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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.

11 thoughts on “Being bald

  1. You are right about that strange relationship that most of us have with our appearance – anyone over the age of 40 almost certainly has had that experience of looking in the mirror and thinking ‘who is that? – oh – it’s me’ – a strange sense of dislocation that what we are seeing is not how we visualise (an invariably younger version of) ourselves. At least male pattern baldness tends to strike slowly and give you time to get used to it. I also suspect that culturally, there is more pressure on women to try and maintain outer beauty rather than embracing the potentially distinguished nature of appearing older.
    I love the writing of John O’Donohue – an Irish Priest who insists ‘The body inhabits the soul’. Most of us instinctively assume the soul is somehow a small spiritual thing that resides somewhere in this great clanking, defective body. He insists that it is the other way round and I believe that he is right – that is why folk seem so small after they have died. Both my parents died slowly from terrible illness – my mother from cancer, my dad from Parkinson’s disease combined with dementia. The amazing thing was that even towards the end of their lives (and despite that fact that I had very difficult relationships with both), they were so recognisably themselves – even when skeletally thin and incredibly unwell. In both cases, after they died, it was also so evident to me that this thing we call the body is such a transient, temporary, small thing compared to what is inside.
    I believe that is also why even the mildest mental illness can be so devastating to those who are close to you – when recovered, they say something like ‘It is so good to have you back’ – the body has been there all the time but the person not.
    When you enter a room, it is your soul that friends recognise and relate to. The light in your eyes, the touch of a smile, the slightest inflexion that only a close friend would recognise, and notice, the momentary hesitation in saying a word – all these are expressed by parts of the body but really belong to the soul.
    Hair is nice – and who knows how yours will come back – but (and I am desperately trying to avoid cliché here), what is inside is doing well.

    • Thank you Nigel – this is beautiful. By the way, I read Running Free after your recommendation and really enjoyed it. I thought he sounded a little bit smug at times, especially when some of us have no choice but to run in city streets because of where we live, but I loved the idea of different ages of running and really identify with that. I definitely want to run in more beautiful places in the year ahead

      • Come down to Cornwall!! We are absolutely spoilt for beautiful running – and we know it. Top events are ‘The Classic Quarter’ – 44 miles from the Lizard to land’s End (but you can do it as a two or four person relay) – that is in June. Alternatively we have ‘The RAT race’ in August – no relays but 64, 32, 21 or 11 mile alternative distances. C’mon – you know you will be wanting something like that next year. All trail running and hilly but breathtaking at the same time (in the right sense of that word…) N

  2. This is a fab piece of writing, Jenny, it’s beautifully honest and quite inspirational! I love the photo- you look great regardless of the absence of hair. I wish you every strength and power on the road to full recovery.

  3. Thanks Jen. No part of who you are has been the slightest bit diminished by having an ‘alternative’ exterior! Yesterday as you went for your final poisoning you looked so full of vitality and sparkle that it was very hard to marry up what your body was going through with the vibrancy of the person I was speaking to. Nigel Argall (and John O’Donohue!) is so right – it’s what’s inside that captivates!

  4. Thank you – running there makes all the difference I think – to arrive on my own terms and with other people. I’m so touched and impressed that you did the run on your own and met us there!

  5. My mate, after he’d gone through chemo for testicular cancer, found his hair to start with came back really soft, like baby hair. It was lovely to the touch. I’m pretty sure in my head I was thinking, I wonder if his head smells like a baby’s head?, because lets face it, not much smells nicer than the head of a clean baby. Anyway, I digress… Just to say, baldness suits you, yup it’s induced by poisons doing their job, but you do look very beautiful as the above picture perfectly illustrates. Plus, I’m quite excited to see how it will choose to return.
    I’ve let my hair and beard run riot since we took this picture and will undoubtedly be taking the opportunity to strim it back again after I do yours, just so that I can get another photo opportunity with my gorgeous girlfriend.
    Love you. You’re awesome. 🙂 xxx

  6. The poisons had the reverse Samson affect – they took your hair and now you have even more strength! And that’s where your beauty comes from. I loved your hair so I understand why you cried – it was so you – but I agree with Jon you look great bald too!! Inspiring post. Jen you are a phenomenal woman! Txxx

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