“My beautiful hair is dead
Now I am the rawhead
O when I look in the mirror
the bald I see is balder still
When I sleep the sleep I sleep
is not at will
And when I dream I dream children waving goodbye —
It was lovely hair once
Gregory Corso, Hair, The Happy Birthday of Death, 1960
This past Thursday, I had my head shaved in support of St Baldrick’s Foundation. I did so to support my cousin, George, and our team, which raised over $5000 to help fund research for childhood cancers. I also did it as a personal act of solidarity with a friend who is battling back from acute myeloid leukemia and a stem-cell transplant. They have to practically kill you to cure you; but my friend is a tough old bird, and she is doing well — kicking cancer’s ass. I also did it because I needed to do something dramatic to indicate a change in direction.
During the weeks leading up to the actual public head-shaving, I thought a lot about my hair and hair in general. Hair is such an important touchpoint for us, culturally: whether we have it or not, whether we expose it or not, how we cut it, color it, comb it. To be clear, I am only talking about the hair on our heads. Body and facial hair would have to be a whole other discussion.
My hair was always a source of pride and some vanity for me. When I was young, it was reddish brown and thick and wavy. So I had to mess with that, of course!
There were the perms, including the freakish afro I wore for a while in the mid 70s. There were the dyes and bleaches. For some reason, I wanted to look older than my 20 something and so I had my hair frosted a few times.
The “frosting” process consisted of having a very tight plastic cap (similar to a clear, thin swim cap with hundreds of tiny holes in it) forced over my head until I could hear the pulse in my temples. The beautician, using a #7 crochet hook, would dig through those little holes and fish around until she had gathered a little hank of my hair, which she would then yank through the hole in the plastic with the hook, pulling with her fingers until she was satisfied that she had enough and it was all pulled through to the roots. Hundreds of those little holes. It was hours before the bleaching began and then came the toning, the cutting, the setting on hair curlers (these were the olden days, girls and boys), the drying under the hood of the hairdryer, the combing, the teasing, the spraying … Be glad you’re alive in better times, my friends.
Years later, shortly after my baby daughter (now in her 20s) was born, I felt like I needed a perking up. Something to make me look younger. So I had my hair dyed a dark rich brown. Doesn’t that just sound yummy? It was one of the worst looks ever! My husband hated it, and I could not wait for it to grow out so I could cut it off. It made me look older and more tired than I was. The lesson I learned was that we can’t go back to the rich dark hair colors of our youth when our skin has taken on the pale patina of time. (Did you like the way I put that? It means that dark hair looks like crap on pale old women.)
I’ve worn my hair as long as my shoulders, but never for very long. From my first bob, given by my great Aunt Net in 1956, I seem to always come back to short, or even very short, hair — particularly as one chapter of my life is closing and another opening (e.g., graduating and going off to college, joining the AF, getting married, etc.) or simply to reflect the need for a clean, fresh start to a bad week.
I know men feel all kinds of ways about women’s hair. I’ve had boyfriends and a husband who have expressed this to me freely. My high school sweetheart wanted me to wear very short hair. This was in 1968 when the style was very long and very straight and, as hard as I tried, I couldn’t manage that combination. Something about the ocean humidity in long, thick, naturally wavy hair. So I went very short. He was very pleased and I felt like a sell-out, but secretly enjoyed the wash-and-wear nature of the cut.
My husband preferred my hair longer, and it was an act of rebellion for me to continue cutting it short. Or at least he saw it that way until he saw how much time it took to take care of longer hair. Time that, as a mother-housewife-cook-gardener-career woman-church volunteer (etc.), I didn’t have. He capitulated. That’s what marriage is all about, eh?
I had never been bald, before. Going into Thursday’s event, I had one or two misgivings. (What if I had a really gruesome skull with lumps and bumps and flat spots? What if I looked horrible with no hair?) These easily gave way to sounder reasoning. I love wearing hats and have a dozen or so, and even a couple of wigs if I need them. I tarted my hair up with colors, girded my loins, and went for it.
There were two things I hadn’t counted on. The first is the assumption many people make, when they see my baldness, that I am sick or undergoing chemo. I was purchasing a cute little St. Patrick’s headpiece at the drug store, and I removed the warm cap I was wearing to try it on while I was checking out. The cashier suddenly became tongue-tied and a bit wrought, trying to express sympathy and an apology for not noticing, etc. It smacked me right between the eyes that this was brilliant as a teaching and marketing moment for St. Baldricks as there are freshly shaved heads all over the country. I did the teaching part.
The other thing I hadn’t counted on was how much I like this look. It feels like a giant shift took place when the last of my rainbow-colored hair hit the floor. No more time spent combing, styling, brushing, cussing. A few drops of shampoo works up enough lather to do the job. I’m cooler at night and don’t have to turn my pillow over more than once or twice.
And I’ll have to go along with Persis Khambatta, showering has become quite another experience…
There is still time for you to make a difference in this year’s St. Baldrick’s campaign. Donations are still being accepted at http://www.stbaldricks.org/participants/mypage/667422/2014.