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“Don’t Touch My Hair”: Nurses’ Shaved Heads Spark Controversy Over “Sexist” Coronavirus Coverage

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A recent regional news video featuring nurses having their heads shaved before heading to the frontlines of the fight against novel coronavirus Covid-19 has kicked off a trending social media debate about sexist double standards in Chinese media.

On February 15, Gansu News released an online video titled, “Cutting hair off, they are off to battle.” In the video, 14 out of the 15 (female) nurses were shown being shaved bald before being dispatched to Hubei province to treat the coronavirus epidemic. Many were visibly distraught, and others were shown weeping while under the razor.

female nurse crying Wuhan coronavirus

Still featuring one of the female nurses (image: 7:00 Video)

Clearly intended to highlight these nurses’ heroism, the video instead sparked debate and outrage on Chinese social media platform Weibo about why exactly these women were being forced to shave their hair. Many pointed out that in a still showing the group of nurses, the one male nurse still had a full head of hair. Users on Weibo and messaging platform WeChat fumed about the apparent double standard, many referencing V for Vendetta’s iconic head shaving moment, as well as Solange’s “Don’t Touch My Hair.”

Image: WeChat

In response to the controversy, a spokesperson for the hospital has since stated the women “weren’t forced” to shave their heads but had volunteered on the recommendation of the hospital, as long hair is thought to be a transmission hazard.

The incident brings to light a far bigger discussion about the coverage of women in the news. Considering that women make up a vast majority of nurses on the frontlines in Wuhan — 50% of doctors and over 90% of frontline nurses, according to data from Shanghai Women’s Federation — the epicenter of the virus, users are pointing out that state media’s coverage of women is very limited, and tends to focus on “women’s sacrifice” for the good of the nation.

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One highly upvoted post on Weibo read: “90% of the medical teams assisting Wuhan are women. Of those medical team photos, only nine photos featuring men were sent out of dozens of people.” The post goes on to survey the types of headlines that women nurses have gotten: “beautiful,” “pregnant,” “returning to work after a miscarriage,” “postponing her period,” and so on.

The post goes on to lament:

“Can you find nothing but praise for women apart from their bodies? Describing this tragedy as dedication, praising tears and wounds, step by step to normalize personal sacrifices. I really hate this ‘sacrifice education.’ No one should be sacrificed.”

To make matters worse, many report women nurses on the frontlines lack sanitary supplies because male staff don’t see it as a high priority. Bloggers and netizens have taken it upon themselves to organize grassroots fundraisers and dispatch the needed supplies to Hubei province.

For a Chinese state media outlet that’s doing more balanced coverage, meanwhile, Southern Daily has been widely praised for its photo campaign featuring some of the doctors and nurses on the frontlines free of their suits and masks.

Close-ups on the men’s and women’s faces highlight the markings, wounds, and imprints from day upon day of wearing medical equipment, highlighting a heroism that transcends the genders — and their double standards.

Header: Artwork inspired by the shaved nurses, featuring taglines that read “I’m a person, not a ‘goddess'” (image: Weibo)

Mayura Jain
    Mayura Jain is a Shanghai-based writer, editor, illustrator and designer originally from Los Angeles. Before joining RADII, she worked for lifestyle magazine City Weekend and Sixth Tone as editor and graphic designer. In her spare time she frequents art exhibitions, fosters cats, and chows on unhealthy vegetarian food.