Baldness Becomes Me

Chemotherapy taught me that, unlike vomiting, having my hair fall out does not cause foot-stomping pain.  My hair was two feet long.  When it started coming out in skeins I had it cut to an inch and a half.  Four days later, when my pillow looked like the bed of a dog, I had it buzzed to stubble. Finally, I had it shaved.

I avoided people’s faces as I walked down the street.  My daughter was the one who noticed: “People have to stop staring at your head!” or “I can’t BELIEVE how people stare!” I decided to pay attention. Losing my hair was the most minor side effect of cancer treatment (otherwise a brutal form of healing), but it was going to teach me the most about our culture.

No one speaks the truth quite like a child: “Mom, that woman was BALD!!” the little boy exclaimed, as he was pulled along the sidewalk.  “Woman” was a key word to his young observation.  Our culture tells us we’re less of a woman without hair on our heads, and hairstyles hold a host of coded meanings. It was the unusual men I heard from who observed that for women to lose their hair is far worse than it is for a man.  And what about the men?  In the hospital elevator directory, “Images Boutique” is listed along with the Healing Garden and Infusion Center.  Their webpage says it caters to pediatric and adult cancer patients, but it is clearly a place for women, filled with items that will help patients “feel comfortable with their appearance”, including cosmetics and jewelry.  They also offer “Look Good, Feel Better” consultants.  So where was the shop for men?

Walking through the stares, I told myself I knew how to do this.  Growing up Chinese in Wisconsin, Ohio, and Virginia during the 1950s and early sixties, and throughout my life, I have learned the power of appearances.  On a recent trip to Saint Paul I was waiting at a bus stop when a car drove by, a man’s eyes riveted, maintaining contact on me even as the car drove away, like his head was stuck.  More often I caught double or triple-takes, or just a glance to the top of my head and a pause in speech. I decided I would consider my appearance a public service announcement. “Look.  See woman.  See woman bald.”

Then there was the woman who noticed me from the other end of the bar.  Later, as she was walking out of the restaurant, she passed my table, put her hand on my arm, and said with weighty compassion, “Good luck!”  What if I was bald by choice?  I could say, “Oh, it’s ok, I wanted to look like a chemo patient!” Are there people who think men with shaved heads must be cancer patients? There were those who scanned my head with understandable surprise and then, “You look beautiful without hair!” (did I change their standard of beauty?), or “You have a beautiful face!” (they knew me – where was my face before?), or “Oh, you look good even without hair!”  I started to wonder just how much DID my hair matter. “Your hair used to frame your face; now just your face frames your face!”  Some offered ways I could pass as normal in the minds of others:  “Since you’re Asian, you could be a monk or Buddhist nun!” (in leggings and sundress?).  “You look like Sinead O’Connor!” (a Chinese knock-off?).

My husband heard from two men, “Your wife is brave.”  “Your wife is tough.”  Perhaps they understood the cultural tyranny for women, or they were thinking most women would not walk around looking like THAT.   And from my mother, when she opened the door and saw me bald for the first time: “Some people wear something on their heads.  You don’t want to?”

There were those who did not stare – the shop cashiers who just chatted and did not miss a beat.  I thank them all.  Then there was the man I know who owns a garden shop.  It was a warm day in August, and we stood over a table talking chrysanthemums.  He turned his eyes to mine and said, close up, “So what’s going on?” like I was not going to get away with anything, so tell him the truth.  His was a unique honesty.

I learned just how much hair one needs to have a hairdo – about an eighth of an inch.  Soon after my hair could cast a shadow some people whom I had not seen in many months complimented me.  Is it still a compliment if chemo did it to me? “Bald Woman” and “Cancer Patient” are identity categories rich with indicators about how our society does and does not deal with disease, appearances, and gender.  People’s reactions, surprising in their variety, were more about them than they were about me, but I always had the sense that they would have just said it’s all about the hair.

©2011 Lillian Hsu