Solidarity Selfies: Shaving your head for a friend
No Filter. [For Lisa]
April 20th, 2014
The rain tapping the window and grey pallor of the day is a perfect place to start. Nice diffused lighting, great for selfies, while being both crisply maudlin or frigidly goth. Isn’t that something a kid would say? Full of a natural bravado that comes with creating a digital narrative to your existence, the prerequisite for life now. Quick post it & see how many likes you get.
I’ve now seen the inside of more bathrooms (quietly judged by all items on your sinktop) than seems possible for one person. The disheveled interiors that stand in stark contrast to your well-coiffed and ambiently lit picture. A lifelong devotion to art made self-portraits my favorites. Where the artist gets to step to the front of the object that they’ve so often subjectified others by. It is so Meta! There are deep psychological forces at work and on display in every one of them. Every tiny nuance is carefully thought out, in oils and self-conscious brush strokes or the push of a “button” on your touchscreen. Meta-squared DaDa.
There is both a journey and reflection in every self-portrait, whether that be in oils or your latest Instagram snapshot. Some spend more time than others, and we all know that the internet’s cloud and every cellphone overflows with the ones that you didn’t post. Steadfastly refusing to to delete so your masochistic side can pour over them and be reminded of the awful truth. That is the real fun.
Guess who takes selfies, all the time, but you never see them? Without posting anywhere. Varietals to remind myself of how unbelievably long the hairs have gotten, sparking anger directed at the artist formerly known as my hair stylist for embracing family over the shop she owns & hence leaving me to look like a homeless person. (Nearly perfected recently). I’d show you, but you must pay a price of admission to that freak show.
So when four times a day someone posts a new one, I’m secretly judging them, we all are. Even worse, judging more harshly the people who comment. It is the same inane conversations repeated over & over again to infinity. On feminine posts it is always this constant barrage of how great they look, keep it up, woo-hoo. (As if the only thing that mattered was you telling them how great they look to you) Each time I try to parse which ones really mean it, and which ones are saying it snidely. Online or in a text you are free to inflect it anyway you choose. Context is lost when the sound is not present to signify.
What seems like light years ago – there was a conscious decision to not post pictures of myself. For one, the attention it garnered from people who – knew me only online – and perhaps weren’t as inured of my unique style of sarcasm, self-deprecation, and general dismissive derision was often as unsettling as alliterative. (Better in person). Of course in the beginning it was very interesting to see how people reacted, and each “Like” felt like a high five, every comment – a moment stolen from someone else’s day to stop and ponder the spectacle that is me. (Anyone who has had a dating profile knows this implicitly since 1999 and the inevitable blow-back).
Secondly, attention and itinerant gazes are a dangerous drug. Be wary, use with caution, or have an entire generation lost to the scourge. Those are my thoughts about using actual pictures of myself. Instead pieces of art with some humor that best express what is my singular vision and persona pass my eyes and quickly become simulacrum or the profile picture for the day. For how the world sees me has been complicated from birth, and not at all in alignment with how I see myself. Having written about it many times and pondered all that it means, I’ll not dredge those up and remitigate them here. Buy the book.
Some months ago, during the daily routine of making the social media rounds, a dear friend sent me a message:
I have cancer, at least Stage II, don’t want sympathy or sadness, because I’m going to make this cancer my bitch!
Possibly not only the best way to announce to someone that you have a deadly disease that takes many lives but to instantly make tears come to my eyes. Although, they were the strangest mix of both joy & bittersweet sympathy, I gulped & wrote back:
Beat that Bitch with a Bat!
Probably, (I hope) the non-politically correct answer she was hoping for when she confided in me before going public with a status update. Having been stumped, and with the above song recently playing in my head it felt like serendipity. Grief, Pain, and all of life’s tribulations are better handled with a side of humor or helping of gumption. Getting cancer is not a joking matter, but dealing with it requires levity at the very least to stay grounded. Otherwise you just let it all get to you. Then cancer wins, then the world & you lose.
Breast Cancer has been a bitch stalking me my entire life, and I’m tired of it. Where is the block button? Can I fill out a police report now? Taking my grandmother over twenty years ago, infecting the other, and touching the lives of all the strong women in my life.
Hey Cancer! You picked the wrong Bitch!
When it came for my grandmother, it crept in like a home invasion with late detection, multiple rounds of Chemotherapy, and like the proverbial guest overstaying its welcome time & again – when it left it decided to take her with. The shame on top of loneliness & despair, pain daily administered through heartache, were incomprehensible to watch and even harder to remember. A woman who’d had the strength to raise both my mother and me, bear any cross with a smile and no complaints, fought many foes, slayed the dragons under my bed, and generously left me with the best advice you can give a child who seems to be the scorn of the entire world.
Watching the mighty brought low is never easy, unless they are your enemies. Cancer makes enemies of us all and to ourselves foremost. Enemy to our body, adversary to our nagging thoughts, foe of our indefatigable desires. It reminds us life is pain, both concretely & abstractly exponentially amplified by every little decision or action you face, every single day.
Having worked in the non-profit sector for a charity race, comprised of survivors raising money for underserved women in the nation’s richest zip code was an eye-opener. Seeing up close the harrowing tales of how it impacts the lives, not just of those dealing with cancer, but with everyone who loves them. Their children, dearest friends, parents, siblings – made me realize we all get cancer. Whether we like it or not.
So the recent meme that allows those of us to use our online profile to advocate, show solidarity, or otherwise give some new meaning & purpose to our national obsession with being seen and complimented intrigues me greatly. How could I not subvert that?
So this dear friend, who I only met a few years ago & spent a week with in Houston in crisis mode with her as my knight on a shining steed, and since then have cultivated that friendship via Facebook and Twitter had to recently take that hard step of shaving her head prophylactically. Thinking this milestone and rite of passage could not go unnoticed, and no matter how brave we are in the face of these challenges, it hurts like hell.
We have such an emotional attachment to our hair, and women acutely. Their crown, their signifier that announces to the world what is inside that lovely head. An empire is erected selling potions and cures for whatever ails you. Snake Oil: Hair too curly? Here try this. Tazmanian Iguana Excrement inside! It will do wonders for you. So smooth, silky, soft to the touch. $75 a bottle.
Having hair, Maintaining hair, Losing hair ; Color, Cut, Comb, Curl; Flatten, Feather, Frost.
Lather, Rinse, Repeat. 22 inches! New Weave! Gets expensive in an actuarial table for the average lifespan.
Twice in my long life I’ve grown my hair to my waist. That is 30-50 inches of good hair, if you are keeping count or figuring up how much it costs. Each time donating it when the journey ended. The trek includes not using any products in it, washing it weekly, using both humanely-tested organic nutrient rich strengthening cremes so that wherever it is now, hopefully that child stroking its tender locks and thinks: “I LOOK GOOD! Can I get a witness?” To which someone is hollering behind them in the mirror: “10s, 10s, 10s across the board.”
They turn, sweep it off their shoulder, batting it away from their eyes, and strut.
That is what I’d do.
That is what I did with it. That and tying it up in impossible buns, adorned with chopsticks, a huge plastic bone, garden trellis made into a mantilla, and whatever silly notion came into my head. My hair was a Phillip Treacy hat. One that made a milliner of me.
Each time it was cut, there was a long pause by the person about to cut it. “Are you sure?” Ummmm, yes. “Are you really sure?” Definitely, please get this succubus off of me – it is sucking all the brains from my head?!?!? Of course, there have been many moments of bad high school dramatics or toddler tantrums played out in the chairs of salons all over the world from people who thought they were ready, but when it happens, have a meltdown. Tears, threats of lawsuits, lost friendships, etc… This is because we all have an emotional attachment to our hair.
For me, that doesn’t really exist. I like it, sure, but am equally happy with a shaved head as a 6 inch old school mohawk, or to the middle of my back, up in a librarian’s bun, or fried/dyed/laid-to-the-side. It might as well be a wig. I’d often hoped that someday we could magically make ourselves through some technological invention just like that doll with a crank on her stomach that allowed us to make it the length we desired at that moment. That would be dangerous, excusing myself just to change my hair would be my calling card or punctuating some bad joke would get draining, on my audience.
Alas the future hasn’t caught up with my thoughts yet.
Finding the right hairstyle for your face and the color that accents your eyes and sets them off, might seem vain. But I beg to differ with you, likening it more to a writer finding her voice or an artist discovering their style and medium. It is that confluence. When everything seems for a moment to have a purpose and you can write until your fingers ache and still want to write more. It is the feeling that when somebody reads this, they will get it. You will have made a difference.
Aside from a pair of new shoes, there really isn’t any better feeling, besides finding your purpose in life — which hopefully insists you wear cute shoes & have a killer haircut and will let you afford them as often as you want. Being forced to shave your head is both dehumanizing and humbling. Imagine recruits being inducted into the Army, or the Gays, Jews & Gypsies arriving at concentration camps, or the novice at a Buddhist temple. It levels the playing field, takes away the illusion and mask that we as humans hide behind.
There can be no casual hair flip, twirling it around your finger in mediation, stroking your hands through it as you cast a longing glance at the one you love, or blowing it out of your face with the casualness of a bored supermodel. We humans when shorn feel every slight breeze, feel every bead of sweat fiercely, and the absence so viscerally that even fully clothed & with a hat on we still feel naked. Like a pet that has been fully shaved, we are suddenly helpless.
It is the ultimate intimacy to see yourself for the first time. The last time most of us saw ourselves with that little hair we were fresh out of the womb. They have the pictures without the self-realization in the mirror. The absence of hair will suddenly make that spot on your temple jump out at you, while your eyebrows suddenly become the crooked crown. You can feel every contour of your skull, and discover an entire alien terrain that previously were like the trenches at the bottom of the ocean or on the face of the moon. The fourth wall has dropped, and you can only ask that mirror: “Who’s the fairest of them all?”
It seems nearly impossible that you could suffer losing all your hair and not become introspective. Starting with a retrospective of every cute haircut you received, the many tortures you put it through, and spur of the moment colors that you couldn’t wait to grow out. Then you realize how hard & time consuming it is to grow hair. Praying that if it just grows faster, you’ll treat it right.
I loved my hair, but am not in love with it. Bone straight, dishwater blonde (which is a way of trying to deny brownness, that’s racist is what that is). People don’t ask or didn’t, to “touch my hair” – probably because of my perpetual-bitch resting-face syndrome. It is my curse. Hair that is pliable, will do whatever I ask of it. That too, however, is just an illusion, because it will never be the albino afro that is my birthright. It will not dread, or I’d never dread this mess. It won’t turn silver fox white as I’ve wished since childhood and prayed more furiously than a Roman Catholic, nope just the right side above my ear will have the faintest whiff of platinum. My pubes have more, so the drapes & the rug are telling lies about matching.
But…But… My life is full of people telling me the buts. How I can’t understand their struggles which are always legendary, and the trials and tribulations of wavy, curly, textured natural hair. I’ve heard you. It is a burden, your cross to bear. But guess what the grass is always greener, get over it & be glad for it. It really drives home the aphorism:
Someone else is thankful for less than what you are complaining about right now…
Do you really think that I was being cute when I created all those confections with my hair? They did not stay, it was like a teary bleary Ms America stumbling drunk down the runway, they were sure to fall apart the first tough wind blew my way or with the first wave of applause. No staying power, limp, not the truest reflection of my personality. Don’t you agree?
Give me something that I can mold into a Salvador Dali painting set on fire & then I’ll be happy. Sure, there are those Pantene Pro V Commercial moments where you are walking and the wind just lilts your hair and caresses it like a lover’s first kiss.
But that is only cute in theory and with people selling you goop to make themselves rich. That same scenario has outtakes, many of them where it blew in the face, got stuck on the lip gloss, and snatched by the little metal things on the subway windows. Yanking out that hair painfully as you stood up. Even that is better than the person who sits down back-to-back with you and leans back on your ponytail. You can’t blame them, you didn’t know it was in that other seat & and you don’t design subways.
We all want what we can’t have. It is the most primal emotion known to each of us. You can be too white, thin, and rich. Don’t believe me? Walk the upper East Side – around noon, and count the struggles in a PINK butt logo micro-fiber suede track suit on the skeletal white woman and watch her walk. There isn’t an ounce of joy in it. There is a lot of wasted years mixed with a pain so visceral it will make you catch your breath, and there she’ll go, off alone. In her seventies now, while her face is still in its 40’s. It will make you look away faster than a smelly panhandler. If that is what you are chasing, then I can smell the bullshit from here.
That subject had everything in life, but she is gonna take up exactly the same amount of space on earth when finished as you do. What you can chase instead is your vitality, with a passion so infectious that it doubles you over with belly laughter that makes your abs tighten. Wins on both levels. Or follow that hug to see where it leads. Stroke that arm in understanding, and let someone know you’ve got their back. Tell someone what you really think of them, and how precious they are to you. Not in the creepy, “I’ve just liked ALL your Instagrams-why are we not married?” way. No, listen, with your heart, until it is breaking and there is nothing else you can do. Be fine with that. Because in case you are just tuning in – you are helpless. We all are.
Everything else you tell yourself, all those defense mechanisms, are the biggest illusion of all. We need them, just as we need air to breathe. We crave a story like the ultimate drug. The ones we tell ourselves and the ones we listen to regularly. We also get the amazing ability to choose which ones soothe and nurture our soul. If that is a scientific approach & the certitude of a knowable universe measurable in a language that people made up and call numbers, then I applaud you. If it is to cling to a G-d like it was the cross at Golgotha, then I’ll help you by sharing that burden. Your struggle is yours and personal, mine is different but both your hearts understand me.
Even as neither way is my way. On the other path where neither of you is right, and the only thing that left can best be summed up in the question: Why? A complete Sentence. And its own answer.
One that scares everyone, me especially. To persevere onward brings the miracle that keeps one learning, turns your old knowledge & experience into new avenues, more wisdom, more practice, more love of life. With that comes the balancing forces of pain, heartache, struggle and disappointment. For the idea that you can have one without the other is something we should banish from every mind.
We are well beyond the existential paradigm, and had they all not died of cancer, from smoking too many french unfiltered cigarettes, its proponents might have lived long enough to say “MOVE ON!” Nothing to see here. Next up? We express the perfect void, not in actuality and there are many that have taken up arms, but their academic screeds fell on a media-saturated deafened ear. Going the way of that brand of literary genius and hero of the 1950’s into Baudrillard’s dustbin, where all history now resides.
It is liberating, no? Yeah, not really. It is anarchy and not the good kind. Wish we could put cancer in that same pail.
Say it with me: Everything is going to be alright.
“Yes my boobs are crooked and they don’t jiggle either… what of it?!?” – Lisa
This idea that my self-less act, which is in itself an act of the heaviest narcissism, a buzzcut & a selfie, (Duck-face, optional) could aid awareness or ease the pain of cancer is ludicrous. We all know that. Yet, that is what we are reduced to. That is the accepted wisdom.
At least they didn’t write a bloviating piece to accompany it, right? Except that in the writing of this piece, and the disclosure of these things has raised my consciousness. Despite having told numerous people why I suddenly have no hair, not one has had a conversation about Breast Cancer. In fact they are more than happy to divert the conversation in another direction. So I’m hoping that your reading of this will compensate by having you contemplating what it all means.
As a writer, there is a bit of method actor in me. Choosing to take each step and really go through it both deeply and profoundly. So all along the way – the preparation, the steps, and the clean-up all had to be photographed documentarily. For in doing so, each of the thoughts and feelings could best be captured. What they show me is that I’m not afflicted with cancer, that I’m not doing this under duress, that I’m doing it because I can.
For men, there is no shame in having a buzzed head. In fact there are many who should, but instead cling to some long stringy wisp they comb over instead. Or wear pelts to cover their shame. Men like to add hair when they are covering something up and are usually rewarded for not.
While for women we return to worn out bravery tropes. Women are just as beautiful and alluring without hair. In fact the whole world would look different if we were hairless. Hence so many mid-century futurists predicted that sometime soon our follicles would fail to produce because that energy would be used and the time spent on enlarging our brains.
We should no sooner believe them when they compliment our hair or the tenacity in not having any. They are both lies. Born straight out of envy or spite. As they whisper, “there but for the grace of god…go I” while we pass.
There is a bravery in every time a shorn survivor steps out of their house without a hat. Truly lifts their head up & greets every passerby in the eye. Defiant not of societal norms but in the face of demoralizing and inhumane treatment that is cancer and its “cure” which can lay so many low. An act that says, this will not define me, nor will your pity comfort me.
DAUGHTER: Mommy are you brave?
LISA: I try to be.
DAUGHTER: Well if you’re brave and bald because of cancer you wouldn’t wear a hat.
What would Charlene do?
Returning to my grandmother for a moment, and to bring this rambling screed full circle. My self-worth and composure under fire were instilled into every fibre of my being at the very tender age of 5. After shooting my mouth off at some scuffaw who then undoubtedly showed me what that hole was for. Lessons no one can ever unlearn. A blazing trail of tears ended in a warm embrace and a gentle lifting of my chin to look into her tender and sad eyes.
The sound of the windchimes that hung outside the trailer door still haunt my ear. Musical as the wisdom of someone who fought an entire life against stereotypes and people looking down upon her could offer. The sort of thing you can’t repeat without ample amounts of wine, in soft reverent tones with moist eyes, and voice cracking.
You are beautiful and smart. They are simply jealous. Hold your head up high and walk with dignity and confidence and know nothing they say can ever take that away from you.
These words would save my life over and over, in situations both mundane & sublime. Making all my dreams possible, making my life more meaningful on those days where nothing is right. When as needed, I hope you can hear me whispering them to you. For that is all I wish, dear Lisa, as you face what will be yet another rebirth, renewed strength, and invigorated courage. You’ll probably never know who you saved or whose life you changed by simply being you.