March 15-July 6 2019
So, do you have hair? That’s a question that may weigh more heavily on men as most women I know have at least some hair, but I shaved my head (in public) on March 15th of this year to help St. Baldrick’s foundation, which helps children with cancer: https://www.stbaldricks.org/ and in doing so I learned some valuable lessons:
- If you are a woman, and you are bald, people expect the worst (you are dying).
- Being bald really cuts down the prep time in the morning.
- Being bald is very hard to adjust to if you have lived your whole life as a woman.
- If anyone is reading this who has experienced cancer personally or through friends or family, and my flippant tone is annoying, I apologize. I do not know what hair loss due to chemotherapy is like, and I do not presume to know. I only know my own experience, and I would never want to generalize to yours, nor would I want to insult anyone about the loss of hair—it’s a real thing, and I respect that.
When I was a teenager, I was very punk rock, so for me the sound of clippers was nostalgic, even familiar. After all, when I shaved my head I had an “undercut”—shaved sides—so I was no stranger to my scalp. But nothing prepared me for being Sinead O’Connor bald. I wanted to write about this even briefly as I think I learned from the experience, and I also suggest that everyone try it at least once (if you are already bald, well, you pretty much know all of this, so stop reading now).
Years ago at a party a friend of mine told the most wonderful story about his decision to ditch his toupee. A very refined, attractive, and very gay man, this friend had lived for years under his rug, when finally he decided to let it all go. His boyfriend was standing by as he told this story, and the boyfriend approved of the decision, although he did express that perhaps some planning would have helped. Nevertheless, my friend without warning or planning set out on a new bald path. He never looked back.
However, I am looking back. First of all, even at this remove of months when I have some hair, I still miss the shades on the sides of my face, the ability to use my hair to hide, the sheer swing and weight of it all. Being bald is like being naked all the time. Those tummy bulges? Everyone can see them. There is just your face, no bangtox. To make it all the better, my adult acne kicked in right before the shaving, so I had an enormous boil on my cheek, something that is hormonal and has about 7 heads which resurface with my menstrual cycle. Then there is the fact that as an almost 50 year old woman, my hair is going gray. Here’s what no one told me about the gray hair I have been so carefully dying: it is just like pubic hair. So even now that I have some hair, it is basically salt and pepper pubic hair on my head. I keep thinking about Sonny Terry’s classic song, “Pepper headed Woman”: “yeah I got a pepper headed woman, ya know, her hair ain’t very long.” Indeed, Sonny, indeed.
Spring Break (Norman photobombing this)
But more importantly, being a bald woman of a certain age forced me to confront some ideas I had that I knew I had but didn’t want to have. Among the many lessons my mother taught me that turned out not to be true, including the idea that the only way to properly clean a floor was to get on my hands and knees, was the idea that beauty matters. On the face of it, of course, beauty matters. If you are beautiful, or any approximation thereof, you are given passes in life. We all know and perhaps tacitly accept this, but we rarely question it. One of the questions I often faced as a “punk rocker” was “Why do you want to make yourself ugly?” and I had no response. I was not ugly; I was fierce. As I began to get older, and I knew well the dictum of David Foster Wallace (“Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you” Kenyon Commencement Address), I began to question the received wisdom of my mother. And it wasn’t just my mother. In fact, my friends, all magazines and commercials and websites and such, and film and art and basically everything had always taught me that beauty is what matters; beauty is power. And so as I began to age, gracefully at first, I began to question this. What if instead of sizing women up I looked at their beauty instead of comparing their cellulite in the YMCA locker room? What if I tried to see a perfect smile or a great wrinkle? For a few years I tried to actually do this, to reprogram my brain, but it was exhausting. The socialization I had absorbed via family, friends, and culture was so very strong.
And then, suddenly, I was bald. My first reaction was fear: why did I do this? I look terrible. Then I passed into a celebration of my baldness, short lived. I decided I liked it. Then I hated it. Then I realized that it only amplified the knowledge that had built the last few years, that being a woman, and getting older, meant being less visible. I know this is a subject many have discussed, and some have lamented, but for me it felt great. No longer would I worry about men catcalling me when I walked in the afternoons, as I had the ultimate invisibility cloak: baldness. No man of any age might make a remark to me in the liquor store or in line at Target because I was bald. It was and is awesome. All the unwanted attention from men that started when I was twelve suddenly vanished, and while there were some faint rings in the water, an object moved suddenly, a resettling, in the end I decided that this was the best way to live.
After all, for most of my life I have felt watched, scrutinized, in danger, and that is not just my ego. For most of my life, I have been commented on based solely on my looks. Now, suddenly, through baldness of all things, I felt freed. But the sudden escape from being “attractive” has led me to question so many things, and I am depressed about my lack of answers. As an undergraduate, I studied Cultural Anthropology, and one of the things I learned was that in other cultures beauty is more transactional (something Naomi Wolf addressed in her book The Beauty Myth). One professor who had lived extensively with the Aka people, often referred to as pygmies, explained it as a system of being able to buy beauty. Of course, the beauty industry is well known to all of us here, but this was different. It was more about being able to get the right tattoos, the right dental modifications, rather than individual standards of beauty that you may or may not be born with. That sounded so much more egalitarian to me. Also, Aka women are often bald. Then I thought “Maybe we can extend beauty to all, simply by shaving our heads, and raise money for childhood cancer!” Then I realized I was having yet another grandiose moment.
I fear I am coming to the end of my baldness, now. The hair, wiry, is growing, and I am thinking I need to have some of it trimmed. My look reminds me of my middle school gym teacher, a woman who made me run for no reason, and who embodied various stereotypes about female gym teachers. Perhaps I need to get some polyester shorts and a set of keys. I cringe at how my teenaged self would see this new iteration of me, and then I cringe at my cringing. I have been trying to grow up for so long, and now it seems I am merely getting old. As a teen I used to buy old lady Fanciful rinses to dye my pewter in the hopes that I would be silver haired like Edie Sedgwick, but now I actually do have pewter hair, and I am not sure what to do with it.
But back to current events—how does my hair look now, as Gary Shandling used to say. Some part of me wants to shave my hair close again and start again, and another part wants to grow it out in all the pubic glory, and another part wants to bleach it and play with color from a blank slate. I guess I will just have to wait and see, but what I do know from being bald these months is that I need never fear it again: bald is beautiful because beauty is not measured in hair or faces or bodies. The statement of being bald in support of a good cause is beauty, or if it isn’t, it should be.
Bald and camping with Joey at Wheeler Gorge