I Lost My Hair and Found What´s Really Important
Francine L. Baldwin-Billingslea
Tears filled my eyes as I stood in the mirror looking at the person that looked back. I rubbed my hand softly over my head and came away with a hand full of hair. I didn’t have much time to enjoy the pity party; I had to get to the hospital for my third round of Chemotherapy. I quickly jumped in the shower and as I washed, hair fell from every part of my body, and as I dried off, I watched it go slowly down the drain. I dried the tears from my eyes and left the last of my eyelashes on the towel.
Less than six weeks earlier, I was a happy-go-lucky, well-dressed, cute bob-cut, hair-do wearing woman, with thick, carefully arched eye brows and naturally long eye lashes, who complained about having to shave my legs and under my arms at least every other day. Now, here I was just about bald and hairless; in less than a week, the falling out process would be complete.
After I was given the diagnosis of having stage II breast cancer, my oncologist informed me that it would be a battle, but the prognosis was promising. Of course, I was shocked at the news, but after the shock wore off, I was determined that I was going to fight and win. I prepared myself for the war with chemo, nausea, fatigue, constipation, dehydration, anemia and everything else I was told would happen, I thought that I was even prepared for the loss of my hair. I was always strong, always a fighter, and always had a keen sense of determination. I had been through some tough times in my life and I had come through them, I would come through this chapter of my life also. Every day I knelt in prayer telling my creator how much I wanted to live and asking for strength, and when I received that first round of chemo, although it made me sicker than I had ever been in my entire life, I dealt with it spiritually, physically, mentally and emotionally. Although I thought I was going to die, I wanted to live, I needed to live, so I fought hard and emerged from my bed a week later, weak and frail, but determined to get through those next nine rounds. But after the second treatment when I started losing my hair, that’s when I started to lose my desire to live, I simply wanted to die.
Hair, I never really appreciated it until I began to lose it. I never even knew or realized the importance of it other than keeping it well groomed; it was nothing other than stuff on my body that I kept done on my head and shaved off the other parts. As sick as I was, I could’ve dealt with it all a lot better if I just had my hair.
One day as I was getting ready for one of my pity parties and deciding on whether I should buy a wig, or do the scarf and turbans, or just sport my baldness, I sat down and really thought about my hair, when I had it, and now, the lack of it. I thought about the days of the “Hot press and comb,” which was before the natural afros and relaxers became so popular. On any given Saturday morning, you spent anywhere from three to five hours at the beauty shop, waiting for your turn to get washed and placed under the dryer, then came the yanking and combing out the tightly course, curly, kinky hair, then the hot pressing to make it nice and straight, then last but not least, the hot curling iron that made your curls so tight, even when they were combed out, they lasted for two weeks. But you went out of that shop ready to deal with main stream America, that’s what they wanted, that’s what you wanted, that’s what you both got and everybody was satisfied and happy. Then in the early 60’s, the afro or what some called the “Natural” came on the scene, you washed it, plucked it, sprayed some sheen on it, evened it out and went about your business. I loved the look, but because of social attitudes, my age and attending a predominately white grammar school, I had to stick with the straightening press and curl look. Besides, at first, the afro and the “Natural,” were looked upon as going against the mainstream hair-do’s, along with making cultural and political statements. As time went on, the "Natural" was accepted by all and worn with pride. I laughed to myself as I reminisced about those days.
I went and got a glass of water and went outside on the deck to soak in some fresh air and continue with my thoughts. They had taken my mind off of the chemo and my illness, and they also made me turn down the invitation to the next pity party, it also felt good to think about something I had never given much thought to. As I sat and crossed my legs, I thought about how, back in the day, in the black communities, it was sexy NOT to shave your legs, the hairier they were, the sexier they and you were, especially when you put on those off-black nylon stockings and those patent-leather heels. I was told that even if you didn’t have hairy legs, shave them anyway, that would make the hair grow faster, so at the tender age of thirteen, I began using my father’s razor to speed up the growing process, and yes, I did get results. To this day, some men and women still think hairy legs are sexy. Personally, I don’t think so, and for the time being, chemo had solved the shaving problem for me.
I began to think about when I first started relaxing my hair which was in the mid 70’s. It was another three to five hours in the beauty shop and also very expensive, a good relaxer. Trim and roller set could easily set you back anywhere from $40-$50.00 depending on your stylist. There was applying the relaxer or perm which had to be combed through in a certain amount of minutes, and if it stayed in too long, it felt as if your head was on fire and had to be rinsed out immediately and there was the possibility of some of your hair coming out with the rinse water. The courser your hair was, the longer the relaxer needed to sit, however, because I’m considered to have border line “Good-hair,” meaning it’s not as course or kinky, I’d get a mild relaxer and a quick comb through. Sometimes, I’d let it stay in as long as I could stand it because the longer it stayed, the straighter your hair became. There were times I went the limit and suffered chemical burns to my scalp, but my hair was straight! I was going through great lengths and expenses to have the long, straight, luxurious image of hair like the famous and the beautiful that I saw on TV and in the magazines, but the truth of the matter was, that wasn’t me at all. I have a thick, kinky, curly texture of hair, so who was I kidding? It’s almost funny how I, as well as other women of color, thought, and some still think, that hair shapes ideas and images of style, sophistication, class and beauty. It is a known fact that long straight hair on black women or any woman of color has and will always be accepted much better in society, corporate America and Hollywood as opposed to “Natural” hair and styles. Is that the reason why we straighten our hair even when we’re not applying for positions or trying out for any parts or roles, and is that the main reason for the popularity and use of weaves and extensions in the black community? It is also a known fact that if hair is worn in any other way than straightened, you can get yourself into some serious issues, and it is, has been and always will be considered as inappropriate to wear your hair in any other way than straight in majority rules situations. I wondered if that was the reason why I kept my hair straightened for so many years.
I thought about the time I spent $200 to get my hair braided and wore them for two weeks and all of the negative comments I received, and wondered how Bo Derrick must have felt. Was I afraid to express my cultural heritage through my hair? To be honest about it, it’s like having six in one hand and a half a dozen in the other because I’ve been criticized for wearing my hair straight and I’ve been criticized for wearing it “Natural.” I guess it all depends on the people you’re around and what frame of mind you and they are in. There have been hair issues in the past, as well as the present, and I’m certain it will be that way in the future for both black and white. I was amazed to realize how powerful, symbolic and evocative hair can be, and how I was thinking all these things now that I didn’t have any. Hair really does project the image that we have of ourselves and our culture.
Society all too often first judges women’s physical appearances by their hair. I thought about the times I´ve even judged others by their hair, now really, how shallow is that? I began to wonder about myself and how I treated others. This was definitely a wakeup call.
Tears came to my eyes as I thought about the stares I received. Couldn’t people see that I didn’t have any hair because of a disease or some type of illness? What woman in her right mind shaves off the hair on their head, shaves off her eye brows and pulls out their lashes? I mean I had no hair nowhere, I was walking around with my head looking like a bowling ball, and even though I did wear scarves, you could see that I was completely bald. Not only that, but I had dark circles under my eyes, my clothes hung loosely, and point blank, I just looked sick and yet, there were always stares, whispers and laughs. I rose from my thinking place to go to the store to buy a wig.
I bought a wig made with human hair, I put it on, drew some eye brows, tried to put on the false eye lashes and, when I got finished, I had to laugh to keep from crying, I looked like a clown! All this false stuff wasn’t me and it all felt very uncomfortable. I took the wig off and carefully placed it back on the Styrofoam head, I placed the eye lashes back in the little box, and I washed off the crooked, crazy looking eye brows, I was back to the new, raw me. I decided to continue with my scarves and a little lip stick, and whenever I went out, I made sure my clothes were intact and my scarves matched. There were times that I felt good and looked good, but others made me feel ugly for the simple reason, I didn’t have any hair. Not only was I in a war with cancer, but I was in constant little battles that kept trying to wear me down, and they were mostly about how I looked. I wanted the public to accept me. It was imperative for me to stay in a good, strong, healthy state of mind and with all that I was going through, I think being hairless was the hardest because of the social attitudes that are reflected by hair.
In support of me, my fiancé, who is now my husband, shaved his head. I was so proud of him for doing that; however, with his baldness, he looked attractive and even sexier. Bald and balding men are accepted and smiled upon by all those who look upon them, but a bald woman is often frowned upon, viewed as ugly and considered as a woman with a problem. Sure, there are women who wear their hair exceptionally short, even extremely close to their heads, and to be considered attractive, they have to have the face for it, have their faces made up, the right earrings on and the correct attire to go along with it all to be accepted or acceptable and even then, there will be some stares, frowns and whispers from judges. I was shocked to find out that many of my sisters in the breast cancer support group were going through the same dilemma or even worse. One woman´s husband even left her because he claimed she just wasn´t the same since she lost her long flowing blond hair, however, when her hair returned, he did too, but stories such as this and men being ashamed or embarrassed of their women aren´t uncommon for women who have lost their hair.
Being without hair was a challenging, life-changing ordeal and experience for me. One time when I was out shopping, I went into the dressing area to try on some new clothes, I came out of the changing booth to examine myself in the long mirror and these two young girls started laughing to the point they had to lean against the wall for support. They were laughing so hard, it made me laugh, then one said to the other, instead of buying clothes, she needs to buy some hair! Until then, I hadn´t realized they were laughing at me. I was devastated. I went back inside my booth, straightened my scarf and sat on the little bench and cried. They continued to laugh and make loud comments, making sure that I heard them. After that incident, I became introverted; I didn’t want to see anybody and I didn’t want anybody to see me, I also narrowed my support group down to less than a handful of immediate and extremely close family and friends. The temporary alopecia lasted almost a year, but the emotional scars left from it will last a lifetime.
Shortly after my last chemo treatment, I began to notice some head and body fuzz. My hair was beginning to grow back; those were the happiest days of my life, now what was I going to do with it? I had seen, realized and experienced another side of society in regards to hair. I was and am so thankful for my life, health and strength, but my outlook was now completely changed and totally different about all four. I was a new person and had gained a new perspective on everything about me, especially my hair. I decided there would be no more perms or relaxers. I wanted my hair to grow strong and healthy and I did not want to compromise its health to satisfy anybody else or society. I was going to go “Natural,” and if anybody had a problem with it, it was just going to be their problem. My hair, as soft and border line “Good” as it may be, is curly and kinky, and I am now proud of it and its texture. My hair and how I wear it is a part of who I am, it is a part of my culture and my heritage and an outward expression of it. I had gone through the hair revolution and it’s conformities for the last time. I had gained and found a new sense of pride. I had found freedom, freedom from the hot press and curling irons that burnt and broke off my hair. I found freedom from those expensive lye relaxers that gave me chemical burns and left scalp scabs. I was free to say, “I am unafraid and daring, this is the real me, you don’t have to like me, but at least respect and accept me for who I am,” without ever having to open my mouth.
I had a decision to make, should I sport braids, cornrows, a natural or locks? I decided to grow locks.
It’s been over five years since I started my locks and my hair is stronger and healthier than it’s ever been. It has grown down to the center of my back, and it proudly shows off its shiny black beauty as if to say, thank you for letting me be myself. It is a symbol of cultural pride. People have come to me and asked when am I going to cut those things off and get that cute little straight haired bob back? And my answer to them is always, “I love my nappy, kinky hair and there’s no longer an ongoing conflict within myself as to who I am, nor do I have the need to satisfy you or society, and those things is my hair!” They usually walk away with an attitude, confused or saying, “I’m sorry I asked.” But in reality, what they’re really saying is, they’re sorry I’m strong enough to speak the truth or maybe it’s the fact that in some way I stepped on their toes.
It’s a shame that in some areas of corporate America and society, our “Natural” hair styles are still deemed as unacceptable, inappropriate and in some cases even prohibited, but the cheap, fake, straight haired, down-your-back weaves and extensions are graciously accepted. As long as your hair is clean, groomed, well kept and doesn’t interfere with your work, it really shouldn’t matter. I can put my hair into a French roll, a bun, a pony tail or let it cascade down my back like other main stream hair styles. I can flip it back and forth or let it swing from side to side, which I often do, just because I can. However, it does whatever straight hair can do except blow in the wind, but that’s only because it’s too thick and heavy. But is it really about the hair, the person, the silent statement or are we as a people too consumed and overly concerned about hair?
Every area of your body where hair is supposed to be is there for a reason. Hair protects us against the extreme heat and cold, UV rays, and it helps to insulate our bodies. It also helps us to maintain our equilibrium. Hair has purposes other than just to style, color, cut, shave and pluck. Our eyebrows and eyelashes help to keep debris from getting into our eyes, even pubic and underarm hair serve their purpose as protective barriers. Hair has defining characteristics and is a biological necessity, but how often does this all come to your mind, if it comes to your mind at all? If you’ve never lost your hair, it’s probably never even thought about.
We are all human beings beautifully made by our creator and no matter what texture your hair is, it was made just for you. Whether it’s kinky or straight, black or blond, long or short, it’s yours to do whatever you want with it, embrace it, love it, take care of it, it’s a part of your femininity, an outward expression of what you feel inside and you don’t have a clue how it can affect your life, your health, your mental and emotional well being until it’s gone. But if you should ever lose it, remember it´s really not the worst thing that can happen to you, your life is worth more than your hair, grow from your loss.
I promised myself that I would never complain or take any hair anywhere on my body for granted ever again, at times I even feel guilty about shaving my legs, but there´s never been a guilty thought about the armpits, that hair has got to go!
There’s a saying, that out of every bad comes some good, I’ve been through enough things in my life to totally agree. In my war with and against breast cancer, I lost my hair and I saw a very negative side of people and society’s attitudes and demands towards it, but I gained an extraordinary awareness about myself and the importance, the significance, and the value of such a taken-for-granted thing such as hair. And through my loss, I found pride, I found strength, I found freedom, I found concern and consideration for the sick, the debilitated and those facing difficulties and challenges in a way that I never had before. I found sincere appreciation. I found that I didn´t want to judge anybody ever again by their appearance, and especially by their hair or the lack of. I found respect and true love for my fellow man no matter how they may look, but most importantly, I found what´s really important and I found me.