bald and beautiful

This is a guest post.  Sarah is a first-year graduate student, getting her PhD in philosophy. She and I have been writing back and forth for around a year now. When she talked with me about her hair, I begged her to write a guest post for me. Here it is (begging works). She is awesome: 

I am bald, I am 22, and I am female. Sometimes I think that this is an unfortunate combination of traits; but other times, I feel differently.

To make a very long and painful story rather shorter: I had just turned fourteen when my hair began to fall out. It was the beginning of eighth grade. It started innocently enough with a few extra strands left behind in my comb after I showered. At first, I thought nothing of it, but it quickly became very apparent that what was happening was something I needed to think seriously about. Because it was all gone before I turned fifteen.

The year my hair fell out was the worst year of my life. Maybe this is biased, but I contend that eighth graders are the cruelest creatures to inhabit that awkward chunk of life known as ‘adolescence’.  To be fair, it’s a tough time for everyone. We want people to acknowledge that we exist, but not as much as we want to blend inconspicuously into the background. To say that it is difficult for a rapidly balding female to go unnoticed in this environment is a laughable understatement. My middle school morphed into a freak-show and I was the main attraction. My classmates pointed and sneered and snickered and laughed; I tried my hardest to escape their piercing stares, but found myself trapped in a nightmare that had become my life.

To be honest, I would rather not focus on how terrible that year was or the hair loss itself. This is partially because even now, nine years later, it still hurts to think about, and partially because the event itself is far less significant than its consequences. This is horrifying, but I simply stopped feeling someone who deserved anything at all. My sophomore year of high school, I stopped eating and lost sixty pounds in less than seven months. Somehow things got better by the end of high school, only to plummet back down in college: by my junior year, my 5’10’’ frame weighed just 114 pounds.

On a good day, I feel beautiful *almost* because of my bald head. I leave my hairpiece (which my boyfriend so lovingly christened my ‘hat’) on its stand and stay inside. I shave my head as close as I can; I paint my lips dark red and put on my favorite scarf; I stare at myself in the mirror and feel shockingly feminine.

But on a bad day, things are much more complicated. I shower in the dark; I can barely meet my own gaze in the mirror; I refuse to recognize myself as a person.

To be a person is to be the originator of one’s own behavior, to be the driver rather than the passenger, to be the director rather than the directed: ultimately to be a person is to be autonomous. But this description is deceiving because it makes our aspiration to recognize ourselves as people look easy. It isn’t always. Even if we bracket philosophical considerations about freewill, the difficulty remains, because little things happen every day that challenge our ability to act autonomously. For example, when I lost my hair, I lost my position behind the driver’s seat, and by extension, my ability to recognize myself as a source of value. Yet the fact that we cannot control the things that happen to us doesn’t mean that we cannot control how we choose to respond to those things. We cannot help but live in a world that presents us with such challenges on a daily basis, but our ability to self-reflect allows us to reclaim what we thought was lost.

The truth is that I am not sure precisely why I wake up each and every day more okay with myself, bald head and all. Part of it is most certainly growing up and realizing that of all the horrible things to lose, hair really ain’t so bad. Part of it is finding my niche in academia and losing myself in philosophy. Part of it is falling deeply and entirely in love with a wonderful guy who shaves my head for me and finds me most beautiful hatless and hairless.  And slowly but surely, I am beginning to recognize myself once again as deserving, as a source of value, as a person. 

* *  *

Sarah’s Unroast: today I love how striking my hatless head looks against my black cowl-neck sweater.

Does anyone else have a baldness/hair story to share with Sarah? My hair started falling out just before I’d been diagnosed with sort of serious anemia. The anemia was fine, but the hair loss terrified me. I am still self-conscious about it. Even though I have really short hair now, hair has always seemed like a critical part of being feminine. And having it fall out has felt a little like being sabotaged by fate. Which is part of why I cut my hair off, actually. Because I didn’t want to feel like fate could mess with me as much.  I wish hair wasn’t such a cultural requirement. Sarah looks stunning bald. In fact, I’m a little jealous. Bald should be a real option, even if  it’s unrelated to a medical condition. It’s definitely good for turtlenecks. 

25 Comments »

Kate on January 3rd 2012 in beauty, being different, guest post, uplifting

25 Responses to “bald and beautiful”

  1. San D responded on 03 Jan 2012 at 1:09 pm #

    I “lost” my hair during chemo treatments. Well, not “lost” exactly, but it came out in clumps, and when I looked in the mirror and saw a gaunt, green skinned woman whose hair looked like it was ripped out in patches, well, let’s put it this way, I was not amused. My husband shaved the rest of it off for me, and voila, I was in control of my “looks”. Big hats, large earrings, bandanas, but most importantly I got a pinkish blond wig that just made me laugh, and laugh, and laugh. Of course it eventually grew back, but it was never the same. Thinner, straighter, wispier…duller…but not what I had lost. Now its gray and thin. Too bad. But as my sister and I say “it is what it is”. Things could be way worse. I could be dead with a full head of curly hair.

  2. ladykatya responded on 03 Jan 2012 at 1:09 pm #

    I just have to say that Sarah, you are gorgeous.

    – lk

  3. Kate responded on 03 Jan 2012 at 1:11 pm #

    @San D
    I want to see a picture of you in your pink wig. That sounds like your style. And I’m very glad you’re not dead!

  4. Melanie responded on 03 Jan 2012 at 1:17 pm #

    I have thought about this issue a ton, as I have a great friend whose little girl has Alopecia. I watch the grace with which this 10 year old handles the fact that she has no hair, and it makes me strive to be a better person. I watched a kid say, “Eeeww look, that girl has patches of hair missing.” And she just walked up boldly and explained she had Alopecia and it caused her hair to fall out. She now shaves her head bald. When I met her she had hair in some places and none in others. Her mom said she thinks it’s harder on her, than her little girl, and the time she put her to bed and was rubbing her eyes watching her eyelashes fall out, she almost fell apart.

    Because of this I have stopped complaining because, “Oh my hair is too thick.” What a stupid thing to complain about.

    I have another good friend I went to see who got Alopecia after her second pregnancy. She is slowly but surely losing her hair in patches. As women I think we forget how much people focus on having beautiful hair, until we’re faced with not having it anymore. It’s one of the things I used to take for granted, and no longer do.

  5. lik_11 responded on 03 Jan 2012 at 1:20 pm #

    Sarah- your picture shows you to be a striking woman, even without hair. Hopefully you are healthy, because you have a great head on your shoulders ;) . I can’t imagine going through your struggles in 8th grade, or even now.
    I dyed my hair every color in the rainbow until it couldn’t handle any more- when I shaved my head bald. (My head is lumpy/has moles… not a good look on me- though you carry it well.) Coming from a small town- I clearly remember the rumors/derision/remarks made about me. As mine was a choice- it was somewhat easy to throw it back in the face of the “haters” and act like I didn’t care (I did).
    More than I can ever put into words- I wish you happiness and the knowledge that you DO deserve everything the world has to offer. Obviously you have a lot to offer to the world!!!

  6. Grace responded on 03 Jan 2012 at 1:43 pm #

    This was so beautiful…thank you so much for sharing, Sarah! Also, for what it’s worth, I’ve always thought women with bald heads were incredibly striking…it’s such a powerful mixture of elegant, strong and feminine. Love the Unroast!

  7. dee responded on 03 Jan 2012 at 2:02 pm #

    you are beautiful, sarah. and i’m glad you met a real man who loves for who you are. i to believe that 8th grade girls are the meanest – one more reason i am glad i homeschool!

  8. T.K responded on 03 Jan 2012 at 2:08 pm #

    Thank you for sharing Sarah. This was incredibly beautiful and smart.

    “To be a person is to be the originator of one’s own behavior, to be the driver rather than the passenger, to be the director rather than the directed: ultimately to be a person is to be autonomous. But this description is deceiving because it makes our aspiration to recognize ourselves as people look easy. It isn’t always. Even if we bracket philosophical considerations about freewill, the difficulty remains, because little things happen every day that challenge our ability to act autonomously. For example, when I lost my hair, I lost my position behind the driver’s seat, and by extension, my ability to recognize myself as a source of value.”

    This is more or less how I describe living in a body that hurts on daily bases and that cannot be made to stop hurting. It’s a body that strips you of feeling feminine, sexy, strong, and wholly human. A body that holds you back from being you. I’ve never heard anyone else put it like that, so thank you!

  9. Kayla responded on 03 Jan 2012 at 3:02 pm #

    One can tell how beautiful you are, Sarah, just by reading this. But that picture? Just by your eyes I can tell that you are beautiful on the outside as well! and being bald makes those lovely eyes stand out more! You’re not hiding them behind hair. :)

  10. Allison responded on 03 Jan 2012 at 3:39 pm #

    I smiled and laughed to myself when I read the bit about you putting on bright lipstick and a scarf on your good days. I love when I feel that good, and dress up just for me! What a thrill. That little bit of joy can really last. I can see it in my mind, and it looks beautiful on you. But you have the beauty that matters more: the inner kind.

  11. Courtney responded on 03 Jan 2012 at 3:44 pm #

    My hair has been thinning for the last ten or so years (I’m in my late 20s). Not rapidly, but steadily. It freaks me out. It’s not the kind of thing I had ever worried about, but now I go through periods where it’s almost all I can think about. I try not to let it bother me, and most days it doesn’t, but it still sinks into my psyche every now and again. The doctor ran tests and said it was likely just hereditary (my mom has very thin hair and my dad is mostly bald), but as a woman you don’t think it’s something you’ll ever have to deal with. It’s acceptable for men to be bald, but far, far less so for women. I don’t know when it will stop, but I try not to think about it.

    Sarah, thank you so much for writing this post. You look gorgeous and it really is a comfort to hear about someone who went through this.

  12. Bonny responded on 03 Jan 2012 at 4:00 pm #

    Your story is beautifully told. I had Alopecia areata when I was in my 20′s (in my 50′s now) and patches of my hair fell out for no apparent reason. I went to the UCSF hospital to get seen where they brought in a roomful of interns to look at it. I guess it was somewhat rare. The patches grew back eventually but it took a long time. I have very curly, “frizzy” hair which I used to hate. My older brother had one particular friend who used to call me “n— wool” which is so loaded it blows me away even now thinking about that. So I just want to add to your amazingly well written post that many of us don’t like the hair that we have, or at least spent a number of years not liking it.
    You have the most beautiful bald head I’ve ever seen. One day when I retire i plan to put my hair into dread locks. I see in you a young woman with a great future ahead.

  13. Krystina responded on 03 Jan 2012 at 4:10 pm #

    Sarah, you are a very talented writer and beautiful woman. Not that you need anyone to tell you that. :) I had brain surgery May 31, 2011 and over half of my head was shaved. On top of that I had forty staples across the frontal lobe. It was not pretty. The ugliest mullett you have ever seen, and I live in KY. I was able to hold in the tears infront of my family though….ofcourse this could have been the antidepressants working. ;) I ended up donating what was left of my hair to Pantene’s Beautiful Length. I have donated 19 inches of my hair before to Locks of Love. I always thought it was ironic I was the one who had to wear scarves and bandanas to cover my half bald head! You would think those organizations would give you a free wig if you have donated before. :) I am currently on chemo but my hair is actually growing in quite fast.

  14. kate-in-cleveland responded on 03 Jan 2012 at 5:36 pm #

    Sarah, thank you so much for writing that essay!

  15. Ingrid responded on 03 Jan 2012 at 7:36 pm #

    I think it’s weird how our society places so much of a woman’s worth on her looks. Of course, it’s hard to grow up in this society and not fall into that trap (which seems to be a lot of what this blog is all about, but I’m new here).

    But I think it’s good for us to be working on it. I firmly believe that inner beauty is _all_ that matters. I don’t buy into the idea that we should dress up and put on makeup to please ourselves. If it really was about pleasing ourselves, we wouldn’t need to show anyone.

    I went to junior high, and learned that I wasn’t pretty enough, or thin enough, and I didn’t dress trendy enough. It’s taken me years to work to undo that. But now, I can comfortably wear my sweatpants and t-shirt anywhere (I choose to dress up for weddings and funerals out of respect for the people involved, and dressed as nice as was required when I had an office job). I shaved my head once, just to prove that I could let go of that last bit of concern over what society thought I should look like. I liked it so much I kept it that way and have done it several times since. I have longer hair now, but just because my husband and daughter like it that way.

    I don’t think there’s necessarily anything wrong with working to find yourself beauty in your body regardless of what you look like, but what about working to recognize that the true worth of your body is what it can do for you, and what it looks like is completely irrelevant?

  16. Avery responded on 03 Jan 2012 at 9:05 pm #

    3 members of my family had cancer in one year… two lost all their hair. the circumstances are quite different, but my cousin, who had breast cancer, was 32, just had her first (and last) child, and went though a subtle, yet heartbreakingly visible self-value crisis. Thank you for your story… it’s funny how strangers make me understand my own blood more. And your photo is sublime. I wish you only good days this year, and years to come.

  17. Birdy responded on 03 Jan 2012 at 9:16 pm #

    Thank you for sharing your story! I am sorry for what you have had to go through because of other people, but I am very happy that you have a man that truly loves you just the way you are. :)

    I have never been actually bald, but there was a time when I was scared it was going to happen! I was in a really bad wreck and the combination of the physical stress and the blood thinners I was on meant that just as the rest of me started to get better, my hair started falling out! It never came out in clumps, but everytime I ran my hand through it about 12-15 hairs came out. (I did this over and over until I collected quite the pile. ;) ) And I had never realized that my hair was important to me, but it freaked me out! It got down to about 1/3 of my normal load of hair, and then it finally came back.
    The really sad part is, I worried about it alot, and now that I have it back I complain about how inconvinient hair is. So I guess remember that you have a level of freedom that a lot of us are scared to take for ourselves!
    Thank you for sharing!

  18. Mara responded on 03 Jan 2012 at 10:06 pm #

    Hmm.
    This makes me want to shave my head, almost. ;)

  19. Beauzeaux responded on 04 Jan 2012 at 12:45 am #

    How lovely you all are.

    Please please be as kind to yourself as you would be to others.

  20. Nina responded on 04 Jan 2012 at 3:45 am #

    the most stunning woman i’ve seen in the last year had hair shaved to a cm or less all over. i couldn’t stop looking at her. i have a feeling you would have a similar effect.

    i’ve never had my hair quite that short but having a pixie cut is enough to cause people yelling things like “lezzo” out the window of cars at me. it really bothers me that women can only look one way. i’ve recently lost 11 kilos and all of a sudden i’m getting way more male attention…it actually bothers me. wasn’t i attractive enough with 11 extra kilos? (although i will confess that i’m fairly sure my boosted confidence has some part to play).

    luckily my boyrfriend actively encourages me to try out new things. he’s suggested shaving my head, dyeing it different colours etc… I figure being a little bit different is a good way to weed out the kinds of people that you would want to have around you. all my friends are open minded and wouldn’t say hurtful things. all the people who don’t get why i would want to look different wouldn’t have the kinds of personalities i would want around

  21. Melissa responded on 04 Jan 2012 at 1:50 pm #

    I love this community of responders. I always find comfort and strength in your words and feel less alone in my struggles. Thank you so much for your story, Sarah, and for all these responses I’ve read. Sending you all positivity, compassion, and love.

  22. zoe (and the beatles) responded on 04 Jan 2012 at 2:45 pm #

    although i cannot relate on a personal level, i greatly appreciate your story, sarah. truly, you are beautiful. if hair cannot define you, so many other things can. like your eyes! absolutely gorgeous. again, thank you for sharing.

  23. Mandy responded on 07 Jan 2012 at 6:59 pm #

    I think I understand a bit about feeling less feminine than I’d like, due to my appearance.
    I have ostoearthritis in the balls of both my feet. It started out in my early twenties–it hurt to wear heels. Over the years, I’ve lost range of motion in those joints, especially the right foot, and there is some noticable deformation of the joints.
    I stopped wearing skirts, because all of the shoes that supposedly go with skirts have some sort of heel. At this point, even the flats that are fashionable today don’t work for me, because the edge of the shoe compresses the arthritic joints.
    So, I wear pants amost exclusivley, because I’m restricted to no-heeled shoes that don’t bind across the ball of the foot, and that have a lot of cushioining in the sole. Shoes that no one would dream of labelling dainty, or sexy, or feminine.
    And, since women are supposed to wear high heels to be feminine, it’s made me feel less so, especially when my husband’s company has a formal dinner.
    It’s not that I especially like high heeled shoes–it would just be nice to have a CHOICE in the matter!
    And, maybe I’m just get myself a pair of silver sequinned high-topped Converse for formal occasions…

    So, Sarah, honey, I do understand a bit. Even if my medical condition is easier to conceal than yours. It can suck to not have a choice in the way we present ourselves to the world.
    But you know the first thing I noticed about your picture? Your gorgeous eyes!

  24. Maya responded on 08 Jan 2012 at 7:32 pm #

    Ditto to all the comments about how lovely Sarah’s eyes are! That’s what I immediately noticed when I looked at the picture. So big, dark and beautiful!

    I also have no personal experience with this but often find myself annoyed with how much weight myself and others put on my hair. I’ve often complained about how hard it is take care of as have family members who had to deal with it in my childhood. And yet, at the same time, we all place so much emphasis on how beautiful hair is and how much it defines the beauty of a woman. I’ve had family members flip out at the thought of me cutting it, even slightly, short. I personally find women of varied appearance attractive and so thought that I had escaped having this particular social norm embedded in brain…that is until I thought I about cutting my hair above shoulder length recently and caught myself actually feeling a bit fearful! It’s socially engrained but it’s up to us rewire…In any case, thank you for sharing your story Sarah :)

  25. Rebecca responded on 11 Jan 2012 at 7:01 pm #

    Oh, you are beautiful.

    Which doesn’t make losing your hair any easier–
    but girl, you are beautiful.