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“I saw my face unhidden, unframed, unsure of how to hold itself. I felt intensely vulnerable”.

Words: Hazel Gibbens

We are all subject, in so many different ways, to the decay and renewal of life. But while our cells regenerate at a measured pace, it is far less mathematical when it comes changing the way we live, or in the changing of our appearance.

Sometimes, it is so slow and subtle that we don’t even notice the rebirth; we come across old pictures with familiar faces smiling innocently back at us and we realise that we are not who we once were.

Other times, it is fast and momentous and utterly intentional.

It was the final day of the first month of 2018, and I was ready to say goodbye to the latest version of me. She was once flame-haired, with sharp, shaved undercuts and waves smattered with pinks and blondes. She demanded all of the perks that came with looking conventionally feminine, and unapologetically soaked up attention. Truly, she was great fun to play.  

But she was not what I wanted for myself anymore. I wanted space to engage with myself beyond what I felt others wanted to see. I wanted a blank piece of paper on which to begin writing the story of my adulthood. And so, I let my locks go. I reduced the once dramatic expression of my identity to four soft plaits lying sweetly in line on a bathroom counter. And when I looked up, I felt raw. I saw my face unhidden, unframed, unsure of how to hold itself.  I felt intensely vulnerable.

At the very top of my forehead, I saw a small white mark, a scar from my childhood that I had all but forgotten about. It reminded me, gently, of a time when being deemed ‘pretty’ fell far down the list of my priorities, if it was on it at all. So perhaps I was looking to capture some of that energy again. I was looking for a clear way of telling myself to put learning over looks.  

Shaving my head was a true catharsis. Before we began, I imagined all of my pain and worries traveling up through my body and out into every strand, and when I looked down afterwards, I saw thousands of tiny moments scattered across the floor. I ran my fingers over my skull for the first time ever, and it told me that I had been living separately from myself for too long. How strange that there are parts of our bodies that we so rarely touch or learn.

I had worried, deep down, that society would not welcome me as warmly as it once did, that I would be typecast as butch or unstable. This brought me eye to eye with the privilege I’d been living with for so long, and I had known it existed, but now I was being asked to give a small portion of it away. I suppose I received less flirtation, but in its place I received something far more precious: respect. Whether it was because I commanded space differently, or simply a result of the way I looked I’m not sure, but the gaze of others certainly met mine stronger than before.

I found a power: power in having nowhere to hide, power from not giving society the version of me it told me it wanted. A few male colleagues confessed they preferred the way I looked before, as though my very existence was to provide a pleasing aesthetic, and that their opinion should hold actual weight in my life. I was more than happy to disappoint them.

Unexpectedly, I grew to love my face in its most natural form. When you strip back one part of yourself, it seems the rest follows suit. I still enjoy make-up, but no longer feel I am playing a character.

It seems almost comical to speak of something as ‘trivial’ as hair like this, but as women our appearance and our perceived femininity is a huge part of the way we live and form our ego. Even when men shave their head it can be quite startling to see, and as a woman I continuously feel the pressure to look a certain way, so I do think it is more than fair enough to feel afraid of the idea, and immensely proud of the outcome.

My hair is growing back again now, and it’s a pleasure to be reunited with my natural texture and colour. I would truly recommend this experience to anyone wishing to reconnect. At its minimum, it’s an exercise in trying something new, but I believe for most people it will be so much more.

The aspiring storyteller and moon creature, Hazel Gibbens is an analogue photography nerd. Currently challenging stereotypes in Edinburgh.