She saw it all roll down on the floor of her office building with a mere stroke of a roaring electric shaver.
With her head peaking out of a draped trash bag that worked as a hair-cutting cape, Hannah Perls saw her long, brown hair all gone in less than five minutes.
Perls shaved her hair this July in support of Bald Solidarity, a Seattle nonprofit that organizes a head shaving event each year to raise money and awareness for global women’s rights issues.
Both Perls and co-worker David Templeton auctioned off their shaves with the highest sponsor getting the rights to the razor.
This year, Bald Solidarity had its annual head shaving event at Westlake Center Park in downtown Seattle on Saturday.
A band played as Bethany Roberts, founder and Executive Director of Bald Solidarity, shaved her head and bewildered shoppers and tourists gathered in the plaza to gawk.
“We want to raise awareness of the connection between global women’s rights issues and extreme poverty and raise money to empower women and girls in the developing world,” Roberts, who has been shaving her head since 2008, said in an email interview.
Another participant, Alexander Jones, shaved 2 years worth of flowing hair at the event. After surviving a brain tumor and successful surgery, Jones let his hair grow uncut until the Bald Solidarity event inspired him to shave it all off.
Bald Solidarity doesn’t have a program infrastructure of its own to spend the money the participants raise. Instead, it gives these funds to organizations that are working globally for women’s rights and empowerment.
“We fund all our events privately, so everything that’s donated goes to a recipient organization that works with women and girls and meets our criteria for selection,” Roberts said.
This year, Bald Solidarity is sponsoring nonprofit Global Giving’s “Girl Effect” program, which aims to improve the status of young women around the world. The program provides education, health care and mentorship to young girls through a variety of localized ventures, from building community centers to funding soccer teams.
Perls has been the biggest fundraiser for Bald Solidarity this year, raising more than $2,500. Overall, Bald Solidarity participants set a goal of $10,400, which as of Saturday were still fundraising to meet.
The Girl Effect allows donors to choose where and how their money should be spent. “I chose to send my money to specifically benefit 300 young girls living in the slums of Mumbai,” Perls said.
Perls’ project establishes five community centers for young girls to provide safe spaces to receive health care, education and leadership training.
“[They will] encourage the girls to develop confidence and facility in speaking about issues of gender-based discrimination in their communities.”
In many cultures, hair is a symbol of one’s identity, a definition of one’s being. Where long hair in many parts of the world adds to or even defines a woman’s appearance and even value, being bald in some parts of India, where Perls’ raised money would go, has other meanings.
In some rural parts of India, an outlawed custom is still practiced that requires widows from certain sections of society to have their heads shaved. This is done to ostracize them from society, leaving them on their own, deemed unworthy without their husbands and with no one to look after them.
While in India it’s a tradition that a widow is forced to comply with, for Perls it’s an opportunity to challenge how she sees herself and her understanding of beauty. “Shaving my hair is not only a public statement. It was a personal challenge in shifting my own perspective on what beauty really is.”
So what motivated Perls to take such a daring step?
She said there were two contributing factors. First, her roommate in college lent her the book “Half the Sky” by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, which talks about the oppression of women and girls in the developing world and how a little help can shape their lives.
“It was the first time that I came face to face with human sex trafficking and the general oppression of women’s voices abroad,” Perls said.
As she turned the last page, she had two thoughts: First, “Who am I not to do something?” Second, “What can I actually do?”
When she heard Roberts speak about Bald Solidarity at an event at the University of Washington, she saw an opportunity.
At first she was afraid.
“I’ve had long, curly hair my whole life. In many ways it did define how I saw myself, and how others saw me.”
But ultimately Perls says, “I looked past that fear to recognize this is something that would make a difference.”