The turning point in Anne Hathaway’s Oscar-nominated Les Misérables performance occurs after she sells her teeth for money, but before she begins to sell sex. “Life has killed the dream I dreamed,” Hathaway sings, followed by the actress’s real hair getting “hacked” off. The experience, Hathaway says, was among the most intense of her acting career: “I’ve now done backflips out of windows. I’ve jumped off buildings. And cutting my hair reduced me to, like, mental patient-level crying. I was inconsolable.”
A woman’s hair has historically been one of the most emotionally and socially fraught parts of her body (no easy feat), located at the nexus of identity, sexuality, and control. In the Book of Isaiah, God punishes the excessively sexy women of Zion by “making their scalps bald.” In medieval Europe, knocking a woman’s cap off her head to reveal her hair was considered a type of sexual assault. Even in modernity, sexual shame may be tied to hair: Earlier this month, Japanese pop singer Minami Minegishi posted a Youtube video in which she tearfully apologized for being seen exiting her boyfriend’s apartment — and then, to prove her penitence, shaved off all her hair. (AKB48, the 87-person girl group Minegishi belongs to, prohibits smoking and significant others.)
Removing one’s own hair, however, can signify empowerment, a rejection of social norms. Figures like Grace Jones and Sinead O’Connor use their shorn heads to announce a willful rejection of mainstream femininity. But even when actresses like Hathaway discard their coifs in the name of their art, they are thought of as self-sacrificing. Head-shaving — like wearing a nose prosthesis orspeaking in a British accent for the duration of a film — is a sign of commitment. “What you see on screen was a little bit of a mixture of my real emotion and acting,” Hathaway explains, noting that she had one rule: “If it doesn’t grow back, CGI.”
From Queen Elizabeth’s wig to Britney’s meltdown to Grace Jones’s defiant buzz, click to see our guide to the most badass (and occasionally heartbreaking) baldies in history.