“Hair is everything. We wish it wasn’t, so we could actually think about something else occasionally, but it is. It’s the difference between a good day and a bad day. We’re meant to think that it’s a symbol of power. That it’s a symbol of fertility. Some people are exploited for it and it pays your f****** bills! Hair is everything, Anthony.”
Fleabag: Season 2, Episode 5
This is a quote from the T.V. show Fleabag. I binged watched it in two days and this part of the entire series is what stuck out the most to me. The main character’s sister goes in for a haircut that she quickly regrets and complains to her sister. They return to the hair salon to tell off the hairdresser for the ridiculous haircut and the above words are part of her speech.
I’ve been trying to write a post about hair for maybe a year now, but I couldn’t develop the words. They just didn’t seem to be enough. How do I accurately depict how much hair matters in society, how much of a story it tells, how much it affects your mood, and how much self-expression it gives you. It doesn’t really sink in how much your hair means to you until you lose it.
Losing your hair physically changes your appearance and if you’ve watched as many America’s Next Top Model make over episodes as I have, you know people are emotionally attached to their hair. There’s always at least one person who is sobbing in the corner threatening to quit the show. I always thought they were so dramatic. It’s hair. It grows back!
But then… I started losing my hair, and suddenly all those emotions made sense.
I knew I was losing my hair 10 months ago. I wasn’t sure at first. The tricky thing about it all is that it doesn’t just happen overnight. The before and after is significant but the day to day isn’t. Just a little bit here and there. Maybe a little more in the shower drain than usual, but I couldn’t spot the difference on my head. I cut my hair shorter to try and combat what could look like hair thinning just to play it safe. I easily played it off as a fun trendy new spring look for myself. Sure, my hairbrush had a little more than normal for me. Sure, if I ran my fingers through my hair, strands would just keep coming. I adapted to it though. I mean, I couldn’t definitely say that I was losing my hair.
Then I looked at photos and saw where there were gaps. I started removing hair balls the size of small animals from the shower drain. By the time, I really accepted it, three quarters of the hair on my head was already gone. I could no longer wear it down. It was patchy, the ends were dried out, and it just hung there, so I wore my hair up every day. I wore headbands to make it seem like a fashion choice I just decided to casually try out. Two months later, I accepted my fate and chopped it all off.
I guess it’s a side effect of living.
I’m losing my hair, but at least I’m alive. Still, I didn’t consent to losing my hair. Yes, I knew it was a possibility but maybe I’m still in that teenager mentality of “oh, it won’t happen to me”. I also didn’t think I’d have so many feelings about it because I knew it might happen. I was mentally prepared. It wasn’t sprung on me the day of like it is to those models. I had agreed to the terms. I knew what I was signing myself up for when I said I would start chemotherapy and saw the two page long list of possible side effects.
I’ve narrowed it down to fear.
Hair is important. Why else would there be so many organizations set up to give free wigs to cancer patients. Hair matters. It represents your identity, your style. For me it’s a coping mechanism, a way to hide my AVMs. Losing it, is losing that shield. The most vulnerable part of me, laid bare for all to see. It’s being put into a fight, with the opponent already knowing your weaknesses.
Hair shouldn’t matter because yeah, it’ll grow back eventually, but it does matter. It means I have to learn a new way of styling it. I have to adapt to this new identity. I wake up to find out if this day will be good or bad all because I might’ve slept on it wrong. I’ve had short hair before and hated it.
When I was younger, I was on a different chemotherapy and lost some of my hair then too. Except that time, I didn’t even notice. I mean yeah, I had strands of hair on my clothes but who didn’t. My mom pointed it out to the hairdresser and we collectively decided to cut it short. At the time, I was growing my hair out because I wanted to donate it, but then boom chemo and I couldn’t donate it anymore.
Yet, that wasn’t even the memory that sticks out. I didn’t even care that I couldn’t donate it anymore. It was being in class, having the bell ring and getting up from my chair. As my friends and I walked out, there were multiple strands of hair on my chair. Someone pointed it out and I just laughed it off. I blamed it on something like combing my hair with my fingers during class, just to seem cool. But I hadn’t been combing my hair during class and I was self-conscious. Somehow 10 year old me knew that too many personal questions came with not having hair. My friend didn’t point it out to be mean or with any intention of harm but seeing my hair on the school chair made me think wow, I am losing my hair and I don’t want to.
The feeling still resonates today. Yeah, I may look better with my new Tyra Banks approved look but that doesn’t mean I wanted to go through the process. What is our obsession with hair anyway, why does it mean so much, how do we help me move past this and see that we are more than our hair.
Putting it simply, it sucks.
Losing your hair sucks. It completely changes you. It’s clearly given me a weird existential crisis of sorts. I used to be so afraid of putting my hair in a ponytail and now here I am where that’s the only hairstyle I can rely on to feel the same as my peers. As if I being on chemo isn’t something people already struggle to relate to now its losing hair.
I love my new haircut. I never would’ve tried out this look if chemo didn’t thrust it upon me and my hairdresser never would’ve cut it off if she thought I couldn’t take this new look. Yet, even with feeling confidence in my look I notice myself always answering one question differently…
Why did you decide to cut your hair?
Clearly, I know the answer. I was losing more hair than I was growing new. It looked horrible and unhealthy so I needed to chop it off. Depending on who was asking though I have two answers, “the medicine i’m on caused it to start thinning so I cut it all off” or “i realized i was wearing it up all the time and figured why not might as well cut it all off”.
The first one is honest but it annoys me because for some reason I still can’t say to people face to face chemotherapy despite posting about it on social media constantly. The second one may have been a contributing factor but was not the reason I decided to cut it. If I could’ve still gotten away with wearing my hair down I would not have chopped it. I don’t know if it’s the stigma of losing your hair, if i feel it makes me weak, if i’m afraid of the pity i’ll receive, maybe i’ll make someone uncomfortable, or if i’m still not as comfortable as I want to be among my peers with sharing my story that keeps me giving different answers but it annoys me that i do it and yet I can’t quite seem to stop myself from doing it.
I love my new look and the vibe it gives me. I don’t regret chopping my hair off but I do still sometimes get insecure about it. My AVMs are all out for the world to see and most days, that doesn’t matter. Most days, I forget about them and continue to live my life. Most days, I am happy. But some days, it takes all my energy to put on an aura of confidence as soon as I step outside my apartment. It takes all my focus to put on this persona and act like I am not bothered by the fact that I am not the same.
So yeah, hair is everything and we wish it wasn’t but it is. Why do you think Hair Love won the Oscar for Best Animated Short? Yes, the directors, animators, writers, and everyone who worked on it are incredibly talented individuals who deserved this award. Yet, the most talented people can work on something but it won’t win if there isn’t a message that matters and resonates. Anyone who watches it can relate to any one of the multiple messages throughout the 6 minute film. I personally cried watching it and promptly needed to watch it again.
I don't think you're ready for this, Kelleigh