Being Conventionally Pretty Didn’t Make Me Happy—Shaving My Head Did
When I was three or four years old, I was in my first movie: Cousins, starring Ted Danson and Isabella Rossellini. I remember falling in love with the industry, partially because of the craft service table and the direct access to free candy, but also because I could play and create, imagine and connect. I felt accepted.
That love stayed with me, so a few years later, around eight years old, my parents sent my headshot in for an audition. But the casting directors said they didn’t want to see me because I didn’t look like the character description of “young girl.” Sure, I’d been doing a lot of gymnastics, and I was a little more muscular than other girls my age, but I didn’t understand. I was young; I was a girl. Why couldn’t I audition? When my parents asked them for an explanation, they were told, “She doesn’t fit into the physical mold people seen as a pretty, young woman. That will make it very difficult to cast her in any future projects.”
It was really hard to face the fact that something I loved, something I felt was a huge expression of who I am physically, emotionally, and spiritually, had rejected me. It took me a long time to learn that my rejection had been completely based on what I looked like—and nothing to do with who I actually was. This was one of the first times in my life I felt self-conscious.
The second time was when I was 11. I asked my dad if I could cut off all my hair, and I got close to convincing him too. I remember trying out my adolescent negotiating skills: “How about an undercut then?” Long pause. “Maybe a mohawk?”
He agreed I could cut it, but insisted the shortest I could go was a pixie cut (which was still pretty radical in those days). At the hair salon the picture we used for inspiration was of Winona Ryder in Little Women. I think, consciously or unconsciously, everyone wanted to make sure I still looked like a “little woman.” As they were cutting my hair, I remember thinking, Do young girls have to have long, flowing hair and wear pretty pastel dresses like all of the princesses in the movies I watch? I was stocky and muscular and insisted that the theme of my birthday be softball, after my favorite movie, A League of Their Own. But I was still a young girl—cutting my hair off didn’t change that…right?
I guess what I was asking at that young age was: Does the length of my hair determine the perception of me as feminine or masculine? And in whose eyes? Yours? Mine? Society’s?
I found out pretty quickly that by cutting my hair short, I was challenging the vision of what others thought I should be.
But I found out pretty quickly that by cutting my hair short, I was challenging the vision of what others thought I should be. For example, I was at a track meet a few months later, and a pretty girl from an opposing school came up to me and said, “My friend thinks you’re cute.” No boys ever thought I was cute, so this was a big moment for me. I felt my face go hot as I looked up into the stands and tried to guess which guy was her friend. I asked, with a huge smile, “What’s his name?” “Her name is Sarah,” she answered. We both stood there silent for a second, and I felt her gaze go from the top of my head to bottom of my brand new white tearaway pants. That’s when she realized. “Oh my God, you’re a girl,” she shouted. “Why would you do that to yourself? Ew!” She ran away, screaming and laughing, back to her friends. I saw the story pass from clique to clique as people pointed and laughed. I felt self-conscious, so I ran that day—not in the school race but straight to my home. I knew I never wanted to feel that way again, so I vowed I would change.
Luckily, puberty was kind to me. I quit gymnastics when I was 12 years old and grew four inches in three years. My pecs had turned into breasts, my bulk turned into long, lean muscle, and my hair grew to my midback. At 14 I left my school and moved to Kauai for a year. There, my almost translucent Canadian skin turned a golden brown, and I learned how to wear makeup. I remember coming back to Vancouver and walking into my old high school cafeteria to visit my sister; I could feel people looking at me, but it wasn’t in the same way they did on the field that day. This time something was different; I was different. At least, to them I was. I realized in that moment that how I looked changed how people looked at me, even if I was still the exact same on the inside.
So through my late teens and early twenties, I molded myself into what I—and everyone else—seemed to believe a young “attractive” woman should be. I did Maxim photo shoots in bikinis; I had long curly hair and a tan. I was everything that was considered conventionally beautiful, and yet I was completely dissatisfied, because who I appeared to be on the outside had nothing to do with who was on the inside. I let myself be governed by what others thought I should be. I was no longer the little girl who wanted to shave her head and didn’t care what people thought; I cared. I cared so much. It felt awful.
Unhappy, I started looking for other ways to define myself. I immediately went back to cutting my hair short again, but by this time I had started acting, and my reps didn’t think it was the best idea. I even went so far as to photoshop my face onto a picture of Natalie Portman (when her head was shaved for V for Vendetta) to prove it would be OK, but I never sent it to my team. Instead, I saved it away in a dream board folder.
Years later, my reps told me about the role of Medusa on Marvel’s Inhumans. But there was one, small detail in the character description they felt I should know about: “Must be comfortable with having head shaved on camera.” They asked me with bated breath if I would be OK with that. My answer? I dug into my old iPhoto folders to find my Portman Franken-baby photo. I attached the picture and pressed “send” with the subject: “SEND TO MARVEL IMMEDIATELY!!!”
I was so excited, I didn’t consider that my head might not be the same shape as hers. What if I was secretly a conehead? I also didn’t consider that this change would require wearing a wig anytime I was in public in order to preserve the plot twist of losing my “superpowers.” No easy feat, considering we shot the show in Hawaii, which meant 90-degree heat and tropical winds. But it was a price I was willing to pay.
It was weird. My freshly shaved head wanted to go out and celebrate its newfound freedom. But contractually, I was bound to wear a wig from March 2 until September 1. I was trying out different wigs as I went—if you look closely on my Instagram, you will be able to see the slight differences—but I had to be sneaky about it so nobody realized what was going on.
I ended up naming them all to keep track of them. My favorite was “Wendy.” She was short and had bangs, and it was easy for me to just stick her on. She was usually the one that I went hiking or snorkeling in. I liked to think of her as my adventurous best friend.
Then there was “Savannah.” She was the long, red one we used as Medusa’s wig, and she is a total capital-D Diva. She reminded me of Cher. When we were filming indoors, she was fabulous. But one step outside, and it was “The Attack of the Killer Wig.” Whenever the wind would gust—and it would be constantly gusting—she would twist into knots around my neck or try to stuff herself into my mouth or up my nose. It was like having a four-pound cat snuggling your head for 16 hours a day, a cat that I was probably allergic to.
I noticed that the wig I wore changed how people reacted to me. If I was wearing the long, dark one named “Marilyn,” people tended to give me more attention, but not talk to me. When I wore “Wendy” (the girls’ girl), people were always striking up conversations. I was again brought to the reality that the way I looked changed how I was looked upon in society. But this time, I didn’t let it define me. Instead, I defined it.
It’s ironic how this extraordinary opportunity from Marvel has brought me back to one of the first decisions I made for myself: cutting my hair short. It also made me face the possibility of being judged once again, but I know now that what’s on the outside doesn’t define what’s on the inside. I know that how I look was created by genetics and the parents that I was born to (sure, I have a hand in the decoration of it), but at the end of the day, the look they created has nothing to do with what I can create with my life.
This new haircut is finally bringing me back to my roots, a time when I didn’t worry about being judged.
In the past, I’d fallen into the trap of trying to become what men think I should be, or what other women think I should be, or even what I think I should be. But with this new haircut, it’s finally bringing me back to my roots, a time when I didn’t worry about being judged. I was just me.
One of the things that playing Medusa taught me was that when you lose your “superpowers,” you’re given the opportunity to find your true power. These next few years of my life, I am determined to find my own power, and I am going to take back my image and make it what I want it to be. Short hair and all.
Serinda Swan plays Medusa in Marvel’s new TV series Inhumans, which premieres September 29 on ABC.