Truong: Buzz Cuts, Buzz Words

Buzz cuts on women should not be politicized.

by Valerie Truong | 4/10/18 1:15am

It’s a powerful image: 18-year-old Emma González, standing resolutely at a podium, teardrops streaming down her face. She wears her hair closely cropped to her head and has small silver ball earrings adorning her ears. Over a white March for Our Lives t-shirt, she wears an olive green bomber jacket emblazoned with iron-on patches and pins displaying slogans such as “I Will Vote” and “We Call BS.” Combined, it makes for a modern, militant look — González is, after all, a general of sorts in the war against gun violence. 

This is the cover image used for a recent New York Times article titled “Buzzed: The Politics of Hair” by Vanessa Friedman. The article goes on to outline how González’s buzz cut represents a political issue because it is “almost impossible to separate the image from the activism.” Friedman cites academics and uses examples from pop culture, including actresses and models, to support her point about women who choose to sport buzz cuts. Actress Rose McGowan’s cropped hair is linked to her experience with sexual harassment; actor Asia Kate Dillon plays the first nonbinary gender character on an American television show; the Dora Milaje force in “Black Panther” represent black female empowerment; model Adwoa Aboah’s hairdo is tied to her advocacy for young women’s mental health. 

Though the article does not explicitly say it, it implicitly — and dangerously — implies that the cohort of women who willingly shave their heads serve as protestors of the ideas advanced by the Trump administration because they share cultural values and beliefs such as support for gun control, LGBTQ rights and feminism. The article juxtaposes these women’s hairstyles to those of other women in the public eye, such as the long hair of Melania Trump. However, we cannot generalize the former group of women in any way, except to say that they have chosen to shave their heads. 

In Emma González’s case, she chose to buzz her hair for utilitarian reasons: she mentions the hot weather, her long hair’s weight and its expensive upkeep. Though she has propelled herself into the public eye and grabbed the media’s attention through her activism efforts, it is the media and the public that have linked González’s buzz cut with gun control efforts and her refusal to accept the status quo. However, people should associate her activism and the March for Our Lives movement with Emma González’s name, face and words, rather than her haircut.

Yes, it is against our cultural norms for women to have a buzz cut. It’s certainly eye-catching, and perhaps that is why Friedman was drawn to writing about the topic. But differences in hairstyle, no matter how stark, are not the focus of Emma González’s narrative. To automatically make connections between a woman’s hairstyle and a loaded topic such as gun control is to take away from the conversation and limit personal choice. For example, if a woman does not agree with González’s views but is considering shaving her hair off, a preconceived notion that only a certain type of girl with certain beliefs gets buzz cuts may deter her from proceeding.

While we shouldn’t politicize hair, a woman’s decision to get a buzz cut can demarcate a time of change in her life, whether that change comes in the form of instability, renewal, excitement or strength. I say all of this partly because I can speak from personal experience. The day after I graduated from high school, I buzzed off my chest-length hair. It was not a random or impulsive decision; it was something I had wanted to do for several months prior to my haircut. I didn’t do it to make a grand political statement, reform or reaffirm my sexual identity or to support a friend or family member undergoing chemotherapy. I did it solely for the thrill and curiosity of wanting to know what I would look like without long hair. 

Women shaving their heads are not inherently making a political statement. Buzz cuts are not the symbol of any particular movement, nor are they are prerequisites for action and social change. The New York Times article politicized a topic that does not need to be politicized. A woman with a shaved head makes a statement, but a connection to a specific meaning is not concrete. The buzz cut says, “Look at me. I’m experiencing change in my life,” more than “I am a powerful woman who believes in LGBTQ rights and gun control.” Though the latter statement may be true in some cases, it ought not to be applied to every woman who looks a certain way. While hairstyle may be a way in which people choose to express themselves, hair does not define their sexuality, opinions, values, political ideologies or who they are as a person.