Fox & Squirrel interview Gemma Rolls Bentley (March 2011)

For international women’s month you and your partners participated in Southbank Centre’s Women of the World festival with a piece that explored the relation between women and their hair.

Firstly, do you think that an international women’s month could celebrate womanhood internationally? And, secondly what does womanhood mean to you?

Yes, I think that international women’s month is a great way to celebrate womanhood. Many women’s quality of life is limited by their gender. I think that it’s important to remember that for a lot of women around the world the journey towards equality has not progressed as far as it has here in the UK. An event such as international women’s day or the WOW festival at Southbank Centre not only raises awareness about the suffering that women face as a result of their gender but sends a positive message to women around the world that things can be changed and that standards are improving. Being a woman is an important part of who I am and I enjoy sharing a connection with women internationally – certainly a cause for celebration.

Using your definition of womanhood how does hair and hairstyles relate to this?

I think that with regard to womanhood hair is crucial in that it has the power to signify many wider issues that effect women such as ageing, illness, gender, sexuality and religion. Whether we are discussing the styling, covering or removal of hair on our heads, faces or bodies it is an incredibly powerful motif. There are standards, conventions and preconceptions relating to hair and hairstyles that can be very restrictive. I think that we should collectively strive to eliminate these so that a woman can grow old without feeling pressure to dye her greying hair, can cut her hair real short without being presumed to be a lesbian and can lose her hair during cancer treatment without feeling self conscious. People are judged on the way their hair looks and it can be the first thing that we notice about somebody’s appearance, because of that hair can offer an important means for personal expression. But hairstyling can also be fun and frivolous – it doesn’t always have to be steeped in meaning.

Ever since I met you I have always been fascinated by your hair. Is your hair just your hair or does it make some kind of a statement regarding Gemma the woman, the artist, the curator?

I am obsessed with my hair. I love the creative control that it allows me to have over the way that I look and that I can do what I want to it and know that it’ll grow back. The fact that people comment on my hair as much as they do makes it obvious to me that hair really is something that people notice.

When I was younger my mother insisted I had short hair, she believed my long face would suit short hair best. She is probably right but as a young girl I always wanted long hair because I thought it looked more feminine. Do you think hair has the power to empower gender distinctions and with that blur traditional social divisions?

Yes, I think that it’s empowering for a woman to shave her head. Like you said, people traditionally associate long hair with femininity, but these associations are constantly changing. I have the opposite situation to you – my mother never ceases to tell me how much ‘prettier’ I looked when my hair was long. It’s interesting to me to think about how both men and other women perceive women’s hair according to social conventions.

And, finally which are your favourite hairstyles?

I think that the best way for me to answer this is to tell you who my hair icons are – a question that was included in the Hair-le-lujuah survey that we were conducting at the WOW festival. They are Annie Lennox, Lady Gaga and Dolly Parton. The favourite hairstyle that I’ve ever had is probably the emo mullet that I used to cut myself when I was 19 but my friends and family have told me since that most other people thought it was apalling