Tuesday, September 14, 2010


1. When I was eighteen I shaved my head.
At first I just shaved the back (you can just see it in the above photo) and kept the fringe*. A few months later I shaved it all off and repeated this pattern every so often throughout my twenties. Below I am about 21 or 22.
The first time I did it I rang my mum from a phone box on the lawn at Salamanca, Hobart, at dusk and told her (I was living in a townhouse in North Hobart, having moved out a few days before my 18th birthday). After a moment of silent anguish she said "At least you haven't got cancer."
Later she told me she'd gone downstairs and said to Dad, "What's the worse thing you can imagine Penni doing?"
Dad replied, "She's pregnant."
"Second worse."
"She's shaved her head."
Number two. Not drugs, or a cult, or elopement (well, ahem, at least I never joined a cult), or... well a million worse things. No. Second worse: shaving my head.
Why did I do it? Well, because of her of course.
I had taped the song off Rage and watched it over and over again. And then I went on to discover more of her, song by song - Three Babies, Last Days of Our Acquaintance, Troy (in which she referenced my favourite Yeats poem*), and she ruled benevolently over my identity until I discovered The Waifs (in a pub, in Melbourne, *cough*, before they were famous).
Also it made me feel brave and free - I'd had awful haircuts as a teenager and was really quite frightened of hairdressers and the power they wielded, the ugliness they could inflict upon me (ugliness thy name is perm. And sometimes bob.). There was enormous self-empowerment in going the shave. I also quite often got around in a black petticoat and Doc Martens and fishnet tights. Black was my signature colour*.
Also it felt great, the breeze on my head was a natural endorphin kick, like the tickly scratch on her back which has never failed to calm Una down, like the light touch massage we were taught on Sunday in my hypnobirthing class.
*(x3) The word emo had not been invented yet.

2. A month or two back now, my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. She has just undergone her first bout of chemo, and last week, over the course of a day, she lost most of her hair. (She was getting the rest shaved off yesterday). Not without some sense of irony, we've both been taken back to this old story that exists between us. It is a gift, in a way, that something so sombre can also have an air of lightness.

3. I did a workshop recently with a group of teenagers (about the relationship between character and parts of the body), and one of them wrote: 'Her identity was in her hair.' Hair is a huge part of our self image, so much of how we perceive ourselves is tangled up in that mass of colour and coif atop our skulls. After I shaved my head, my hair grew back thicker and more lustrous and for the first time in my life - and to this day - I had natural curls (there had been weather-affected frizz and several disagreeable kinks and cowlicks, but this was the first time I had honest to goodness curl).
Some years ago (somewhere between five and ten) my mother stopped dying her hair and let it grow in completely white. She used to have curls too, big fat ones as a child and teenager, but her hair had become quite straight. She had it done fairly often and usually had a hairdresser that she would stay loyal to - in the eighties it was a man called Ken, and she followed him from salon to salon, along with my best friend's mother. Ken must have been quite something. I remember one salon he worked in (perhaps he cut my hair once or twice), in Sandy Bay, next to a drycleaner, in an odd spot without any other shops around. Almost like a service station or a bottle shop, it had a "drive through" in front, probably for quick pick up of drycleaning.
I may be making all this up. About the drycleaner. I am quite sure about the hair.

4. Our first First Gentleman is a hairdresser.

5. Just before I fell pregnant I dyed my hair for the first time in years.
There is still residual colour. My hair has always taken colour well, probably because it tends to be a little dry and there is quite a bit of red pigment (I was a very gingery kid). It has been many colours: blue, blonde, black (yeah, that didn't work out so well), and accidentally greenish which it turns out is what happens when you put black henna over red bottle dye. I first got tips at 11 on a family holiday at the Gold Coast (Mum says Dad was in charge and she came back to find my hair dyed and Kylie's permed). They put a rubber cap on me and pulled strands of hair through little holes. I asked for strawberry blonde because that's what colour girls hair was in the American romance books I was addicted to (Sweet Dreams and Sweet Valley High). They were perplexed but came up with something. When I went back to school I said I'd been to the Gold Coast over the holidays and she said, "I can see the sun has lightened your hair."
"I had it dyed," I told her.
She gave me a withering stare and said archly, "I am sure some of it was the sun."
And hastily I agreed (she was that sort of teacher). She had two hair styles herself, a giant Barbie perm and a very tight ponytail with all her hair scraped back. She cultivated an alarming look, her eyebrows were also quite something, all four of them. She came back from holidays herself with the second style and all the girls in the class walked in, and then instantly stepped back into the hallway to claw at each other and gasp, "Did you see her hair?"

6. Sometimes I still think about shaving my head. Martin does a number Number Two fairly regularly, and as I neaten up the back I think how easy it would be, how lovely the air would feel swirling around my scalp. But somehow I doubt I will ever shave my head again.

Not by choice anyway.


  1. OK, I have about a million different thoughts running through my head.. so, some order.

    I am really impressed that you shaved your hair.

    You look incredibly striking with a bald head, just like Sinead.

    I can't believe how much your daughters look like tender little fragile you as a young 'un.

    I agree, there is sooooo much our hair says about our image - that is why I have always been a fan of spending a lot on haircuts even if not on clothes. There is nothing, short of plastic surgery that can so radically change your whole look so fast.

    Thanks for sharing everything in this post.

    My thoughts to you and your mother.

  2. Lovely post, as ever, Penni.

    I've shaved my head a couple of times, most memorably as a fundraiser on my trip to Antarctica a few years ago. Sadly I don't have the head to carry it. (Imogen tells me I look like an egg). I also dyed it electric blue a couple of years ago, just to see what it felt like, and I was so glad I did it. Your remarks about the incredible sense of freedom and individuality that come with dramatic shifts in 'hair paradigm' are spot on.

    You're dead right about our hair being such a crucial part of our identity, but it's also a part of our identity which, no matter how much we play with and alter, always inevitably returns to its 'true' form. I dunno if that means anything...

    I'm really sorry to hear about your mum. My thoughts are with you all.

  3. OK, I read all that (hope your ma's doing as well as can be expected) and as I am reading I am thinking, so, go shave your head. Why not? Hmmmm, why not? Maybe not bald, but No.2. No.1 and let it grow to a longer length. Why not?

  4. On a side note, it's funny that your black + red hair went green, because that's exactly what happened to Anne of Green Gables. Maybe that story was based on personal experience!

  5. Mums being sick sucks. Mine's been through the same sort of thing yours is, and she's 100% fine now :-) But it sucks big time.

  6. Frangipani9:18 PM

    You can put my nearly bald picture up Penni. The next one will be better. Scott at Some Hallucinations did my hair very well. He shaved off the remaining whisps and then remodelled the fringe on the wig. I was out walking in Salamanca before Meredith got back from paying her parking fine. I went walking today, had the woolly hat and a sunhat over. More chemo tomorrow.

  7. I love that top photo of you!!

    My mum lost her hair during treatment too. She used to always wear it long(ish)and coloured, and at first she was very negative about how she looked without it, but eventually she got used to it, and now she wears it short and grey by choice!

    Also, she discovered she had great taste in headscarfs.

  8. warm thoughts to you & your mum


  9. Be thinking of you and your Mum, Penni.

    I was alwasy too chicken to do shave my hair as a young 'un, so I am even more impressed with you than I already was and wishing I'd met you back then in Melbourne so I could have been impressed in person.

  10. Anonymous8:14 PM

    When my sister lost her hair during chemo it was ok - she looked like a 19 year old who'd shaved her head. It was sad, but also a wierd adventure. When her leg hair and pubic hair fell out she joked that it was convenient.

    When her eyebrows fell out it was awful. She lost all the definition in her face. I'd never realised how much structure they give a person, nor that we have a family eyebrow. They grew back though, and the hair on her head came back really curly. If your Mum didn't have a frizzy perm in the 80s, she may be about to get one.

  11. I'm so sorry about your Mum, Penni. My thoughts to you both.

    The fear of hairdressers during teenage years resonates so much. So many times I sat in a chair at the end, all the glorious promise of a new hair cut gone, holding back the tears and saying 'that's fine, thanks' because I was too shy and complaint to scream out 'No' at the hairdresser or the fates or god or someone.

    Now, I spend so much on haircuts. I was really sad when my lovely hairdresser went to work on a cruise ship (he gave a funkier cut than that career choice would suggest). Sometimes I get the guilts about the cost of my hair but then I think, like BM, it's worth it, to walk out of the salon and home smiling, to look in the mirror without dragging disappointment, to feel like my fabulous inside is somewhat reflected by my fabulous outside, to be, finally, at peace with my fringe.