496: Baldness

A Thousand Things to Talk About
496: Baldness

Would you shave your head bald? Would your answer change if friends were also doing it?

Full episode script

Baldness contains such a dichotomy of meaning across history. Shaving one’s head bald has indicated religious dedication, military service, punishment, counter-culture identification, or dominance.Baldness can also be an extraordinarily gendered discussion in modern day.

For men, baldness and shaved heads are often perceived as a dominant move. Wharton management lecturer Albert Mannes conducted three experiments to test peoples’ perceptions of men with shaved heads in 2012, and his research found that men with shorn heads were perceived as an inch taller and about 13% stronger than men with a full head of hair.

As it was put in the Wall Street Journal:

A bare scalp “is nature’s way of telling the rest of the world that you are a survivor,” adds Michael Cunningham, a professor at the University of Louisville, who has studied social perceptions of baldness. He adds that the deliberate shaved-head look conveys aggressiveness, competitiveness and shows “willingness to stand against social norms.”

Those social norms are heavily challenged when women go bald. Quoting directly from a Vice News history of women’s baldness:

Throughout history and around the world, women have parted with their hair for various reasons. Religious purification by way of a buzzcut enabled young saints to transcend a world of temptations while that same hairdo forced scrutiny on women who misbehaved and were penalized. A woman’s sexuality is often seen as a threatening force and removing her hair is thought to neutralize its potency. In response, many women shave their heads as a statement of power by reclaiming control over their bodies and celebrating the right to express themselves how they choose.

In her memoirs, titled “I’ll Never Write My Memoirs”, Jones says of her [shaved head] look, “My shaved head made me look more abstract, less tied to a specific race or sex or tribe. I was black, but not black; woman, but not woman; American, but Jamaican; African, but science fiction.”


In the modern day, baldness, especially for women, often comes with an additional question about and concern for health, since baldness is often a side effect of chemotherapy. It leaves the question open as to if that’s concern-trolling — or an attempt to reinforce gender norms.

This script may vary from the actual episode transcript.