For The Someday Book

An Ode to My Hair (and Tips for Talking About It)

Posted on: August 29, 2016

Any day now, I’m going to lose my hair. It’s holding on for now, but the day I find the first clump in my hand, I’ll shear the rest of it.

Some people will think it’s silly and frivolous to get worked up about hair, but I have strong feelings about my hair. Strong feelings of love. I love my hair.

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One of my best hair pics ever. Two weeks ago in Brighton. My hair is actually making a heart an curlicue on top of my head. How fun is that? Like a little love note before it goes away.

Like most women, I have a very long list of things I don’t like about my body, and a very short list of things I do. My hair. That’s my list of things I like. If you pressed me, I’d probably add my eyes and my legs. Those are pretty decent. Sure, most other things are tolerable. I have a healthy self-image, so I can’t think of anything I hate about my body. It’s just my body. But my hair? That brings me great joy, and I say without hesitation that I just love it.

I hit the lottery when it came to hair. It is thick and healthy and chock full of natural curl. It didn’t even get noticeably gray until I hit 40. (Yes, I do color it now—and it has been a lot of fun to experiment with some fun shades.) Curls are fun! You never know what shape they will take. They are sometimes thick and framing, sometimes wild and frizzy, sometimes sticking out at odd angles. I love waking up each day, or looking in the mirror after they dry (naturally, no blow-drying!) and seeing what shape they have taken that day. It’s a small pleasure I enjoy every day.

My hair takes little time or effort to style. On days I don’t wash it, it takes about 30 seconds. When I wash it, less than 5 minutes. Brush, shake, scrunch, apply gel, scrunch some more. The end. One rule of my hair: NEVER brush it when dry. So I only even brush a couple times a week, wet from the washing.

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Check out that ringlet. People pay gobs of money to get their hair to do that, and it only lasts a few hours at best. Mine just does that all on its own. Pure gift.

This means I get no credit for my hair. I don’t do anything to make it look the way it does. It is a gift, not something for which I can claim any credit. I think of it like a gift from God. Or, more accurately, when I need to be reminded about gifts from God, and how we are to stop and appreciate all the beauty God gives us, and how we do not earn the things we have in this life, I think about my hair. Seriously. You can have your flowers and birds and mountains. I get the gift of my hair.

I am going to miss seeing my hair in the mirror every day. I’m going to miss the wild little things it does, and the feel of it blowing around in the wind. I’m going to miss that one curl that gets in my line of vision, reminding me of the cuteness above. I’m going to miss running my fingers through it in the shower, and twirling it when I am tired, and lifting it up off my neck when I am hot. I’m going to miss pushing it behind me on the pillow so the curls don’t get squished, and deciding every third morning if I can go another day without washing it.

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I love the ocean, and so does my hair. These cool ringlets happened after a swim in the Atlantic, before we left Virginia.

These things matter to me. They are an important part of my day, and they bring me a great deal of joy. I am working through some real grief at the loss of my hair. I’m not sensitive about being bald, I’m just sad to lose this thing I love about myself.

I am also realizing that some comments—while intended to be helpful and supportive—don’t help. So, friends and family, I’m telling you in advance what to say and what not to say. (And, to be clear, this is MY list, not a list for every woman losing her hair to cancer. YMMV.)

  1. Don’t tell me it will grow back.

First, because I know that. Every person who’s ever owned hair knows that it will grow back. I’ve endured bad haircuts and too-short haircuts and lived to tell about it, just like you.

Second, because it might not grow back—or at least not the way it was. Chemo changes your body in many ways, and the hair that grows back is often not the same as the hair you lost. In many cases, straight hair returns curly. My curly locks may get curlier. Or they may come back with no curl at all. I have to be prepared for this thing I love about myself to disappear. That doesn’t mean I don’t love myself anymore, because my self-esteem is not just about my hair. But it means that, whether the loss is temporary or forever, I am grieving it.

  1. Don’t tell me it’s only hair.

I know it’s only hair. I know it’s not who I am. I will happily lose my hair to keep my life, but it is still a loss and a grief. Dismissing it as “only hair” closes down the space for me to share what I am feeling.

Hair is just one of the losses induced by cancer, and one of the ones that is the easiest to talk about in a public way. I won’t talk about the other losses that are closer to the heart, like the loss of time, the important events in my son’s life I’ll likely miss, the opportunities for ministry I will not have energy to follow-up on, the books I miss reading because I can’t concentrate, the vacation I’d been waiting for but never got to enjoy. There are countless griefs you cannot see. This is the one you can, and one that seems alright to share and grieve more publicly. Please don’t dismiss it or close down the space for my sadness. I know it’s only hair, but I love my hair. A lot. So I get to be sad about losing it.

  1. Don’t tell me that I might keep it, if only…

I believe you when you say your friend ate only kale, did sixteen hours of yoga a day, stood on their head for an hour every night and therefore held onto their hair, so I could too. I’m still not going to do that. They offered me the use of a cold cap, which helps some people hold on to their hair. It was painful and uncomfortable, and I decided within minutes I didn’t need the added discomfort during treatment. It’s just not worth it. Every single doctor and nurse has told me it’s almost certain to go, and I’m not inclined to fight it. As much as I love my hair, I’m not willing do whatever it takes to keep it. I’ll let it go, and deal with whatever follows.

  1. Don’t tell me I’ll still be beautiful to you.

This one is hard to explain, and may be hard for you to hear and understand. It also may not be true for others, but it is for me.

First, there’s this: For me, losing my hair isn’t about feeling ugly or having you think I’m ugly. In fact, I didn’t even consider that some people would see me as ugly until people suddenly started reassuring me that THEY would still think I am beautiful. If anyone thinks that a cancer patient is ugly, they are just a jerk. If you are my friend, you don’t need to reassure me you aren’t a jerk. I know it already.

More deeply, though, is this: I don’t much care whether you think I’m beautiful. I don’t look the way I do to please you or anyone else. There is far too much emphasis in this world on women’s appearance. Ask any professional woman you know—clergy, lawyer, doctor, business executive, professor—and they’ll regale you with stories of inappropriate comments about their hair, clothes and make-up. And then they’ll regale you with stories of comments considered totally appropriate, but that still irritate because they provide further evidence that people (men and women) still judge women’s worth based on how they look. General opinions about our looks are usually a way of sidelining our ideas, or reminding us that being pleasing to look at is more important than our contributions, or simply re-establishing our place as objects rather than agents. When you tell me you still think I’m beautiful, it makes me wonder why my beauty (or lack thereof) matters to you, unless you are my spouse.

I’m not saying that I don’t care about my appearance. I care a lot about looking professional and put together, out of respect for the office I hold and the church and the God I serve. I can do that just fine when I’m bald. I can wear a wig when I don’t want to look like I have cancer, or a neatly-tied scarf to bring some fun color to the day. I even took a special class last week to learn some make-up skills, so that I can still look professional when my skin is wan and my eyes have dark circles. I care about my appearance enough so that it is not a distraction or an impediment to the work I am trying to do. That has nothing to do with whether or not you think I’m beautiful , so I don’t care to know.

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Earlier this week. Not an especially great hair day, but the day after I thought I might need to shave it. So a hair day I didn’t expect to get to enjoy.

So what instead? What do I want to hear from you right now? Here’s a list of ideas.

  • Help me think about how much fun I could have with wigs. Be fun! Laugh about trying something completely different. A couple of women after church yesterday were giving me great encouragement about my new wig, followed by a Facebook post of a fashion icon with the same look. Perfect. Wonderful. Appreciated in every way. (Note: This is safer territory for women than men. Tread carefully if you are a guy.)
  • Smile and say, “bald is beautiful.” (This one is a perfect go-to for guys already sporting the look.)
  • Say, “you’re looking good, how are you feeling?” “Looking good” is not about beauty, it is about health and vitality. Asking the follow-up question indicates that you realize the outside may not match the inside, and gives me space to share.
  • Send me fun scarves to try out, or suggest how to coordinate them liturgically.
  • Acknowledge that my grief is real and that this whole cancer business just plain sucks.
  • Tell me you can’t wait to see what I do with my new hair, whenever it arrives.
  • Hold my hand and cry with me.
  • Make jokes about teaching me how to use a curling iron and blow drier if needed. (I honestly don’t know how. I quit before I was 15.)
  • Watch how I talk about my hair, my cancer and anything else, and match my mood and expressions. If I’m making jokes, you can too. If I’m serious, go there.

In the time since I first learned I would undergo chemo and lose my hair, I have been spending extra time enjoying it. I have taken extra selfies on good hair days (see all the pics in this post!), indulged in the expensive Pantene shampoo and conditioner instead of the store brand I usually use, spent extra time looking in the mirror, and generally trying to appreciate my hair for the gift that it is, before it goes away. Sometimes the best gifts from God do not last, and this might be one of them.

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My hair today, with that one little curl that always falls in my eyes.

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11 Responses to "An Ode to My Hair (and Tips for Talking About It)"

So very poignant. I love your hair, too. I couldn’t bear to lose mine either! I grieve with you!

I love the color of your hair in that last picture. You are wonderful.

Love the idea of liturgically colored scarves!! Also, spent Saturday evening with Jack, Susan and Elizabeth Vissing in Jeff, and both Jack and Elizabeth said how much they miss you, and how great you are at the work you do. Elizabeth said she liked your voice. I got all pastoral and said something about what you say, and she said, “No, I like the sound of her voice.” For both the sound, and the things you have to say, including those things here, thank you for your voice!

Many years ago, when a friend of mine was getting chemo and was starting to lose (and grieve the loss of) her hair, we created ritual. Our women’s liturgy group came up with prayers, songs, photos and stories that both celebrated our hair (and gave thanks for it) and complained about its difficulties or loss. It was a very powerful time, and it gave our friend the strength she needed to shave her head . . .
Grace and courage to you as you prepare for this loss. It stinks.
Vicki

I totally understand your sadness. When I had cancer, I lost a breast, which will not, obviously, grow back. But I felt fortunate that I didn’t have to have chemo and lose my hair. That would have been harder. Be strong.

Jennifer, you might not remember me but I was your Aunt Carol’s best friend Jen (Holsen) from South Dakota. I am so sorry to learn you have breast cancer. I have been exploring your blog and am in awe of your strength and faith. Your blog about your hair is simply inspiring. I read it and felt a strong desire to just wrap myself in your words. I can remember your Aunt Carol talking about losing her hair. One day as we were going to dinner, she went “head naked” and did not blink an eye. She was one of the strongest women I have ever known and loved and I miss her every day. I can tell you are just as extraordinary as she was. Your faith is an inspiration and your writings are a gift. Thank you. You and your family are in my prayers.

[…] RevJMK has really good advice for those of us who know someone dealing with hair loss related to chemo, but really for walking along anyone going through a major life change due to health issues, […]

Hi Jennifer! Thank you for the blogs. I love reading them. It has been difficult for all of us to not be able to really “be there” for you during this time, but we have all been praying for you and your family. I just want to say that I would HATE losing my hair. Hair is important to me, too, so I wouldn’t want to lose mine. Wouldn’t want to at all. And like Forest Gump- “That is all I have to say about that”. And by writing your blogs, you are keeping all of us informed. Thanks again

ps- and you do have beautiful hair and lovely curls. Love everything about your hair.

Love and prayers Paster Jennifer.

[…] even mutilated by this cancer journey. Y’all remember how much I had to write to talk about losing my hair? That was a temporary change. This is a permanent one. But I don’t have time or energy to […]

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About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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