The ships landed on the beaches of Normandy before dawn. Along eighty kilometers of coastline, amphibious vessels slid out of the water like sea monsters and shook themselves dry, flinging off their damp bodies thousands of men smeared with the same euphoria of war. Insatiable, the beach seemed to devour the troops. Aircrafts helped feed the assault from the sky: one by one, the soldiers surrendered themselves to flight, to the allure of the fall. Their jellyfish silhouettes—ephemeral but perfect for slipping through the air—negotiated gravity until the feel of the sand returned to them the animal weight of their bodies.
The landings lasted more than a month and with them the war was near its end. No seaborne invasion has ever equaled that of the Allies on the coast of France. Following the tides of the English Channel, armies from all over the world gathered to free France from Nazi occupation and to contain Nazi control of Western Europe. Besides soldiers, the crew also included spies, nurses, and correspondents. Among them were Robert Capa, J. D. Salinger, and Ernest Hemingway—their eyes wide open.
Thanks to the work of Robert Capa, there is now a large photographic archive of the Allies’ expedition in France. Many of his photographs capture in detail the textured expressions of civilians and soldiers, whose faces convey everything from the meekness of subjugation to the ecstasy of liberation, from the understanding of survival to the sheen of fear.
Among these images that bear witness to the Allies’ victory over the Nazis and shed light on the jubilation that flooded the streets of French towns is a series of photographs taken in Chartres just two months after the Normandy landings. The series is a visual record of the violence deployed against women accused of carrying on relationships with German soldiers or collaborating with them. While men convicted of the same crime were killed, the women were subjected to a different kind of punishment: in a public place, as everyone watched, their hair was shorn down to their scalps. The purpose of their shaved heads was not only to provoke disgust in those who saw them but also to serve as a protracted reminder of the betrayals they were accused of.
Robert Capa’s photographs manage to convey the various stages of this public shaming. The first few images capture the moment of mutilation. Some women look straight at the camera, having clearly learned to quiet their fear. The dejection on their faces is as transparent as the pleasure the men feel as they run their fingers through locks of hair that don’t belong to them, demonstrating a level of intimacy exclusive to lovers and tormentors. Around them, the audience gives a satisfied smile and applauds at the hard snip of the shears.
Heads shaven, sometimes half-naked with swastikas tarred on their bodies, the women were paraded down the streets to the beat of a drum, either by foot or on top of a wagon. Their exposed scalps transformed them into abject creatures devoid of beauty. To consummate this punishment, their hair was swept into a mound that burned until the smell filled the air.
The bodies of these women had become another territory to be recaptured. Violating them was a strategy that served to denigrate the enemy and ensure the finality of defeat. The public shaming of French women turned into a widespread pursuit, a part of the everyday ritual of French liberation.
The practice of shaming women by shaving their heads has Biblical origins. This punishment is alluded to in several Books: Jeremiah, Isaiah, Deuteronomy, Corinthians. In each case the bald woman carries the burden of shame, and her shorn head is a stigma signifying moral weakness and vice. In Isaiah, for example, God threatens to shave off the hair of the daughters of Sion for walking with their heads held high and a suggestive gait, dressed in necklaces and jewels. In Deuteronomy, God tells his warriors that if they should come across a captive woman they find attractive and would like to marry, they must first lock her up in their houses for thirty days, stripped of the clothes of her captivity; there, she must trim her nails and shave her head. Clearly, God was banking on a loss of appeal.
In the Middle Ages, women accused of adultery had their heads shaved. In the twentieth century, the female partners of Spanish Republicans, German women who socialized with non-Aryan men, and French women who collaborated with the Germans met the same fate. Each case was a question of eroticism. What they sought to do was unsex the body that had rebelled.
Hair has long been viewed as a symbol of sex and status in cultures across the world. It was common among Egyptians for free people to keep their heads shaved and wear a wig. The Greeks offered hair as tribute to the gods and depicted their goddesses with long, abundant locks. There are other examples in mythology that pay special attention to hair: Delilah steals Samson’s powers when she has his hair shaved; Medusa’s head is covered in snakes instead of curls. The Romans were convinced that people with little or no hair were in some way deformed. During Victorian times, respectable women wore their hair up while prostitutes wore it loose.
My first witches were the ones in the Roald Dahl novel. It’s not that I’d never seen any before. I was familiar with all of the fairy-tale witches, but none of them scared me. I always thought there was something charming and likable about those witches. Plus, they were right to be angry.
The Dahl witches were the first ones that really frightened me, and showed me that the world could be a dangerous place. What upset me most of all was the possibility that a kind, ordinary lady could be a witch, that she could be hiding a lump of soft, toeless flesh inside her shoes, and that an innocent head scratch might in fact betray the unwelcome presence of a wig. This section gave me nightmares:
There now appeared in front of me row upon row of bald female heads, a sea of naked scalps, every one of them red and itchy-looking from being rubbed by the linings of the wigs. I simply cannot tell you how awful they were, and somehow the whole sight was made more grotesque because underneath those frightful scabby bald heads, the bodies were dressed in fashionable and rather pretty clothes. It was monstrous. It was unnatural.
A crowd of bald heads was irrefutable proof that Dahl’s witches were more than just a story. The fact that the women didn’t have any hair was no fantasy, and this made their recipe for turning children into mice plausible, too.
Hair also braids my family history. My sister was six when she stopped growing. The marks my parents made on the wall to measure the passage of time remained unchanged for several months. Even though we are less than two years apart, a gulf began to open between us in those months. I behaved like I was the big sister and exercised the independence of the firstborn child who can already read to herself. My sister, on the other hand, was small and quick to smile, her cheeks colored by the sun. And her hair was so long it fell down to her waist.
She was the only person who seemed not to mind the apparent sluggishness in her growth. She took advantage of all the benefits her ninety-something centimeters afforded her for longer than was normal: she pretended to sleep so she wouldn’t have to go for a walk, she never carried anything heavier than an empty lunch box, and though we never said a word about it, the bottom bunk soon became part of her domain.
The woman at the beauty salon took one look at my sister and decided she’d stopped growing because of the length of her hair; it would have to be cut. Just to the shoulder, she said, as though those words made the verdict any lighter. It took just a few minutes for the sharp edge of the hairdresser’s shears to trim back my sister’s childhood bliss and our parents’ suffocating fantasy: their daughter would grow after all, just like the other kids.
When my mother lost her hair, I mislaid words. Not just my own, but also words that weren’t mine. Strands of my mother’s brown hair wound down my throat and knotted inside me like wire. Everything I might have said was caught behind that barbed, rusted tangle. In hindsight, and thanks to the unyielding residue left by my period of quiet, I now believe that chopping my hair off might have been the only way for me to come to terms with my silence. What has stayed with me from those months is a discomfort between my ribs. A deep, stabbing pain that I feel whenever I see a woman wearing a scarf on her head.
—Translated from the Spanish by Julia Sanches
Mariana Oliver was born in Mexico City in 1986. She received a master’s degree in comparative literature from the National Autonomous University of México (UNAM) and is currently working toward a doctoral degree in modern literature at the Iberoamerican University in Mexico City. Oliver was granted a fellowship for essay writing at the Foundation for Mexican Literature and was awarded the José Vasconcelos National Award for Migratory Birds.
Julia Sanches is a translator of Portuguese, Spanish, and Catalan. She has translated works by Susana Moreira Marques, Claudia Hernández, Daniel Galera, and Eva Baltasar, among others. Her shorter translations have appeared in various magazines and periodicals, including Words without Borders, Granta, Tin House, and Guernica. A founding member of Cedilla & Co., she sits on the Council of the Authors Guild.
Excerpted from Migratory Birds, by Mariana Oliver, translated by Julia Sanches. Excerpted with the permission of Transit Books. Copyright © 2021 by Mariana Oliver.