My hair is falling out. A fine, sad network twines across the pillow in the morning. I am forever plucking strands from the corner of the baby’s mouth.
I pull at it, run my fingers through it, checking them compulsively afterward for the telltale evidence. It’s always there, sometimes eight strands at a time, weaving together, blowing away.
I stand in front of the bathroom mirror in the evening, tugging my hair to this side and then the other side, exposing the horror of my widening part. My hair can part anywhere now, given even half a chance. It falls open obscenely.
Losing my hair feels like losing my confidence. I hide under a hat. I try to surreptitiously check my reflection in case it’s ended up even more embarrassing than when I left the house earlier. I am thinking about it while having coffee with a friend. Is she looking at my hair? Is she feeling a little sorry for me?
Bear says I’m being ridiculous, I look exactly the same. My hair is beautiful.
Beautiful is a gross exaggeration, I say. Gross is a better word.
He gets frustrated. Come on, stop it, you’re being vain. It doesn’t matter.
Wait, I say. This is not vanity. I swear.
Actually, I’ve been trending towards fine. I mean, I just wrote this piece, about feeling sexy. And before that I wrote this piece, about not caring about the way I look anymore. So yes, that just happened. I realize I’m sort of contradicting myself now. I tried not to write this piece for that reason, but I’m writing it anyway, because life is contradictory. Also, my hair wasn’t falling out then.
My thinning hair yanks me back into a tightening awareness of my reflection, and I resent it for that, too.
It reminds me of losing my hair other times. This isn’t the first time.
Thick hair sounds the same as beauty to me now. People used to say, “Your hair is so thick!” the way they said “you’re so thin!” And my brain, even as a girl, went “check!” off the list of things I needed to have to make me valuable. To make me enviable. It’s a freeing list, when you already have the things on it, because you don’t have to think about them anymore. You hardly have to notice. But in college my hair suddenly betrayed me and then I thought about it all the time. What had happened? Who knows. One doctor said serious anemia, so I took tons of iron and ate tons of chopped liver. Another doctor recommended a generic Rogaine, which I applied in desperate, furtive secret, hiding the bottle behind a box of bandaids in the medicine cabinet in my first apartment. I was so afraid that some guy who slept over would somehow find it. Maybe if he cut himself. I would have to remember to get the bandaids. That was very important. Also, I worried about missing an application, for the sleeping over guy. It was important not to miss a night.
Who has time, really, to Rogaine themselves? You’re supposed to apply it twice a day, and it stays on for a half an hour or something. Who can do that? I felt a dark kinship with balding men everywhere. The ones, who, like me, were afraid enough of how they looked to make the huge, chemical-steeped, foul-smelling effort. We were all lonely, in our bathrooms, applying the stuff, I was sure. But we were united, in a way.
Except that I was a woman.
So I was totally alone.
“That’s for men, honey,” said the woman behind the counter in the store where I got it.
“I know,” I said, looking down. I tried to look like I was definitely getting it for a man in my life. A man too shy to purchase it himself. A steady boyfriend. A father. A husband.
Her eyes went pitying. At least, I think they did.
That was what I was most scared of. The pity. It is shameful, for some reason, some probably deeply rooted biological reason, to have thinning hair, as a woman. It is a failing, for some reason, to lose your hair as a woman. To lose my hair sometimes seemed to me to be a loss of womanhood itself.
You know what’s interesting? Every time I’ve gotten caught up in the failure of some aspect of my appearance, I’ve believed almost completely that my potency, the success of my femininity, my essence as a woman depends on that thing. I’ve believed it helplessly, against reason, in spite of my efforts to not get hung up on stupid stuff and instead live a bigger, better, more rational life. What is with that kind of fear? Where does it come from?
The best women are thin. The best women have long legs. The best women have small noses. The best women have thick hair. The best women have big eyes. The best women have long necks. The best women probably never get a pimple on their butt or dark hair on their arms or dirt under their nails.
I don’t know who they are—these best women. But I have known for a long time that I am not one of them.
It’s not vanity, I explain to Bear. It’s fear. I am afraid on some level of not being good enough. Or maybe this is just semantics. Vanity, I think, is when you preen and primp and fuss in constant attention to a façade that you already believe is superior. I have, on the other hand, learned to be afraid that I will never even be acceptable. When my hair started falling out in college, I was afraid that I was falling, too. Falling down on the job of being an acceptable woman.
I stopped using the Rogaine chemicals only a few months in. I couldn’t stand the smell anymore. I couldn’t take the shame. I was humiliated, alone in my tiny bathroom.
My hair never got thick again, not like it was before college. But it goes through phases. The hormonal changes of new motherhood are wreaking havoc on it. This is the worst it’s been in years. But, I remind myself, I am not the worst I’ve been in years.
I’ve learned a few things since college. Since grad school. Since I hid that bottle in the medicine cabinet.
It’s easy to slip into old, hateful habits, but I know now with greater certainty that I am not my hair. Or my weight. Or my legs. Or my breasts. Or my neck. Or my nose. Or any of the myriad details that make up my body. I also know that of course these details matter. Of course they matter to me. I can’t pretend I graciously accept them all. I can’t manage to embrace my traitorously wispy hair. I can’t be such a big-picture, awesome, fiercely focused person that I am constantly like, “I am on a journey! I am weaving the colorful tapestry of my life! I don’t have time to notice things like my hair. I have to nourish my SOUL.” Or, like, “Children are STARVING in the world—why would anyone ever, ever bother to care about their hair at all?”
Nope. I’m still kinda lame this way. I’m still kinda stuck sometimes. I still care too much about too many stupid things.
“So change,” my mom said, referring to something totally different about me. But still, it applies here.
“Yeah, yeah,” I said. “I’m trying.”
“You really have to try,” she said. “Because people say it’s too hard to change and then they don’t work on it, and then fifty years later they have the same problems. And if they’d tried they could’ve actually improved.”
“True,” I said.
The worst thing is feeling helpless. Like it’s out of my control. Like the things about me that matter are things I can’t impact. Stupid or not, that’s how losing my hair makes me feel.
And then I remember how I walked into a barber shop and got a buzz cut once. Twice. Four times? But the first time, especially. How that felt. It felt like I was in charge.
“Listen,” I tell my hair, very sternly, in the mirror in the bathroom in the evening. “Listen, hair. I will cut you. I will. You’d better watch yourself.”
And then I let myself be jealous of my friends for their lustrous, cascading locks. I wish my hair did that. I really do. But it’s not a huge deal. Obviously.
And then I put on my red dress and go out.
(I bring the red hat, too, just in case)
* * *
Have you ever lost a lot of hair?
Unroast: Today I love the way I look when I grin
Here are some cake pics from a reader named Elizabeth who wrote to me to talk about postpartum body image, so it’s perfect that I get to share these delightful shots of her here. Thank you, Elizabeth!! Here’s a link to the gallery of pictures of women eating cake. (As always, if anyone else wants to share pics of themselves with cake, please do!)
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