Since my diagnosis, I have cried the most tears over losing my hair, and that was before it happened. That feels rather shallow, but it’s worth remembering that the thing that sparks our tears is not necessarily the thing we’re grieving about. Whether we like it or not, for most people appearance is very important to us. It’s how we present ourselves to the world and is closely connected to our identity. When we look in the mirror, we recognise what we see as who we are, even though we know that we are far more than what we look like. It’s not surprising that such a drastic change in appearance is upsetting but I’ve realised that grief about my hair combines with all the other ways in which my sense of identity has been challenged by this experience of cancer, and my tears were for those deeper losses too.
One of the biggest questions I had was how people coped with the loss of their hair. How did other people cover their heads? Where do you get a wig and what type is best? What other options are there when you’re convinced, like I am, that headscarves are a symbol of patriarchal oppression and to be avoided at all costs?! It’s a very individual choice and women will do what suits them, just as we choose different hairstyles, clothes and shoes and combine them to express our own style. Cancer robs you of your normal choices about your appearance and forces you to make different ones, and different people will do what works for them. But in case it’s helpful to someone else, this what I have done in the three months since I had the remaining strands of my hair clippered off on the way home from my second chemo.
Basically, I’ve just been gloriously bald most of the time and because this has happened in the summer, temperature has dictated when I’ve covered my head to protect it from the sun or the cold so it has been a pragmatic decision rather than an aesthetic one. I have a headband that makes a very convenient beanie hat which I carry around with me, and which I can put on quickly without needing a mirror or much faffing around. I tried headscarves but felt profoundly uncomfortable, and have a wig that I have worn once or twice and will wear to an event in the next couple of weeks but it left me feeling like I was in disguise, and not really myself. My feeling has been that to be bald is to be true to who I am and what is happening to me at the moment. It has taken courage at times to go into new places, or to meet people that haven’t seen me bald before, and there have been a few work meetings where I have felt a bit vulnerable and have kept my beanie hat on rather than cope with what I think other people’s reactions might be. But I think it takes as much courage to wear a wig or a headscarf as it does to be bald, because we’re having to look different to the norm, and different to what we would choose for ourselves if we still had control over that choice.
And of course there has been plenty of over-analysing and angst on my part in the background behind that decision. Is being bald too ‘in your face’? Does it look aggressive or make other people feel uncomfortable? Does it seem attention seeking – ‘look at me – I’ve got cancer!’? And then comes the realisation that what matters is my motivation, not what other people think about it. I’m reading Brene Brown’s Daring Greatly at the moment and she says, ‘nothing has transformed my life more than realising that it’s a waste of time to evaluate my worthiness by weighing the reaction of the people in the stands.’ I’m hope that I’m getting to that position, but in this at least I’ve realised that it doesn’t matter what other people think. And the people who matter most, my friends and family, have all been very affirming which is lovely.
It’s been interesting to challenge the norms of feminine appearance, and to pay attention to how that makes me feel. In the past, I have definitely felt more confident when I know that I look good whether that’s through what I’m wearing or my hair behaving for once, and that feels like a very insubstantial thing to base confidence on. I’m getting older so my appearance is going to keep changing anyway, and maybe this experience will make it easier to age gracefully rather than trying to hold onto what I used to look like. That’s why I’ve changed my profile photos on social media to reflect my new baldness. I didn’t want to pretend that I still had lots of hair, or to see that wild curliness as a standard that I had to reach again. This is me and this is what I look like. Who knows what I’ll look like in the future? And I have to say that London is a great place to be a bald woman because no one bats an eyelid. That’s partly because of our great British reserve, but partly because London is so diverse; we’re used to people looking different.
I’m losing hair from all over my body, some of which is very welcome – goodbye nose hair! My eyelashes have gone which means if I’m wearing eyeliner, the slightest hint of a tear gives me panda eyes as it all runs really easily. I used to get called Dennis Healey at school because I had a bushy monobrow to rival his. It’s been split in two and tamed into submission over the years through plucking and threading, but my eyebrows are now a faint shadow of their former selves and I’ve started colouring them in to lessen the scary cancer patient look. And strangely, I am not completely bald, as a sprinkling of hairs on my head have persisted on growing in spite of the poison they are having to contend with. The picture at the top is me with my friend Jon just after he gave me a zero haircut last month. I’ll ask him to do it again when I see him in a couple of weeks because I don’t like that sparse wispy look and prefer to be properly bald. I can imagine that the transition from ‘bald’ to ‘hairstyle’ might be a difficult one when it starts to grow back and I have to cope with the wispyness in between but I’ll deal with that one when I get there.