Ruby Tandoh photographed for ELLE by Elliot Kennedy

Ruby Tandoh On How Shaving Her Head Changed Her Life

Writer and cook, Ruby Tandoh has a long and complicated relationship with her hair. So when she decided to shave it all off, a weight was lifted from her shoulders in more ways than one

When I first raised the electric trimmer to my head, I felt sick.

My armpits prickled with sweat and my hands grew damp at the panic of making a change so big that I knew I'd scarcely recognise myself afterwards.

I held the shaver in front of my hairline and 
I hovered it there for a moment, its vibrations shuddering down my arm and through every muscle of my tensed, nervous body.

My girlfriend held her breath as I made a decisive move for my hair and smoothly carved a clean path straight down the centre of my scalp. I had to shoot straight for the heart of it, or I knew I'd never follow through.

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The long, dark curls slid on to the bathroom floor, first in blonde ringlets, then, as I worked through the back of my hair, in dark, matted tangles.

I've always been my hair. I was born with a full head of brown curls clustered on my head. When I was young and cute, still dressing in gingham dresses and Velcro shoes, my face was framed by soft, golden filaments, twisted into loose barrel curls.

As I got older, growing out of my girly smocks and into my baggy shorts and heavy Dr. Martens boots, my hair grew thicker and coarser, and I cut it into a short 'boy' style. It matched the way that I scuffed my school shoes along the pavement, and played football, and swung monkey-like across the climbing-frame bars. I refused to brush it.

My hair was as damaged, confused and poorly styled as I was

A boy in my class, who called me 'Bog Brush Tandoh' for the two years I knew him, once broke a ruler over my head and observed that one of the shattered halves had disappeared completely. It was generally accepted by the class that the missing part of the ruler was probably still somewhere in my hair.

As a teenager, my hair got longer and greasier, and I became embarrassed by its messiness. This was the age of Jennifer Aniston-inspired, sleek, straightened tresses, and sweeping 'emo' fringes.

There wasn't a place in this shiny, horsey-maned world for a mixed-race girl with frizzy, curly hair.

I tried straightening it a few times, but it would hang from either side of my parting like two sheets of cardboard, then start to kink and curl back into its usual unruliness. It smelled of burning for days.

My hair was as damaged, confused and poorly styled as I was.

I began to come to terms with my hair as I entered my twenties, buoyed by the sight of Harry Styles' similarly lank locks, but still there were times when I'd avoid eye contact with dog walkers who'd look back-and-forth between me and their labradoodles or cocker spaniels with a wry smile.

Ruby Tandoh photographed for ELLE by Elliot Kennedy
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I've been weirdly and antagonistically at one with this messy, frizzy, difficult tangle of hair for as long as I can remember. It was a Big Deal to get rid of it, and so you'd imagine that it'd be something I'd think long and hard about, something that I'd be able to accord some well-thought-through feminist rationale. But I can't.

The decision to shave off my hair crystallised at home in my bathroom about 15 minutes before I picked up the trimmer and started. That was the impulsive, decisive tipping point – there, in my bathroom, on a boring Wednesday afternoon.

And yet, even though I never had some grand agenda for my haircut, I quickly realised I was being naive in thinking that shaving my head was a totally apolitical act.

When I took the shaver to my head and sheared off the gold-streaked curls that I'd grown up with, I was casting off a softness that was both powerful and debilitating

After I'd finished, I posted a selfie of my new egg head to Instagram with the words 'You wish' underneath, and within hours that picture had been seen, liked, disliked and commented upon by thousands. Some speculated whether 
I was having a breakdown, while others lamented the loss of my more 'feminine' curls.

Many loved it, and plenty declared it a bold, feminist statement. Before long, there were hashed-together news stories about my haircut, followed by people decrying the demise of journalism. It was suggested that this was my Britney-circa-2007 moment. I was baffled. It was just a damn haircut.

But it's never just a damn haircut, really. Least of all when that haircut goes against the grain of the pliant, 
feminine gender-presentation that's expected of women.

Least of all when the price paid for being an 'acceptable' LGBT person is to mould yourself to the dominant aesthetic, and not to wear your strange, wonderful, emblems of gender non-conformity on your sleeve.

Least of all when you pass up the soft, light-brown curls that afford you a privileged position as a white-passing person, and lay bare the high curve of your forehead and the slope of your nose – the markers of your West African roots.

When I took the shaver to my head and sheared off the gold-streaked curls that I'd grown up with, I was casting off a softness that was both powerful and debilitating.

My hair had allowed me to carry on feeling conventionally feminine, negotiating a place within a same-gender relationship that turned my heteronormative world view on its head. It was a flamboyant, femme head of curls, and that softness and femininity gave me a lot of strength. It fitted, somehow.

And yet there was another side of me – the side that enjoys dressing like a camp man and wearing shirts that skim clean over the shallow curve of my breasts – whose boldness was smothered by that heavy head of hair.

I wanted to be able to shrug off the shyness that I'd carried with me my whole life, and to stand up tall and unembarrassed, as the kind of butch, kind of femme, kind of camp, kind of straight-laced person that I am.

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I'd spent a lifetime pulling my hair over my face, lurking behind the facade of feminine straightness that it gave me and hiding in plain sight.

I knew that for the boldness I had inside to shine through, I needed a change. I needed to step out with my face, my vulnerability and my queerness on show. I needed to shave my head. Sometimes even the most mundane decisions become markers of your whole identity.

I couldn't have predicted that when I impulsively decided to get rid of the heavy, itchy mop of hair on my head I'd be recasting my gender, sexuality and racial identity in a whole new light.

On another person, this haircut might make them more shy, or feel straighter, quieter or less secure about the way their gender manifests. These things are as unique as we are.

For me, shaving my head has made me feel both more masculine and more feminine.

you wish

A post shared by ruby tandoh (@ruby.tandoh) on

It has given me the confidence of Amber Rose, and the nerdy boyishness of a Donnie Darko-era Jake Gyllenhaal. It's forced me to be braver in the many small interactions I used to dread every day. I feel as though I've stripped myself of the weight of my past, conflicted self and stepped into more self-assured skin, where my sexuality is coded in new, exciting ways.

It hasn't all been plain sailing. I'm more nervous now about holding my girlfriend's hand in public for fear that the intimacy coupled with my haircut will coax out peoples' bigotries. And for the first two weeks, I felt naked, like a strange new beast.

Every time I caught sight of myself in the mirror, my chest tightened. I found myself crying more often than usual.

But the magical thing about doing something as big and scary as this is that it infuses every experience thereafter with a sense of the bravery you had in the moment. I was unsure straight after my haircut, but the audacity of having shaved it was enough to make me commit to a new, sure-footed positivity.

This wasn't the haircut of someone who'd apologise for their existence or shy away from attention. It was the haircut of a person who'd post a selfie to Instagram with the caption, 'You wish'. You wish you had this nerve; you wish you had the gall to do what I've done. It was a rare streak of arrogant defiance, and it felt good.

For me, shaving my head has made me feel both more masculine and more feminine

I love my new, fluffy head now. I often get asked whether I'm going to keep my hair like this forever, but I just don't know. Maybe I'll grow my hair out again, maybe I won't.

Either way, I can't help but see everything in a new light now that I've taken this massive leap of faith. I can survive without my helmet of hair – I'm not Samson, nor am I one with the majestic mass of curls that crown me.

Long hair, short hair, no hair, mullet, whatever hair tops my head, whichever path I choose, I'll still love One Direction and Ally McBeal, I will still bite my nails and tweet too much, I'll still be mixed race, lanky, sweet-toothed and queer.

I'll still be me.

Ruby Tandoh's cookbook, Flavour: Eat What You Love, is out now.

This article first appeared in the February issue of ELLE UK.

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