The Side Shave, R.I.P. (ca. 1989–2015)

How a haircut-as-political-statement turned into just another worn-out trend.

Rihanna, Salt-N-Pepa, and Toni Braxton.

Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photos by Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images, Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images, Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images.

Of all the paradoxes of beauty standards, hair politics are the strangest. Women are encouraged to shave, pluck, wax, and otherwise obliterate any hair from the eyebrows down, but throughout history, those who’ve taken Bics and buzzers to the hair on their heads have violated social norms. Shaving a woman’s head has been a punishment in fact and fiction, visited upon the likes of Cersei Lannister, Joan of Arc, and French women who consorted with German soldiers during World War II. Women have done it in protest, too, to resist gender bias in higher education, support residents of Tibet, and draw attention to agrarian reform.

In recent years, for the first time in modern history, otherwise gender-conforming women have embraced head-shaving—to be precise, the side-shave—as a mainstream fashion trend. What used to be a statement of politics, queer sexuality, or general freak-flagging is now as vanilla as a Coffee Coolatta. Those whose attraction to the haircut stemmed from its more radical roots are now listening to its death rattle.

The progressive underpinnings of the side-shave lie in its defiance of conventional femininity. As in the case of Sinéad O’Connor’s whole head-shave in the ’80s, it’s been a way for women to tell the world that they don’t care about what dudes think. And it’s just weird enough to make grandparents and bosses flinch—one reason why, since the ’80s and ’90s, side- and under-shaves have been popular among goths, punks, and other subcultures.

And like nearly every contemporary hair trend, today’s side-shave was adopted by black women before others in the mainstream picked it up. Salt-N-Pepa have been widely credited with popularizing it in the late ’80s after Pepa accidentally burned off one side of her hair with relaxer. In the late aughts, we saw the first waves of its resurgence, though there’s no clear consensus on who led the pack. Rihanna debuted the look in 2008 to little fanfare, but R&B singer Cassie sent fashion bloggers reeling when she got a side-shave in April 2009. “We can’t imagine anyone, male or female, looking good with hair covering only one of their brain lobes,” wrote the Cut’s Amy Odell. “And if Cassie is a sign that the style, championed by Alice Dellal, is becoming a trend, we’re afraid anything can catch on.” “Looks like one of the haircuts from Edward Scissorhands,” tweeted rapper and would-be style critic Fabolous. Glamour was equally incredulous: “Um, So This Head-Shaving Business Appears To Be An Actual Trend.”

Later that year, other side-shavers started jockeying for credit. “Everyone and their auntie is … doing half a head shaved,” Estelle told WWD. “I had that hairstyle in 2005 when [Rihanna] was chilling in Barbados.” A few months later, Kelis disputed that account. “I was definitely the first to do it,” she said. “The only other person I would give credit before me is Pepa.” Essence called 2010, the year Willow Smith popped up on our radar with less than a full head of hair to whip back and forth, “The Year of the Side-Shave.” By 2011, around the time Skrillex, whose name would become synonymous with the look, arrived on the scene, Clutch magazine was already over it. But the side-shave was just getting started.

For lesbians and queer women, head-shaving as a way to renounce signifiers of femininity isn’t just a political statement; it’s also a practical, gaydar-pinging one. Ideally, cisgender men know to bark up a more willing tree, and other queers flock to the sound of the buzzer. Women whose identities don’t match up to traditional gender norms can make a big impact on their appearance with a smaller investment of time and money than, say, a shopping spree for masculine clothing.

This was my reason for taking up the look. My wardrobe and demeanor have always read feminine; though I like them that way, to the untrained eye, I might have looked straight. I envied the knowing smiles and nods my butcher friends got from other queer women on the street. I felt invisible to other gays in straight spaces, and I wanted my do to match the way I conceived of my gender: a bit askew of the traditional woman. (For this reason, side shaves have become one hallmark of the hard femme look.) I was also bored with my hair, which always seemed too conservative for my character, no matter how short or asymmetrical I cut it. So, about three and a half years ago—after Cassie but way before Kelly Clarkson—I asked my hairdresser to keep my bangs and the chin-length right side of my hair, but shave off the left.

I was hooked. My head felt the breeze for the first time in its life. I could finally wear all those earrings whose mates I’d misplaced. On the rare occasion that forced me into business-casual wear, I still looked appropriately freaky, even as I let my long side grow longer still. Friends and acquaintances started asking for the name of my hairdresser, who, through a word-of-mouth chain of endorsement, has unwittingly become the go-to stylist for the diverse alternative hairdos of about two dozen D.C. queers and counting.

When I started writing for local newspapers, I got unsolicited opinions from readers, too. A perceptive, albeit racist, Washington City Paper commenter noted that my side-shave suggests that I am sexually attracted to “boxes, not bros,” as if the two were mutually exclusive. When I wrote in the Washington Post on how corporations tried to cash in on recent gay-rights victories, a Twitter user told me that, though he was “glad someone finally said it,” my take was “so less impactful coming from a talking Skrillex haircut.” (Not a talking Rihanna haircut, mind you. Until a prominent white man adopted it, the cut didn’t have any one particular spokesperson.) When Britney Spears shaved her head in 2007, it was taken as a sign of her mental instability. I hoped that my shaved patch, which covers less than half of my head, would be enough to scare shallow squares out of my way, too.

But once Toni Braxton, whose 1993 album was the first CD I ever bought, and JWoww, a symbol of mainstream heterosexuality if ever there were one, went the Rihanna route, I began to doubt the power of the cut. Visions of a nightmarish future where every straight woman sports some version of the side-shave, where I’d disappear into a mass of cookie-cutter lookalikes, haunted my morning blow-dry. One night a few months ago, my mother texted me a photo of Clarkson: “She has your haircut now, too!” Clarkson had shaved off part of her hair to make her feel “less like a mom” after a turbulent pregnancy. Nettled by my new association with someone once chosen as the most unobjectionable singer in America, at my next hair appointment, I asked my stylist about getting a bob.

Today, women wholly aligned with mainstream tastes are learning how to shave the style, how to fake it, and if they tire of the look, how to grow it out. The side-shave is now just another blip in the long history of popular fashion co-opting the trappings of black culture and queer sexuality: Slicked-down baby hair, a longstanding style among black women, is now the look du jour because Katy Perry did it. Leather harnesses, once the sole purview of farm animals and BDSM practitioners, are now to be worn with a statement necklace and boyfriend jeans. A shaved head is no longer a calling card for queers or a stand against the conventions of femininity—it’s a fad to be followed until it loses all social significance and historical context.

“Sometimes in life, you need a change,” Cassie wrote of the 2009 haircut heard ’round the world. “Something that displays the ‘I don’t give a f—’ attitude that was always present, but never showcased. Something deeper than what you thought you were capable of. And something that will shock your mother, but make her call you a ROCK STAR.”

This winter, I’m buying some hats and, at the recommendation of my fashion-forward hairdresser, making the switch to a version of the Chelsea cut. It’s edgy, it hasn’t yet been adopted by a critical mass of the mainstream, and the transition period will be slightly more graceful than letting all of my shaved hairs grow in at once. The irony of changing my haircut in response to people I deem trend-followers is not lost on me, but the look translates differently now than when I got my first shave. I want my mother to call me a rock star—but when she calls me an American Idol, it’s time for something new.