Living With Cancer: Living Without Hair by Susan Gubar

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The New York Times

April, 2013

While packing up scarves and hats to mail to a member of my cancer support group, I remember her lament. “After the major loss of body parts, why do I weep over my lost hair?” she wondered. “I know it will grow back, but somehow it feels like the last straw — figuratively and literally!”

When my hair began falling out in clumps during chemotherapy, I asked a friend to shave my head. It hardly helped to conjure up Yul Brynner, Samuel Jackson and Daddy Warbucks, even though they seemed more realistic role models than the aliens played by gorgeous actresses. Why is this temporary loss different from all the other losses, at least for some cancer patients?

There are, after all, so many inventive ways to deal with alopecia. Many women exult in an assortment of wigs, ranging from zany to realistic, that lend them a chameleon ability to try on a variety of impersonations. “Cranial prostheses,” which can be covered by health insurance, require less attention than their own hair and at times look more attractive. Others twist scarves into turbans or flaunt cowboy hats or fedoras.

Those who find wigs and caps uncomfortable or inauthentic often seek the courage to bare themselves in public. A few women use henna to produce elaborate designs and even political slogans on their scalps; you can see a henna tattoo on the Chemo Chicks Web site. Venturing out with adorned or unadorned bald heads, some want that sign to inform strangers of the arduous treatments to which they are subjecting themselves. Exposure might be considered an act of defiance, an appeal for sympathy, an effort to unsettle bystanders, or an assertion that bald is beautiful.

Yet it is hard for even the bravest not to feel vulnerable or despondent at first — and also cold. I doubt that this response springs from the historical use of head-shaving as a shaming device. How many people today know that after the war in Europe the heads of women who collaborated with the Nazis were shorn to expose them to scorn? Of course, the inmates of concentration camps were shaved as part of a grotesque process of dehumanization. When cancer patients suffer severe weight loss, they might see an image from Auschwitz in the mirror. But probably they, like me, reject such an analogy since we have voluntarily undertaken medical protocols for our own good.

Especially for women, does hair loss represent a loss of sexuality? As long ago as biblical times, Paul, who believed that a woman’s long hair serves as her glory, preached that a woman’s head should be veiled during prayer. From the wanton ringlets of Eve to the abundant tresses of Rapunzel and the synthetic mane of Barbie, luxuriant locks bespeak attractive femininity in opposition to the chaste head coverings of asexual nuns. Does hairlessness degender us? With my round dome atop loosefitting clothes, will I be mistaken for a man?

Of course, the loss of fur above reflects the (less discussed) loss of fur below. It seems odd that as genitals became visible, I felt further unsexed. When pubic hair disappeared, I hurtled backward into the period before latency. A man whose chin or chest no longer sprouts bristles can also be plummeted back to his childhood. As we careen forward into the past, do we fear that we will soon drop down on all fours and start drooling? Will our heads next loll onto our chests?

And what about all the other body curls? Will we, like them, be here today, gone tomorrow? Who praises the delicate threads of the nose until an ever-present handkerchief teaches us that without them we have perpetually runny noses? The disappearance of eyebrows and eyelashes looks like a de-facing. Without underarm hair, arm hair, leg hair, it is as if we are being erased. Hairless we may have come into the world, and now hairless we will leave it. We might dread every deceased follicle in light of Matthew’s admonition about our looming mortality: “And even the very hairs on your head are numbered.”

Not surprisingly, given the current vogue for youthful skin, the Web site called Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow turns out to be a commercial enterprise offering laser hair removal. But it reminds me of my girls’ boisterous rendition of the children’s song about Little Rabbit Fu Fu, hopping down the meadow, scooping up the field mice and bopping them on the head. Little Rabbit Fu Fu gets three chances to mend his rambunctious ways until the Good Fairy loses her patience and turns him into a goon: “Hare today, goon tomorrow.”

Problem is that during my hairless days, I felt more like the field mice than the reckless rabbit. And now, with a thin pelt on my pate, I think more favorably of Little Rabbit Fu Fu’s final condition. I’d rather be a goon than a goner.

 

Susan Gubar writes about life with ovarian cancer.

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