hair rebels were shamed and censured. ‘Longhairs’ were linked to drug addiction, promiscuity, degeneracy, even criminality. Parents dragged their children to the barbers, and many workplaces and schools enforced restrictions on hair length. Anything to restore order. To turn men back into men.
Today, the moral panic over androgynous hair has subsided. Cropped women or ponytailed men no longer raise eyebrows—most of the time. But the fear and hatred towards gender rebels remains. Trans and gender diverse people, especially those who don’t ‘pass’ as cisgender, are routinely harassed or attacked just for existing. Hate crimes are on the rise. During 2019, 26 trans people were murdered in the United States; at least 27 were murdered in the first seven months of 2020. Worldwide, over three thousand trans people have been murdered in the past decade. This violence is disproportionately directed towards transfeminine people, especially transwomen of colour. But transmasculine types are also abused, beaten and killed for failing to perform ‘woman’. Boys Don’t Cry, the 1999 Hollywood film, dramatizes the real-life gang rape and murder of Nebraskan transman Brandon Teena in 1993.
Shaving my head was unlikely to get me killed, but it may well make me a target for hatred. After all, Australian research from 2012 found that 47 percent of transmen and 37 percent of transwomen had experienced verbal abuse that year. The odds didn’t look great. Was it worth the risk?
There was another fear. Would my hair, post-shaving, change colour? Shaved leg hair regrew a darker shade; perhaps head hair could do the same. What if I lost my blonde cachet, not just temporarily, but forever? I’d never used hair dye due to anxiety that the original colour would fail to return. The clippers seemed no less fraught with danger. As much as I recoiled from the racism attached to blonde status, I wasn’t ready to forego that status for good.
There was still a small, infantile part of me that needed to be special.
This hair vanity was a big part of what kept me from hormone replacement therapy. One of the irreversible side-effects of testosterone is male pattern balding. Once you start injecting T, you’re liable to develop a receding hairline, thinning crown, or even go bald altogether. Even if you stop the testosterone, the balding will remain. It’s genetic, on the maternal side, so your mother’s father and brothers are the best guide for what will happen.
In my case, the evidence was inclusive. My maternal grandfather was near bald by the end of his life. He died, aged 85, with just a few white ruffles around a shiny crown. My maternal uncle, however, still boasts a ginger mop, only lightly thinned, in his mid-sixties. There were rumour of other relatives—some bald, some not—but they were little more than sepia memories from my mother’s youth.
Even with a clear family trend, there’s no guarantees what HRT will do. It’s a lottery.
“Like unlocking the DNA of a male twin,” the gender psychologist explained.
On T, I might develop the musculature I craved, but at the cost of my hair. Muscles for follicles, so to speak. Or not. No one knew. Though the odds were against me. According to the American Hair Loss Association, two thirds of cismen experience appreciable hair loss by age 35. Over 85% have significantly thinned hair by age 50.
It wasn’t a risk I was ready to take.
Blondes were hot but also dumb—or so the stereotype went. Ditzy blondes. Dumb dumbs. Blonde airheads. Women who existed to be pawed and fucked. All glossy surface, nothing more.
These ideas always hovered in the background. Was my drive to get all the degrees, win all the prizes, an effort to compensate for the dumb blonde stigma? Look, I may resemble a ditz, with my long blonde hair, but I have a PhD!
Did people discount my intelligence, dismiss me as an empty vessel, because of my hair? Probably, to some degree.
Certainly, things changed when my hair shortened. As my appearance masculinised, I was invited into seminars, publications, committees, conferences, broadcasts, judging panels, boards. My confidence increased. I won tenure.
But was this really about hair—about ingrained ideas about blondeness and gender and intelligence? Or was it just that this shift coincided with my post-PhD years, a period when it’s normal to grow in professional authority and confidence? Perhaps everything would have played out the same if I’d retained my dumb blonde mane.
Or perhaps, the crucial factor was that gender transition made me more confident, more at ease in my skin, and that confidence attracted plaudits and opportunities.
What changed: me or the world?
Both, I suspect. It was all chicken and egg, feedback loops between individual and society impossible to unravel.
The question now was: what would a shaved head add to the mix?
Like most of my decisions, this one comes in a rush. Standing in the kitchen, in front of the mirrored splashback, I take the clippers to my skull. No towel, no preparation. Just steel assaulting follicles. It’s easier than expected. The clippers purr around my head, great hunks of hair falling to the floor. I start with the 2cm blades, and then progress onto the 3mm, the shortest setting. Within minutes, it’s done. I haven’t even nicked myself.
I sweep the floorboards, making a neat pile of hair. There’s a shocking amount, a mix of sun-bleached gold and darker sections that never saw the light. No longer part of me, but still of me. A liminal object, halfway between human and trash.
I recall that hair was central to Victorian-era mourning rituals. Locks were kept in lockets, rings and brooches; cuttings were braided into bracelets. Hair as metonym for an absent loved one.
I take a photo, then stuff the hair into the rubbish, where it embraces kitty litter, orange peel and teabags.
“You should keep the hair,” Mum instructs, over the phone. “I wish I’d kept hair from when I was young.”
Again: blonde hair as currency, treasure. Something to hoard.
“Too late,” I tell Mum. “I’ve binned it.”
But my hair won’t leave me that easily. I’m left with the detritus on my body. Rogue hairs itch at my face, neck and down my back. It takes a long shower to scrub myself free of the shards. My clothes are harder to clean. Flecked with stray hairs, they scratch at my skin. Even after washing, my jumper remains unwearable. It’s my own literal hairshirt, torment embedded in cotton weave.
The post-shaving rush is better than any drug. (Not that I’ve tried many.) The violence of the act, its hint of taboo, is felt in the body as pure adrenalin. Like plunging into icy water, only to emerge elated, hyper-alive. Reborn.
The hair that remains is like a pelt, velvet made for stroking. In bed, I run my hand over the surface, learning the new texture, stroking myself into reverie as you would a cat. Smooth way one, crunchy the other. It’s somehow feline, more animal than human. Tigers come to mind, stalking through the long grass. There are worse animals to resemble.
Within days, the pelt grows uneven. Tufts stick out, here and there. In certain angles, the tufts catch the light, sparkling gold. Ginger, in places. Almost white in others. Under the sun, I wear a crown of sparkles. A queer baby, baptised in glitter.
I look like my brother, in his angry teenage years. I look like my 21 year-old cousin. I look like Yves. Boyish, unadorned, a little fierce. No longer am I quite so eager to escape my own skin.
Outside, I don a beanie. Pulled low around the ears, black wool swaddles my skull, hides it from staring eyes. But the exercise warms my blood and the wool becomes cloying. Within days, I leave the beanie at home. Down along Merri Creek, crowded with locals walking their way through lockdown, I stride the paths, eyes down, weathering a barrage of curious eyes. At least my state-mandated mask keeps me anonymous. With cloth over my face, and Ray Bans perched on my nose, I could be anyone. On the street, friends and neighbours stride past, oblivious. There are still places to hide.
For the next fortnight, I keep my camera off in Zoom meetings.
“My internet connection has been shaky,” I dissemble. “We’ll get a better connection if I keep the video off.”
With my egg head hidden, colleagues speak to my Zoom avatar, a professional headshot taken a year ago. I’m not ready to let that person go.
While running, I’m newly streamlined, aerodynamic. There’s no hair to collect sweat or hang in my eyes. The breeze whisks over my pelt. I’m an animal, powering through space.
A fortnight after the Great Shaving, stage 4 lockdown is extended. Hairdressers won’t reopen for another six weeks, at least. A collective howl reverberates across Melbourne at the news. Everyone is shaggy and unkempt. Roots are growing out. Fringes encroach upon eyes. On Twitter, the desperate weigh up the pros and cons of a self-administered trim. Stylists take to Zoom to advise on home haircuts.
I sit back and watch, reassured I’d made the right decision. Using the clippers a fortnight ago had saved me two months of hair-induced dysphoria. Two months of being terrorised by my own body. The stares of strangers are small price to pay for dodging that fate.
My shaved head is not the only reason strangers stare. Eyes also widen at my legs, covered by golden tendrils. I’d stopped shaving and waxing eighteen months earlier. Ever since, my leg hair had grown with abandon, free and untamed after two decades of depilation. It was another way to refuse womanhood, to embrace masculinity without testosterone.
This bodily hair growth is no less transgressive than head hair removal. In contemporary Western cultures, body hair is deemed “uncouth, even downright repulsive”, notes historian Rebecca Herzig. Recent research found that 99 percent of American women voluntarily remove body hair. Around 85 percent do so regularly—even daily. It’s a taken-for-granted part of feminine grooming, as expected as wearing deodorant or brushing your teeth. Increasingly, men remove body hair also. As of 2005, 60 percent removed or reduced hair below the neck.
In this context, visible body hair becomes an insurrection—especially for someone, like me, perceived as ‘female’. My verdant calves, tanned beneath running shorts, broadcast deviance to the world. They prompt strangers to double-take and furrow their brow. But here again, my blondeness protects me. Low melanin makes my leg hair less conspicuous, less ‘disgusting’. In the right light, the pale follicles are near invisible. It’s another opportunity to hide.
There’s nothing ‘natural’ about this aversion to body hair. We’re not born feeling disgusted by hairy legs. In fact, the practice of regular shaving and waxing is barely a century old. As Herzig explains, it wasn’t until the 1920s that depilation became mainstream. The ‘problem’ of body hair is a recent invention, fuelled by racism. According to the scientific racism developed in the late nineteenth century, hairiness was a sign of the primitive, the simian. Body hair became associated with ‘less developed’ races, and so white people began to view their own hair with disgust. Smooth skin emerged as a marker of civilisation.
In the twentieth century, the growing requirement to shave was also a new form of gendered control. Just as women won the vote and other political rights, their freedoms were restricted anew by the ‘third shift’ of beautification (a term coined by Naomi Wolf). Women had their time and wallets colonised by an ever-growing list of ‘essential’ grooming rituals—a win for patriarchy and capitalism!
Back in my leg-shaving days, I’d fume at the time and bother of this Sisyphean ritual. I don’t miss that labour. I don’t miss replacing blunt blades, lathering up in the shower, balancing on one leg, the tedious strokes up the calf and around the fiddly knee and ankle regions. I don’t miss the nicks and cuts, the scratchy regrowth, the endless disposable plastic. Nor do I mourn the mental labour of planning ahead to ensure a smooth-legged appearance in public.
Sometimes, though, I hanker for the glow of impeccable hygiene conveyed by a fresh shave. I want to feel clean and streamlined in the way that only hairless skin can provide. There’s nothing intrinsically dirty about body hair, I know. And yet, I am still unlearning my own disgust. Even as strangers’ stares cease to bother me, I’m still teaching myself not to recoil at the brush of leg hair against bedsheets.
Maybe it’s the sense of renewal I miss. Smooth legs are a clean slate, a fresh beginning, full of promise.
Now my head serves this function. It’s been pruned back like a tree in winter, stripped of excess growth, in readiness for something new.
As the weeks pass, my post-shaving pelt offers lessons in impermanence. My head is only ‘shaved’ for a day or so, before fresh growth asserts itself. Each day, the texture changes, from velvet to carpet to the crunch of dry lawn. Each day, I measure the new length in my palms. The cowlick at my forehead returns. Changing, always, without any effort on my part. Each day, idling stroking, my hands find new evidence that nothing ever stays the same. Here is a new tuft, a new silkiness at the neck. A new wave at the temple. Here is me growing and dying each second.
A month in, the pelt now a forest of bristles, I discuss the politics of hair on late-night radio. The call-back is dominated by women who lost their hair during chemo. They speak about the grief of going bald, the joy of hair sprouting once more. The post-chemo growth is a rebirth, they explain. The new hair, often different in colour and texture, ushers in a new phase of life. Post-cancer, born again.
My own regrowth is also a rebirth of sorts. The shaving was a necessary violence, a shedding of old skin. It enabled me to leave the chrysalis of gender transition and re-emerge as something new. Something that manifests, millimetre by millimetre, with each passing minute.
This regeneration coincides with the first weeks of spring. Jasmine perfumes the night air and angry winds whip my apartment. Like the branches beginning to blossom, I too am bursting with new life. Buds open, shoots rise, gold spills from my scalp. Waiting at the traffic lights, warm air ruffles the hair on my legs.
Despite the long months of winter, despite the carnage of plague and fire, we keeping blooming, all of us alive things. The trees and me are not so different. We’re all just collections of cells, pulsing with life, reaching towards the sun. In spite of everything.
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Riseman, Noah, Shirleene Robinson and Graham Willett. Serving in Silence? Australian LGBT Servicemen and women. NewSouth, 2018.
Shraya, Vivek. I’m Afraid of Men. Penguin, 2018.
Third, Amanda, and Diane Negra, “Does the rug match the carpet? Race, gender, and the redheaded woman,” in The Irish in Us: Irishness, Performativity, and Popular Culture. Duke University Press, 2006.
Vincent, Susan J. Hair: An Illustrated History. Bloomsbury, 2018.
Dr Yves Rees is an award-winning writer, historian and podcaster. At present, Yves is a Lecturer in History at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia. A settler Australian living and working on unceded Wurundjeri land, Yves has published widely across Australian gender, transnational and economic history.