The Vagenda

The Bald Truth

I have a dirty secret to confess. Although I am an ardent feminist, I’ve always looked down on those women complaining about the pressure they were under, the time and money and energy required to apply enough slap and remove enough hair to leave the house without incurring the disdain of the patriarchy. “Silly twats!” I thought. I never wore make-up, my hair was wild and unkempt, I never waxed any part of my body, and I sported a fabulous, feminist bush. I’d even given up shaving my legs and my armpits, that’s how hardcore I was. (Also, I had one of those boxy showers at the time, and it’s bloody hard to shave your legs in one of them.) If these women didn’t want to do those things, why didn’t they…well…simply, not do them?
All of that was BC. Before Cancer. Last year I was diagnosed with lymphoma. Luckily, it responds very well to chemotherapy, so I got that for 5 months, and now I am fine. Hurray! But all my hair, including my glorious bush, fell out.
About a week before my hair was due to fall out, I took myself off to the hair loss specialists who provided me with a wig. She told me that for many women, hair loss was the worst thing about getting cancer. A couple of weeks later, I went to a workshop called ‘beauty for the cancer ridden’ or something, during which we were given free cupcakes and make-up tips. The beautician assured us that we would feel so much better once we had a ‘pop’ of colour on our cheeks. We were also advised to wear big, shiny earrings to detract attention away from our miserable, bald heads. Again and again it was emphasised that a positive image would make us feel better.
At the same time, friends and family were rallying around and telling me my wig was gorgeous, I looked great, I’d put on loads of weight, my eyebrows hadn’t fallen out, etc.  During this time, I had a very uneasy relationship with my body and my appearance because it had changed so much that it didn’t feel like me any more. I wanted to ignore my looks, and just power the fuck through, but my attention was constantly being drawn back to it by the comments of the well-intentioned. Someone told me I looked better and better every time he saw me, at a time I was actually getting sicker and sicker from the chemo. I told him at this rate by the time I finished treatment I’d be a fucking supermodel. Sinead O’Connor was often cited as an encouraging example of bald femininity, but let me tell you, the majority of women who lose their hair through chemo look more like extras from Schindler’s List than a music video by Sinead O’Fucking Connor.
I was upset, generally and specifically, and I got increasingly angry, as is my default response to many things, including but not limited to hunger, tiredness, increases in bus fare, running out of milk, and those ads that keep popping up on YouTube.
Over the course of my illness and treatment I experienced night sweats, nausea, constipation, gas, diarrhoea, insomnia, hot flushes, steroid-induced mood swings (that’s my story and I’m sticking to it), thrush, nerve pain and fatigue. My fertility was compromised. I coughed for about 3 months straight and had difficulty breathing and speaking. I went from weighing 65 kilos to 50, and back again. I had bone marrow and lymph node removed from my body with whopper needles WHILE I WAS  STILL CONSCIOUS. I had to answer questions about my bowels, and eat hospital food. After my first treatment, I had to piss into a bucket so they could make sure I wasn’t retaining water. In light of all that, doesn’t it seem absurd and perverse that, as my consultant had said, for many women the worst thing was the hair loss? Really? The hair loss? The fucking hair loss? Seriously?! I was furious.
But the hair loss specialist, the beautician, and the people around me were reflecting, reacting to and reinforcing the wider reality that it is important for women and to women to look good. They told me I looked gorgeous because they assumed that that was important for me to hear. Never mind how I was feeling, how did I look?
But here is another confession: I hated being bald, and I mean I REALLY hated it. And my appearance WAS important to me. However upset I was when people said I looked great, how upset would I have been if they didn’t?
I have to take responsibility for that, for my own vanity, for my own desire to be desired, to be pretty, to flick my hair, and go on dates, and be under an admiring male gaze. I am ashamed of that, disappointed in myself. I realised that my previous refusal to engage with what I saw as unnecessary and excessive grooming was a luxury afforded to me by the fact that as a healthy 27 year old woman of average looks, height and weight, I didn’t need to do much to look all right.  But when my hair fell out, I certainly wasn’t above painting eyebrows on my face or donning a synthetic wig. I never left the house without them. I didn’t always want to wear the wig. So why didn’t I…well…simply, not? Because I was afraid of people reacting to my ugliness, that’s why.
I acknowledge that it isn’t only women who agonise over their appearance, but there can be no doubt that women are still disproportionately judged by their appearance. And to put it baldly (ha!) I suffered in a very real way from living in a sexist society while being ill and undergoing chemotherapy.
This is why we need feminism: so that losing your hair ISN’T the worst part about getting cancer. Because surely we have more important things to be worrying about than how we look. I know that we have a biological imperative to procreate, so fuckability is always going to be important, but do we have to embrace it to such an extent when the glorification of female beauty does so much damage? I know I am not alone in this – in feeling that bad situations are made worse because we can’t always look pretty or even normal, and that this isn’t good enough. We shouldn’t have to. I tried and am trying to resist it in myself, but, for the good of all of us, we need to resist it in society too.

9 thoughts on “The Bald Truth

  1. Thank you for posting this, I understand that it must have been a horrendous experience (the chemo) so writing about it in order to draw wider social commentary from it is very admirable. Also I’m really pleased that the treatment worked well for you and you can get back to living a more normal life!

    On a personal note, I too lost all my hair last year – but intentionally when I shaved it all off for charity! – utterly terrifying just as the shears were being brought to my head and the days leading up to that moment but actually once it had happened it was nowhere near as bad as expected. I didn’t get a wig (though invested in an impressive collection of hats, I mean it was last winter!) and sometimes it took me a while to realise why strangers were looking at me weirdly so used to it I became.

    I’m not trying to directly compare my experience to a cancer patients because of course it was voluntary in my case, however I do recognise what you say about losing your hair being regarded in society as “one of the worst things that could happen to a woman”. The number of people who reacted by saying “Oh my you’re so BRAVE!” (i.e “no normal woman would ever do that”)when I told them about what I was planning/what I had done was mildly ridiculous seeing as I had merely sat in a chair for 2 minutes having a rather extreme “trim”.

    Not complaining too much as it probably meant that they donated more money to the charity I was raising it for, yet isn’t it a rather sad indictment of our society that doing something as simple to your own appearance, something that many men do all the time and is regarded as perfectly reasonable for them, prompted such a reaction that I raised 1450 quid through basically no discernible effort from myself?

    p.s I would totally recommend doing it to others because I never would have cut my hair short otherwise but absolutely love my low-maintenance hair now that it’s grown back a couple inches! Y’never know until you try…

  2. A great text! It’s great the treatment worked and you’re better now.

    But back to hair…

    I experienced some sort of hair shaming when I decided to cut my hair short. I’d had dreadlocks for almost 7 years (I was young and didn’t know about cultural appropriation back then..) and I wanted to go back to short hair again. However the guy I was dating at the time compared me to Britney Spears – he basically told me I’ve lost it, gone nuts, if I go shorter. He seriously compared cutting my hair to being mentally ill.

    That was some fucked up shit. Of course I did my own decisions and went back to short which I’d always had before I grew the dreads. Oh also, dumped that douche of a man.

  3. Love this rant! I laughed out loud a couple of times. :)

    I’m 28 and starting my second round of chemo for Hodgkin Lymphoma. Mine was supposed to go away with no problem, too. I guess I like to be “different” and side with the wrong side of the prognosis. ;)
    Anyway, I’m now balder than most babies and, though it took a while to get used to, I actually kind if like it now. BUT, I think this is because I otherwise look pretty healthy and haven’t lost my eyebrows or eyelashes yet. I actually get compliments on the bald head!
    I am not trying to brag because my body is certainly fucked up in other ways (skin blotchiness from chemo is so not in right now!)
    I’m just saying that I would gladly give up having hair for ever if it meant I could have my healthy, normal life back. I’m working on getting there…

    Rock in for kicking cancer in the ass! I wish you health, happiness and a big hippy bush! ;)

  4. I shave my head voluntarily and am honestly fed up with the amount of people that ask me how my cancer treatment is going. It’s so ignorant. When I tell them I did it myself, they ask me ‘Why?’ so I reply with ‘Well, why do you have your hair the way that you do?’. Because we like it, that’s all.

    It’s a shame that women feel like the worst bit of having cancer is having no hair. I mean, I’d consider the potential for irreparable damage to my body or even the potential for death as the worst bits of having cancer.

    The sooner society wakes up to the fact that we come in all different styles, the better really. Then cancer patients can stop feeling like losing their hair is the worst bit, and people might stop asking me what kind of cancer I have in the street…

  5. Ah, I have a very similar attitude to yours, as described at the start. And I have wondered if this attitude is easy because I have the privilege of having a pretty face, not to mention an adoring partner. I hope I can continue to refuse to care about my appearance as I get old and my skin gets wrinkled and I lose the last vestiges of physical prettiness. I hope I can continue to refuse to care if my face gets disfigured or if I lose my hair. But I don’t know.

    I wish you health and happiness, and I thank you for the article.