There is so much talk of hair when you have a disease that involves chemotherapy. ‘Did you cut your hair before it fell out?,’ ‘What is it like to be bald?,’ ‘Did you consider cold caps?,’ ‘Is it growing back differently?’ It is such an obvious topic of discussion.
But no one will think about your hair, or lack thereof, more than you will. I realize we all cope very differently, but at some point, unless you were rocking the bald head pre-illness, it will be a major issue.
For me, my hair was and remains a major issue. I have identified as a woman with long hair my whole life. My father, from as early as I can remember (and not so subtly), made us aware that he thought all women should have long hair (I know, not cool in today’s world, but when I was 3, his word was bond). His preference must have seeped into my psyche because I never considered cutting my hair shorter than a long bob. No matter what, it always had to fit in some kind of ponytail.
When I was told I would need chemo, I knew one of my biggest fears would be realized, baldness. I eased my way in with a short cut and fun color which started the trend for the next year of making cancer ‘fun’ with funky styles and color.
Each look became a way for me to hide behind the fact that I had no choice but to go through the stages of losing and gaining hair due to cancer. If I dyed my dark hair platinum blonde, it would be a spectacle that would divert conversation from my illness and recovery to my image.
I am not even sure I knew what I was effectively doing to distort reality. In hindsight, I think the colors and mohawks were an unconscious coping mechanism. If there is something radical on my head, it will be the main conversation and I won’t have to answer how I am feeling.
Not that I was feeling badly necessarily, but I have a hard time flippantly answering ‘oh I am great’ when the truth is that I am dealing with an emotional aftermath that scares me. If I could avoid those conversations with purple hair, purple hair it was.
My most recent style was a bright magenta ombré fro. When I came home with this, my husband, whom I hadn’t warned about the change, looked at me for an awkwardly long time and finally asked, ‘Can I tell you the truth?’ I was ready for him to say something to the effect of ‘you look like a clown,’ but what he said was much heavier. He said, ‘I just want you to look like you again.’
Now some may think, how rude of him! Grace is Grace no matter what her hair looks like! But I knew exactly what he meant. He wanted me to look like the woman I was before we were all afflicted with cancer. He wanted to see me and not have to immediately remember the horror show of the past year. He wished I didn’t have the opportunity to have bright pink hair as a result of a disease that changed me inside and out.
At that moment, I knew I was ready to be done with colors for the time being. I realized that I wanted to check back in with pre-cancer Grace, too. See how she fits on my new body. Is she still even in there?
This morning I went to see my beloved hairstylist who was ready with the brown color she was dying my hair, before cancer, to cover greys (yes I had enough grey hair at 34 to warrant coloring, it sucked). As the dark color set into my hair I felt sad to see the pink go. I wondered if I was just forcing myself to do something on the suggestion of someone I care about (my husband).
As the she dried my hair I was shocked by my own reflection. I looked just like I have for 35 of the last 36 years of my life, but yet I was totally unfamiliar to myself.
I think the lesson is that my identity is no longer tied to my reflection. This year of ever-changing hairstyles has taught me that I am whoever I want to be at that moment. Pre-cancer Grace cannot be revived because she doesn’t exist anymore.
All I have is now. Now I have brown hair like I was born with, but it is not who I am. Who I am is the bald woman. The woman stripped of the option of vanity. Isn’t that who we all are? The nut inside the shell (all puns intended). I am glad I got to meet the bald me. She reminded me that what we choose to do with our outsides is just adornment and we should play around with our options. Enjoy each change, but never forget that our essence will always be bare.