Shaved pates united the furious with the magnificent, and bald heads became the symbols of a million daydreaming rebellions. Sinead O’Connor’s hair is inextricably linked to her legacy as an Irish singer and to the news of her death on July 26. …or the lack thereof.
Whether it’s the striking curve of her shorn skull on the cover of her 1987 debut album “The Lion and the Cobra,” her face caught mid-scream; the nakedness it seemed to convey in the 1990 video of “Nothing Compares 2 U,” as her blue eyes brimming with tears; or the purity of the line on the cover of her 2021 memoir “Rememberings.” includes a whole section on “Shaving My Head.”
Her bald head, Dr. Martens, and ripped jeans became as recognisable to her as her ripping up the photo of the Pope on “Saturday Night Live” in 1992 did to the world at large (O’Connor was 56 when she died, and in a 2014 story in Billboard, she was identified as “the bald woman from Ireland”). The “formerly bald” Sinead O’Connor moniker stuck, even during the few times she had hair again. Furthermore, she played a significant role in the ongoing process of renegotiating traditional notions of gender, sexuality, rebellion, and liberty.
It’s easy to forget how remarkable Ms. O’Connor’s emergence was now that female baldness is more common, that it’s become a badge of identity for women like Massachusetts Representative Ayanna Pressley, who revealed her alopecia in 2020, and X González, a student at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School (then known as Emma) who became a campaigner for gun control.
As much of a statement of individuality as her music was, though, was her apparent rejection of her own pale beauty in the aftermath of a slew of adolescent pop queens, at a time when arming oneself with a helmet of huge hair was a big thing and shaving your head was still mainly considered as a punishment.
Perhaps this was the beginning of her politically charged career, which included such moments as refusing to play the national anthem before concerts and stencilling the Public Enemy logo into her side in protest of the Grammys’ decision not to broadcast the first-ever award for Best Rap Performance in 1989.
She provided many justifications for her decision. Ultimately, the common theme across these tales is a defiance of the male-dominated standards of beauty that have existed since the time of Rapunzel and Lady Godiva.
When Sinead O’Connor cut off her hair, “she was literally shearing away a false narrative,” as Allyson McCabe explains in her book “Why Sinead O’Connor Matters.”
Shaving my head was never a deliberate decision,” Ms. O’Connor told Spin in 1991. I never intended to make a proclamation. The only real reason I shaved my head was because I became bored one day and decided to do it.
She explained this to Dr. Phil in an interview from 2017 by saying that her mother had often made comparisons between her and her sister, who had long red hair instead of Sinead’s short brown. Ms. O’Connor remarked, “When I had long hair, she would introduce us as her pretty daughter and her ugly daughter.” Because of it, I decided to shave my head. I didn’t set out to hide my ugliness.
Ms. O’Connor’s bald head was seen as a symptom of instability following her “S.N.L.” appearance, when she was rejected by the music business and disclosed she had been diagnosed as bipolar (much as it was subsequently with Britney Spears). The fact that she never stopped doing it suggests it was more of a statement of individuality.
She gazed in the mirror for the first time following her trip to the barbershop and said, “I looked like an alien.” One may also say that she resembled the adult lady she eventually became. In becoming that lady, she helped extend that permission to the rest of us.