Last couple of years I have been noticing more buzzed heads out on the street.

They are no longer a novelty that they once were. Everywhere in public places we see any number of buzzed heads among males of all ages from young boys to old men. I find buzzed heads fascinating in themselves but what is even more fascinating is the phenomenon of their recent popularity.

Buzzcut is a drastic change of style. Hair grows slowly. So, from short to long is a gradual change. You may meet a friend you have not seen a year or two and notice his hair is much longer; the change may confuse you momentarily. You realize that the face looks different but quickly adjust to the changed looks. We experienced this effect often enough when young men started to grow their hair long in the 60s under the influence of the Beatles. We experience this effect when a man grows a beard.

But the change from long to short is always sudden, and it is always shocking. A woman has her long hair cut to a bob or a bob into a pixie, and she may take you aback. But it is a gentle surprise, even a pleasant one. Short hair, as is often said, makes a woman look younger, at any age but especially when she is older. A woman who gets a drastic haircut does so as a fashion statement. She is tired of the old style and wants to try something new. A new hair. A new face. A new me. A compliment is expected and proffered.

When a man you've known for some time who was sporting a luxuriant hair suddenly appears before you all buzzed to zero, it is shocking, almost horrifying. It leaves you speechless. It leaves me speechless. I am hard put to decide whether or not to comment on it, and what exactly I should say if I decided to say something. "Oh, dear, that's a drastic haircut you got!" I find myself baffled, however, because I debate with myself whether anything that I might say about it may, like a taboo subject, draw unwarranted attention to it even though it is obvious that attention is inexorably drawn to it because it is a sudden novelty. On their side, men who got a buzzcut don't bring up the subject on their own, as women are more likely to do: "How do you like my new 'do'?" We don't normally bring up the subject of baldness either when we are conversing with a bald man unless we already know him intimately, say, a relative or else a very close friend. So, I never know whether it would be right to express my shock or, instead, say nonchalantly something innocuously complimentary. Saying something like "Oh, a nice clean cut" can sound like a backhanded bafflement; so should I simply say, "That's very nice," or, neutrally, "You got a haircut," or, a bit more knowingly, "Quite a haircut you got there."

I don't know. Maybe men, among the company of men, do make comments like, "Hey, man, I like your new hair, I mean, your hairless hair," or "Yo, that's cool all buzzed," or "Wotchya done with your hair," or more stylishly, "I say, I admire your tonsorial coup." When a man shaves off his moustache, I don't hesitate to say something like, "Oh, you shaved your moustache!" So, I should perhaps simply say: "You got a buzz."

On the other hand, whatever it is I say, if I said it, it will be hard to resist the follow-up question: "So, what made you do that?" But that sounds intrusively inquisitive. Not saying is tricky, too, because silence also draws attention to something that is so drastically novel, and I'd be wondering how my comment would be taken if I said what was actually in my mind: "My God, that looks ugly."

Until its recemt popularity, buzzcut by and large had a well-defined iconography, most prevalently a tough guy image. So, recruits at the induction got a close buzzcut, and the military types tended to favor short hair since the times of Roman emperors. Crewcut, with some longer hair above the forehead, was popularized by the Ivy League oarsmen. Athletes are more often drawn to buzzcut; some male swimmers shave their head for thermodynamic efficiency. On the street, punks and ruffians liked to wear their hair cropped short, and in the 70s skinheads emerged among the working class youths in England; and later it was adopted by militant youths, like Neo-Nazis, although Hells Angels earlier rebelliously sported long hair and there was a Mohawk that was short and long at once. Social protest, clearly, can express itself in mops or in shorn heads. Easy maintenance, especially on the battlefield, explains the buzzcut among the military, and so it makes sense that school boys got their head buzzed well into the 20th century in Greece, East Europe, and certain Asian countries, the idea being to keep their head clean and free of head lice. I can't help wondering if they took refuge en masse in girls' heads -- the lice, I mean. Until 1950s boys' summer haircut was the butch, a buzzcut where the hair lies flat rather than made to stand up as a burr.

Military image, rather than hygiene, instigated the school code in Japan that boys entering the middle school get a buzzcut and keep it buzzed until graduation four years later. During the war, not only schoolboys but also adult men were encouraged to buzz their hair like the fighting soldiers. After all, cities under bombardment were like battlegrounds.

Apart from the military and para-military, there was another iconography, which might be called sacerdotal. Cutting hair was an act of contrition and cleansing, since hair is associated with worldly vanity. So, nuns cut their hair, and monks and high priests in different religions, Buddhism in particular, shaved their head in renunciation of the physical and material world. In old Japan men, especially in public offices, shaved their head in expressing contrite apology. Humbling is expressed in self-imposed humiliation.

Humiliation underlies the custom of giving prisoners a buzzcut. So, the Nazis shaved the Jews arriving in the concentration camp, male and female alike. Mortification of getting the hair shorn is essentially sado-masochistic and accounts for the erotic appeal of the buzzcut to some. Websites on buzzcut and headshaving deal with hair fetishism for the most part. It is evidently the process of clipping the hair down to the scalp, even more than the outcome, that is erotically exciting to the spectator no less than to the person being buzzed.

Buzzcut in whatever form -- butch, crewecut, brush cut, flat top, skinhead, or a shave -- can be said to have been in the past conventionally militant, spiritual, or erotic. It was limited, therefore, to certain specific groups of male population, and it was often a big, fat, burly head that it looked somehow most fitting to have on. A buzzed head is therefore often menacing; or, more accurately, thugs who want to appear menacing, took to the buzz. On the other end of the spectrum, however,

young women with a buzzcut we see today often look cute; if they are beautiful they look stunning, like Sinéad O'Connor at one time.

In the latest phenomenon, buzzcut is evidently a fashion statement. It cuts across a wide cross-section of the contemporary society. Men who sport buzzcut represent not only recruits, athletes, monks, laborers, and ruffians, but even those men who once detested the style for its association with the tough and the coarse: artists and actors, students and professors, bankers and clerks, snobs and sophisticates, lawyers and doctors, entertainers and celebrities and outgrown hippies. But it is not a widespread style. Some do it; others don't. Most don't. So, what made those who do it do it?

This is a personal question, however. So, if I interviewed men with buzzcut with this question, I will not get any honest answer. Most will say that it is cool and clean, so easy to maintain; oooh, it's sooo easy, women also say, when they cut their hair shorter than before. Ease of care may justify the short hair; but it is no statement of motivation. Some will say how cool and breezy their buzzcut is and how good it feels; but is it in midwinter or under the blazing sun? Another common answer might be that it's a whim: "I just wanted to see what it's like." Among college students, buzzing may be an act of epater les parents, the inverse of the long hair of an earlier generation achieving the same effect. Older men starting to get gray seem to think that buzzcut makes the gray less visible but that is a self-delusion; graying stubbles on the face remain stubbornly grizzly though they could be tinted black. Balding men also seem to believe that buzzcut mitigates the visible effect of balding less striking. But, alas, residual hair on a balding head calls attention to the bald area. The idea is that a close buzzcut will make the head so totally bald and thus obscures the regrettable process of balding. It may be noted that shaven heads, unlike buzzed heads, are not like to look threatening.

So, some do it once and then let the hair grow back; others stay with it for good. If they keep the buzzcut for good, whim is no answer, even though it may have started that way. Ask why did you do it. No one is likely to say: "I want to look tough," "I'm a hawk," "I'm deep into Buddhism," "I'm being defiant," or "It turns me on." Or, freed of traditional associations, a small minority may honestly answer: "I'm riding with the new fashion, and I like it." But, then, I want to ask: "What do you like about this fashion." This only brings back the first evasive answer: "It's so easy to care."

The contemporary buzzcut is evenly short all over the head with the clippers at a single setting for the whole cut. So, it lays bare the shape of the head, and the hair does not give but stand to form a burr. It is certainly quick to clip and easy to maintain. Among African American men, the close crop had always existed without the traditional iconographical trappings. Its source is probably remotely in the tropical tribes of their African origin. It also brings out the shape of the head; but the hair clings to the scalp without a burr; it never looks threatening.

Motivation, never fully stated, no doubt varies from individual to individual. But whatever the motivation, getting a buzzcut is no trivial decision. It does not just happen; it is a willful act and requires a determination. Ultimately, getting one's head buzzed, I believe, is an erotic urge, and a buzzed head also stimulates in the viewer an erotic fascination. A big buzzed head seen from behind may be a bit threatening but also curiously alluring. It's often said women like to stroke a buzzed head. I must confess that I do get an irresistible urge to feel the burr, when I see a buzzed head in front of me on the train, even as I find the cut crude and ugly and, well, abrasive.

So, like the woman's fashion that exposes different erogenous zones in turn, erotic impulse, I suspect, underlies the motivation of those who go for the buzzcut fashion. Psychologists may say that's no scret; hair is a big fetish. After all, long hair in women has always been erotic and so was long hair in men when it came into fashion decades ago.

But has the traditional militarist iconography been totally forgotten? I wonder.


T. Kaori Kitao, 02.01.03

A year after writing this essay, I realized that there are fewer buzzed heads in public places in recent months. Is it winter's cold air that has been damping the buzz fever? Or, was it perhaps a fashion that fizzled out rather quickly?

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