Saturday, June 7, 2008

Bald Women Are Not Acceptable

image   Stacy Fearnall had been working as a waitress for Nathaniel's Restaurant for two years when she was sent home for arriving at work with a shaved head, and refusing to wear a wig.  According to the Niagara Falls Review, Nathaniel's owner and chef Dan Hilliard defended his decision, saying the restaurant has certain standards. He prohibits male staff from wearing earrings and requires employees keep their hair at a reasonable length.  Fearnall is still on the payroll and she can return to work image once she grows her hair back, he said, adding she was offered the summer off to spend time with her kids. Fearnall had shaved her head to raise money for the charity Cops for Cancer.  For shaving her head Stacey earned $2,700. Hillard claims that he made it clear to Fearnall in advance that the restaurant would not be pleased with her if she shaved her head.

According to the Toronto Star, Fearnall agrees that her, "employers had previously "made it very clear" that they had concerns about the haircut plan, but said that they had never explicitly told her that she could not have it done.

"Even when I asked them point blank if I would still have a job if I had my head shaved, they didn't give me a direct answer, so I thought it was okay," she added.

While part of this issue involves the right of an employer to dictate appearance standards to an employee, the larger question is why are bald women unacceptable.  Hair is significant in the social discourse of femininity.  In some cultures it must be covered at all times, as it is considered a womans pride, and in some it must be grown to very long lengths, to represent the difference between masculine and feminine roles. When we look at the women from the Texas sect of FLDS, physically what they all had in common was long hair.  Styles have changed over the centuries, but it has never been socially acceptable for a woman to be bald.  It is always viewed as something that is counter culture, or somehow a radical denial of what constitutes femininity.  We have much invested in maintaining gender binaries as it helps to support a patriarchal power structure.  If women are allowed to take on the physical characteristics that have been assigned to men, they might then decide that they want male authority as well.

Hillard was taught a harsh lesson by her employer.  One must always perform their gender, or there are penalties to be paid. Don't want to play by the male rules, then back into the kitchen for you.  For some women the consequences of not correctly identifying and performing can be quite sever, for example the image case in which  songwriter Tanya Wright was referred to as an "it", threatened, and escorted out of a Beverly Hills hotel, simply because to the male gaze she didn't present as female.   Another example is the murder of  Sakia Gunn as reported at Ebony Intuition. The oppressor must always be able to quickly identify the oppressed.  You see the body is encoded with behavioral standards that we have normalized.  Each time we refuse to perform any aspect of our gender, as women we are challenging male hegemony. That is the heart of this issue.  Who decides what roles are assigned to each gender, and what value is assigned to these roles? We claim in Western society to privilege the individual, but these examples prove that individuality is not a sacrosanct concept. As De Beauvoir theorized, "one is not born a woman but comes one."  It is in the becoming that agency and the physical autonomy of the body are squashed in the name of social good, as though women do not make up a significant number in society.  Whether or not we shave our heads, legs or pubis the female body in a male hierarchal system is meant for male pleasure.  This is why shaving of a female head is considered a radical act, men have not declared it sexually attractive.  Though it cost Stacy Fearnall economically what she did was assert the privilege of physical agency.   For women like Sakia Gunn "non conformity" would cost her, her life. What seems like a simple case of following the instructions of an employer has larger implications in a world where the ultimate punishment - death, is often meted out for deciding that the category 'woman' is multi-dimensional and autonomous.


ouyangdan said...

My nineteen y/o cousin has alopecia. She is completely bald and has been since she was about eight or nine. She is met daily w/ a variety of reactions, like pity (they think she has cancer), fear (one person thought she had AIDS), hostility (figured she was a skin head or in a gang), and constantly teased. She tried wearing wigs, but they itch and make her scalp sweat horribly, but usually wears a bandanna, which also gets her mistaken for being in some kind of gang. it's really sad, but she handles it all in such stride. She has even been turned away from jobs, even when she was dressed very well her bald head puts people off.

Societal norms suck. For the morons who don't think that women are treated unfairly due to societal gender stereotypes, I offer the women from this post and my cousin as evidence to the contrary.

Great post!

Thea said...

I'm totally bald from alopecia areata and the founder of Bald Girls Do Lunch Inc. ( As the only non profit created specifically for women with alopecia areata, part of our mission is to help women discuss this balding condition openly with family, friends and even bosses. Hiding this disease is not only emotionally debilitating, it prevents the rest of the world from understanding and accepting balding conditions.

So the next time you see a vibrant and healthy bald girl or woman, rather than assume she has cancer, ask if she has alopecia and learn what alopecia is and isn't. Little by little we can educate. The tipping point is coming where the sight of a bald woman will be as normal and as accepted as a bald man.

Thanks to all who help us keep this dialog going.

And if you're a woman with alopecia areata, let us know. Let's all have lunch together at this guy's restaurant like we do in cities all over the country.

Thea Chassin
Founder,Bald Girls Do Lunch Inc

Habladora said...

In a video recently emailed to me by a reader of mine, a trangender activist explains that scraping the gender identity protections from ENDA will leave people of any sexual orientation open to this type of discrimination. These stories are tragic, and we need to make sure that this sort of 'but you don't look girly enough/ manly enough' discrimination is illegal.

Anonymous said...

Nathaniel’s Restaurant
215 8th Street East
Owen Sound, ON N4K 1L2
(519) 371-3440
Owner: Dan Hilliard

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