*On the news it was reported that researchers are getting closer to eradicating male pattern baldness. An experiment with proverbial lab mice had the bald ones growing hair just like those that grew hair naturally.
My first thought: how unfair to those poor bald mice, to actually HAVE to grow hair.
That’s how I feel about being bald. I’ve been shaving my head every day, more or less, for almost twenty years now. What began as a dramatic, desperate move to retain some measure of human dignity is now a way of life that I relish.
Man, am I glad the whole hair thing is behind me. No more expensive designer shampoos and conditioners. No more dandruff. I haven’t held a comb or brush in years, let alone own one. No more shelling out dough for the pitiful, merciful act my barber called a haircut. Bad hair day–what’s that?
I wouldn’t grow hair again even if I could. You’re saying, “Well, of course, you’d say that, Ivory; you can’t grow any.” Hey, it still grows along the sides and the back. But even if I could sprout more than peach fuzz on top, I’d still shave.
That’s because I’ve never been completely happy with my hair. If one day I go crazy in public with a semiautomatic weapon, “Dateline,” once in my native Oklahoma City, will be hard pressed to scrounge up that cliche school yearbook picture of the “quiet, troubled boy.” I didn’t take many school photos. I didn’t like the way I looked, hair included.
The most significant feature of my skin-close childhood Quo Vadis cut, was a part on the left side of my head the barber inserted with the edge-up side of his clipper blade.
This was the early ’60s, when the American Negro, obsessed with skin hue and hair texture and acceptance by white society, defined “Good hair” as soft, curly and straight, largely shunning hair that was considered kinky or nappy. Because of this, my initial relationship with hair involves the distinctive and somehow comforting aroma of hair and Hair-Rep burning in our kitchen on any given Saturday evening, as Mama and a friend, at the stove, straightened one another’s hair using the almighty hot comb.
When I think of the hair of my youth, I recall the terrible teasing we’d give any boy with hair so short, tight and coarse that we’d say he wore B.B. buck shots on his head.
I remember grown, hip, colored men on the street in my neighborhood or in the checkout line of the local Safeway, dressed like cut-rate soul singers in tight slacks, big-collared shirts with puffy arms and run-over, pointed shoes, wearing on their heads scarves or “Do rags” to preserve chemically treated “processed” or “conked” hair (see early Little Richard, James Brown and Sammy Davis, Jr.), to be unveiled when it mattered.
It was the new cultural pride of the late ’60s Black Power movement that rescued us from much of that, inspiring first the Natural and then the bigger Afro. However, arguably it was the Jackson 5’s Jermaine Jackson, who, by 1972 singled-headedly drove a generation of black kids to new, bushy heights.
And it was then, at age 17, despite the flourish of my funky ‘fro, that I noticed hair at the crown of my head was thinning. I felt like I’d discovered a runaway train–moving at the speed of molasses–that I was helpless to halt. Living in L.A. during the post-Afro ’80s, I don’t even remember most of the men’s trendy hair styles; it was all I could do to hold on to what I had as I avoided standing directly under revealing florescent lighting.
My barber had been cutting my hair as low as he possibly could without striking telephone poles, when one winter evening in 1993, I looked in my bathroom mirror, impulsively lathered my head with shaving cream, reached for a razor and went to town.
Afterward, I stood transfixed, wondering just what the hell I’d done, when I was suddenly overcome by a sense of calm. Tranquility. Freedom! My chains of woe–my thinning hair–had finally been broken.
A couple hours later, I held my breath as I dared walk into my favorite bar. The place practically cheered. Men congratulated me. Women flirted. Damn. Did I look that bad with hair?
Shaving my head, I was presented keys to a global fraternity. No matter the condition of your previously tattered “hairdo,” you don’t give bald real consideration until you’ve crossed to the other side. There, men discreetly check out one another’s baldness. Camaraderie’s unspoken words: “Congratulations, you dear, fearful man, on finding the balls to take matters into your own hands.”
Indeed, concession often requires guts, and when a man makes the Big Shave, he’s waving the white flag. He is conceding to the Receding. He’s declaring to family, friends and to himself that it’s over, that there will be no harvest. To shave is to simply say Enough.
Thus, I personally find it morally reprehensible to shave your head when you don’t have to. If you can grow a head full of hair, please do. Don’t treat bald as if it is the latest style of shoes or the new Rihanna record. True bald is a calling—even if that “call” initially sounds like a frightened hyena’s yelp.
Going purposefully bald, you come to respect the trailblazers. Iconic profiles in courage like actors Yul Brynner and Telly “Kojak” Savalas; Mahatma Gandhi. The man on the Mr. Clean bottle. It’s been said that Michael Jordan did for the balding man what Martin Luther King, Jr did for civil rights. That’s a stretch. However, because Jordan shaved, I am forever changed.
But then, I have been blessed to learn at the feet of one of the masters. I’d been shaving my head for two years when in 1995–day of the Oklahoma City bombing–I interviewed legendary singer, songwriter and producer Isaac Hayes.
After bending his ear regarding a brilliant musical career that included an Oscar for the landmark “Shaft” soundtrack, I dared ventured to a place where Oprah or Barbara Walters would have never gone (well, maybe Barbara; I read her book): How did he go about the task of shaving his dome?
Black Moses offered a wise, knowing smile. “When you walked in the room, I thought, ‘This guy is using a razor,'” said Hayes. Yes, Ike–a pink, disposable lady Bic, to be exact. “Lose it. Invest in a good electric shaver. It’s easier on your head. And follow up with Witch Hazel.”
Spoken like a man who unflinchingly launched his career, his head as naked as God’s truth, in 1969, no less than the height–the HEIGHT–of Afrodom. Whoever said this cat Shaft was a badd mutha, never met Hayes.
Or my daddy, for that matter. But wouldn’t you know it: all my life, at least for as long as I can remember, my father has shaved his head. And I’ve never once spoken to him about it. Never occurred to me to do so. As a kid, I didn’t think, ‘Gee, my daddy doesn’t have any hair on his head.’ Daddy being bald is like a summer shower followed by the sun. It’s just how life is.
And like my father, I’ve been a shaven man for so long now that friends and associates don’t even remember when I had hair. Most people only know me this way–say they can’t imagine me with hair. And that’s okay. Because emancipation rears its head in many ways, and sometimes, its head is without hair. I am strong. I am proud. I am bald.
Steven Ivory, journalist and author of the essay collection Fool In Love (Simon & Schuster), has covered popular culture for magazines, newspapers, radio and TV for more than 30 years. Respond to him via [email protected].