An Ode to My Hair (and Tips for Talking About It)
Posted August 29, 2016on:
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.
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.
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.
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.)
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.