All my life I’d had long hair. While the rest of me didn’t look distinctively Iranian, I had the long, thick, wavy hair Persian girls are known for. Little did I know while I had a full head of it, that my hair was an integral part of me, as superficial as that sounds, but it was. I played with it in certain ways depending on whether I was angry, sad or embarrassed and I flipped it back and forth with pride while flirting or attempting to draw attention to myself.
A few weeks after I was diagnosed with breast cancer, my nurse Tammy talked to me about the eight rounds of chemo that I was set to receive before surgery. I saw a look of trepidation cross her face as she started to talk about me losing my hair as if I somehow didn’t know. I was surprised. I mean I thought everyone knew that during chemo your hair falls out. This was not news to me. I’d seen all the movies and commercials with people undergoing cancer treatment who had gone bald. Not just any bald but that very particular look of baldness I like to call Coif Chemo. Bald with a bloated, doughy face.
It never occurred to me, however, not in a million years, that I would be losing my hair during chemo. That I would be one of those people sporting Coif Chemo. That not only would I lose the hair on my head, but my eyebrows, my eyelashes and every tiny last hair on every part of my body. This was news to me.
I later found out that Tammy’s look of trepidation came from the fact that some people, mostly women I suspect, had actually refused chemotherapy because they couldn’t deal with losing their hair. She was worried that I, with my long almost waist length hair, would be one of them. I wasn’t. Not because I was less vain or somehow stronger than those people but really only because a) I was still in complete shock about the very awry direction my life had taken literally overnight and b) I really had no idea how much meaning hair had for me as a woman until I had none.
I mean, I was a lawyer for God’s sake, I was a woman of substance and hair was incidental to my feelings of self-worth. Had I been more in touch with my feelings and less in denial, Tammy’s trepidation may have actually been justified.
Of course intellectually I knew I would lose my hair. But on the ground, in my body, in my heart, when, after my second chemo, in the shower just as Tammy had predicted, I ran my hands through my hair and big, thick clumps washed right out with the shampoo, I was totally shocked. I felt completely, utterly devastated. Suddenly my hair was me. Little parts of me, my memories, my feelings, my spirit, my quirks and habits, running down my body and clogging the drain. My life with my hair flashed before me; as if it was a relative or a trusted friend I was losing.
Moments with my hair, sitting at this café or dancing at that party or on this date. How I had done it for this wedding or that event and how it looked in this or that picture. For some reason that I still cannot truly explain, my hair defined me the minute I began to lose it.
I suddenly remembered a documentary I had seen about how French civilians, after the Allied victory in the Second World War, shaved the heads of French women who had been with Nazi soldiers. Their bald heads were a symbol of their shame and treason but also a way of suspending their womanhood in punishment for having spent their womanliness on the enemy. A hairless woman was, it seemed, somehow less of a woman.
I now have a new relationship with my hair, one in which my hair has all the leverage. While before it was here to serve me, now I am here to serve it. If it needs me to drink silicea, a strange white substance with the same texture as mashed up jellyfish twice a day at 60 bucks a bottle, yes ma’am, I drink it. If it demands that I hang upside down on the inversion machine at the gym and massage my scalp while subjected to the very polite stares of fellow gym goers, so be it. It’s not a healthy relationship by any means. It’s slightly obsessive and maybe just a tiny bit superficial, but according to Dr. Wayne Dyer, whatever you focus on grows, so grow baby grow.
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