Shaving the Head Against One’s Will Gives the Shaver Power




The turning point in V for Vendetta, the 2006 film set in a dystopian society, occurs when the hero, Evie, is captured and forced to submit to a lengthy indoctrination sequence in which she must endure a number of indignities and tortures; the most memorable of these is when her head is forcibly shaved. Other things happen to Evie, but the moment that most viewers remember is the razor leaving actress Natalie Portman bald.

Forced head shaving resonates with people in an especially powerful way. Psychologist Patricia A. Farrell, Ph.D., AFTRA, states that “if you want to deny someone their individuality and their sense of self, to abolish all their resistance, you shave their heads. Hair is one of the major ways in which we convey who we are in any society, so to remove that removes ‘me,’ and what is left is someone who will more willingly comply.”

Linnda Durre, Ph.D., is a therapist with direct experience with head shaving, having worked at the San Diego County Jail and at the Naval Drug Rehabilitation Center in San Diego. “There are several theories about shaved heads,” she says. “It depersonalizes a human being. It helps to get people to be part of a group (like the army or a fraternity), and it helps to get people to succumb and bend to power. Also, hair is a creative medium, and when shaven it takes away one’s individuality. Head shaving can humiliate someone and get them under your control. It can be an act of sadism for some who are doing the shaving; it gives them power and control.”

Clearly, head shaving in itself is not a bad thing. Many men (and some women) choose to freely and happily shave their heads for any number of reasons: They like the look of a totally smooth scalp, they want to make a statement, they live in an environment in which it is healthier to live hair free. Ancient Egyptians, for example, often shaved their heads because of the extreme heat and the presence of lice and other pests. It’s only when shaving is against one’s wishes that it becomes an issue.

Is forced shaving always a bad thing?

There are certain times when it can be questioned whether a person is voluntarily opting to shave his or her head or is being forced. For example, some religions require head shaving for various individuals. Many of these people accept this stipulation and are more than happy to lose their hair in order to progress along their chosen path toward spirituality. Others, however, may feel that they have no real choice. In strict terms, they do: They are not being forced to become, say, a monk of a specific Buddhist order. But if they do wish to become this kind of monk, then the head shaving may be a requirement and is likely just one of many requirements (celibacy, restrictions on what one can eat and so forth). In this instance, it seems clear that the head shaving is not intended as a punishment or as an act of humiliation, although it may be intended to make the individual think in different ways about physical matters.

There are, however, head shavings falling into the “voluntary or forced?” category that are more likely to be degrading in nature. For example, a fraternity initiation ritual may involve shaving. Whether an individual finds this humiliating or punitive can depend on many different factors, including the individual’s own feelings about his hair and/or willingness to submit to another’s wishes, or the tone in which the initiation is conducted. But regardless, there is at least an element of degradation implied simply because one is setting up a situation in which submission is a requirement.

Forced head shavings are probably most often associated with prisons, armies and situations in which one has fallen into enemy hands. While there may be some hygienic benefits to head shaving in these instances, the larger goal is to exert power over someone, whether to help in the formation of a tightly knit group (as happens in the army) or to dehumanize and humiliate (as occurs when in the hands of an enemy). Arguably the most well-known and most infamous example of forced head shaving remains that inflicted on the legions of Nazi concentration camp victims.

Shaving hair and drug testing

By the way, U.S. citizens do not have a right against forced head shaving, although this situation is unlikely to be a concern for most people. A 2004 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals decision (Coddington v. Evanko), involving a police officer who was forced to give hair samples for drug testing, approved of shaving hair without a warrant or probably cause, declaring that this did not violate Fourth Amendment guarantees against unreasonable search and seizure because hair is on “public display” and therefore taking it is not considered search and seizure.
Would forced shaving have the same effect if societal attitudes about baldness were different?

If our culture did not place a disproportionate emphasis on sporting a full head of hair or if it recognized that the definition of beauty can easily encompass a wider range of skin-to-hair ratios, would this practice lose its power? It’s likely it would still have an impact, since the core issue is not the fact that someone is being shaved but that it is happening against his or her will.

It’s one thing when Mother Nature takes away control over our scalp; it’s something else altogether when another person does it.