The bald and the beautiful

It's liberating to do away with bad hair days, even if friends and family look at you like you're crazy, says Katie Welsh

I will admit to a flicker of apprehension as the first clump of hair fell to the floor. Would it change how I saw myself? Would I end up less Sinead O'Connor and more Mr Potato Head with eyeliner? And what if, after years of dying my hair, it turned out I'd already gone grey? But as my shoulder-length hair fell away, revealing a surprisingly shapely skull covered with – mercifully brunette – fuzz, I felt liberated.

I don't know why I kept it a secret, this burning desire to just shave it all off. I know it's been there since my teens, when it felt rebellious. Over the years, it's been there under the surface, a curiosity to see what my head really looks like, what I really look like. Still, I was worried that I'd miss having hair, that the novelty value of having soft stubble that I keep petting like an animal would wear off quickly. But I don't. I don't miss the time spent trying to get it just right, only to walk outside and have the wind ruin any attempt at sophistication – hair blowing in my face, sticking to my lipgloss and then smearing it over my glasses.

I don't know what finally made me walk into a Covent Garden hairdressers and argue with the receptionist that, yes, this was something I'd thought very seriously about, even though I honestly hadn't. Maybe it was a bad hair day (week, year, life), or Karen Gillan revealing her bald head at Comic Con. It was just suddenly something that I needed to do, because I'd run out of reasons not to.

RuPaul once said that we're all born naked, the rest is drag. It's true that I feel like more options are open to me now – while I'm too curvy to truly pull off androgyny, there's something about being a blank canvas that appeals. It feels exposed – there's no more hiding behind my hair, or twisting it nervously. I can't detract from a bad skin day or glam up an outfit with a sexy up-do. This is me, entirely on display. And I'm finding that I'm quite happy with that.

Women are encouraged to pluck, wax and shave everything from the eyebrows down – but dare to bare your scalp and it's a different matter. After years of having everything from a bright pink pixie cut to long, Pre-Raphaelite red curls, I finally did the one thing I've always secretly wanted to do, and shaved my head.

"That's a pretty bold statement," one family member gulped. I was confused. Statement? I just thought it would look good. "It's a little eccentric," my dad warned. My blonde-bombshell sister was blunter – "I think I'm going to be sick," she texted furiously, before begging to see pictures so she could assess the damage. Over and over again, I got the same response – dramatic, image change, brave. I felt as though I'd climbed Everest, not sat in a chair for 10 minutes while a mustachioed man called Carlos took a pair of clippers to my head. I know numerous men who, for reasons including incipient baldness and a desire to look macho, have shaved it all off, and not once were their motives questioned.

Women's appearances are policed so strongly that any deviation from the norm has to have a reason behind it. "Because I felt like it," isn't a valid excuse – after all, if we only altered the way we look because we wanted to, how would those poor cosmetic companies ever make a living? Britain would be overrun with women making their own beauty choices and, with rabbits no longer needed to test mascara, anarchy would ensue.

For a woman, a shaved head connotes a number of things – a Britney-style meltdown, militant lesbianism, being Sinead O'Connor. I don't think that my mental health is any worse than it was before – although since my hair isn't falling out from stress, I can't be entirely sure – I haven't torn up a picture of the Pope lately, and I'm too lazy to be militant, although I seem to be doing well on the lesbian front. One thing that has shocked me is the prurient interest in other parts of my anatomy. While I believe firmly in a woman's right to choose her topiary arrangement down there, let me make one thing clear – the fact that I'm pairing my shaved head with a flowery dress does not mean I'll hesitate to punch you in the trachea for asking.

Lipstick in bright fuchsias and reds, dramatic eye make-up, an attempt to rock a turban that went horribly wrong – I'm finding ways to play with my appearance that never occurred to me when I was spending half an hour every morning wrestling my hair into something that looked more "artfully dishevelled" than "batshit crazy". It's also thrown up a number of beauty conundrums – if I wear foundation, do I need to put it on my head as well? If I don't wear make-up at all, do I risk looking like my dad? It also requires considerably more upkeep. Whereas before, I would reluctantly drag myself to the hairdressers a few times a year, I've popped back a few times and Carlos and I are old friends.

Hair is the ultimate signifier of femininity, but the irony is that ever since I shaved my head, I've felt prettier. Not striking, or unusual, but feminine and delicate. Now that may be because of that time I forgot to wear a hat in the sun and spent the whole day feeling a bit peculiar, but my naked scalp makes me feel far more girly than I did the summer ages ago when I tried to grow my hair Jane Seymour-length after marathoning Doctor Quinn: Medicine Woman non-stop for a month.

Maybe it's because, after years of trying to force my unruly locks into something resembling a hairstyle, of seething with envy at every shampoo model, I'm making a conscious choice about my appearance instead of falling in line with what I think I'm meant to do.

Cutting crew: the pioneers

Karen Gillan, the former star of Doctor Who ditched her hair for Not Another Happy Ending. She tricked fans at the San Diego Comic-Con by whipping off a wig. "It was so funny!" she said.

Sinead O'Connor's shaved head has always been seen as a defiance of conventional ideas of female beauty. It's also key to how she sees herself: "I don't feel like me unless I have my hair shaved."

Demi Moore shaves her own head in GI Jane, trying to prove she's tough enough to be the first woman to be a Navy Seal.

Natalie Portman has hers shorn by the government in V for Vendetta. "Some people will think I'm a neo-Nazi or that I have cancer or I'm a lesbian," she commented. "It's quite liberating to have no hair."

Emma Thompson and Cynthia Nixon both shaved their heads for the same role; that of a poetry professor undergoing cancer treatment in the play Wit, and its TV adaptation.

Charlize Theron said she "was glad to get rid of [her locks]" for Mad Max: Fury Road. "I was a new mum and just loved the idea of not having to style my hair every day."

Sigourney Weaver's character in Alien 3 must shave her head to go incognito in a prison. She noticed that people were avoiding her – "but I guess it wasn't usual to see a 6ft tall bald woman walking in the streets of London".

Jessie J raised £500,000 for Comic Relief when she let Lenny Henry cut her locks off. "I wanted to do something that wasn't just for today and wasn't just for five minutes, it's going to last a few months."

Amy Lewin

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