I was diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer in my early thirties. And even though we caught it early and I had no lymph node involvement, my oncologist recommended six months of chemo. From the time I first ran my hand over the lump in my right breast to the conversation about chemo, I’d had a double mastectomy, reconstruction, and a blood transfusion. On top of all of that, I’d spent five hours in a hyperbaric oxygen chamber, trying to revive the blood supply to my left nipple.
And still, it was the thought of losing my hair that made me cry.
I am a child of the eighties. For me, it was all big hair and boobs. I wanted to grow up to look like the women I saw on television--Suzanne Somers, Loni Anderson, and Teresa Ganzel--women who looked just like my step dad’s first wife. Seven-year-old me thought her being first meant she was somehow better than my mother. Her physical self-imprinted on my psyche. This is what a woman is supposed to look like, I thought. And with a boob job, endless dieting, hours in the gym, and the hairdresser’s chair, I did.
Now I had cancer and I was going to go bald? It was too much. You can take my tits, Lord, but not my tresses.
A lot of women grow up believing their physical self to be their most prized possession. For me, it was a symptom of a male-dominated household and the media. I had created a life where the most valuable thing I had was my appearance. Knowing that, maybe it’s easier to understand why I was more concerned with being unattractive than I was with having cancer. One felt manageable and the other was totally out of my control. Your appearance is something you can change. Calculating the macros in your breakfast is easier than deciding what you want to do with your life.
I shaved my head that first time because it was a way for me to regain control of an out-of-control situation. My friend Kimmy draped an old towel over my shoulders, handed me a glass of wine and said, “Are we doing this thing or what?” We started with a mohawk.
I thought it was going to be terrible. My college boyfriend told me once, “You don’t have the face for short hair.” This while he was pulling his own leonine mane in and out of a ponytail. I took that statement to heart. I closed my eyes as Kimmy grabbed a handful of my shoulder-length hair. I could feel the smooth edge of the scissors against my scalp and then she placed what she’d cut in my hand. There was no going back. I remember looking at myself in the mirror and immediately judging my profile--look at that nose, my skin is terrible, what is wrong with my chin?
But here is the thing, when you don’t have a choice, you can do one of two things. I could be miserable for the next year, waiting for my hair to grow back, or I could roll with it. It was a lesson in acceptance. I learned to look for the things I liked about my appearance. I’d look at myself in the mirror thinking, I like my eyes, they’re cool I guess. When I stand this way I look like a badass. I am a badass. There is power in positive affirmations. I dressed for the head. Walking down the Venice Boardwalk people were yelling, “hey, Taxi Driver,” for my mohawk and then “Amber Rose, Amber Rose,” when I did finally shave it all off (hey, Muva, it was the diamonds and the giant sunglasses I’m sure.) When I finally lost my eyebrows and most of my eyelashes, I coated the top of my head in silver powder, shimmied into a sequined column dress and headed out for dinner at the Magic Castle in Los Angeles. Embrace the alien I told myself.
I found that I could shift my idea of what it meant to be beautiful when I was sick, because I knew my illness wouldn’t last forever. It was just something I needed to get through. Once I was done with chemo though, I put all of that self-acceptance back on a dark shelf, stockpiling it for the next emergency. Now that I was better, I was holding myself to that old standard of beauty. And finding myself wanting. Chemotherapy changes the texture of your skin, and being in medically induced menopause for eight months tricked my body into thinking it was older than it was. My skin became thin, waxy and partial to cuts. I am more sensitive to the sun, liable to burn and develop sunspots. Instead of waking up every day and focusing on the things I liked about myself, I was back to noticing only the things that were wrong.
So I shaved my head. Again.
I shaved my head because I was tired of being told I had to look a certain way. I was tired of believing it. I wanted to return to that powerful feeling I’d had that first time I ran my hand over the soft fuzz of my scalp. I shaved my head because I wanted to fall in love with Amanda the person, not Amanda the physical thing. I wasted so much of my life being a thing instead of a being. It was just easier than letting people get close.
I did it as a way to raise my beauty self-esteem. As if I could conjure up that strong survivor I’d been. I wanted to embrace my perfect imperfection again. I forced myself to really look at myself in the mirror, to encompass the whole of who I am, not just measure the droop in my eyelids or the unevenness of my lips. No one looks perfect all the time, but with Facetune that can be hard to remember. I got used to focusing on the things I liked about myself again, and often these days, those things have nothing to do with a mirror.
I shaved my head because I wanted to take part in the challenging of gender roles we are seeing happen in the world today. I think women can be just as beautiful with no hair as she is with Godiva length locks. I’m into changing a system that tells us girls have to be one way and boys another. I love the idea of being androgynous, embracing both sides of my personality. Yes I am female and I love red lips and a good cat eye, but I also want to be able to wear Dickies that are two sizes too big and VANS with everything. I am resisting traditional gender roles. I am daring some man to be confident enough to handle it. To still think I’m sexy. To be fine sharing his clothes with me, maybe even wear mine. I mean come on, think about your man in your panties. It is adorable. (Just not the expensive ones, those will never fit you again.)
I’ve always been comfortable in the extremes--living in a motorcycle shop in my twenties, breaking my neck jumping out of a speedboat, crashing a dirt bike, raving--and getting older is hard when you are someone with an all or nothing personality. You feel yourself becoming this homogenous thing. I didn’t want to fade out, but I also didn’t want to be someone who was hanging on to the person I used to be. Lucky for me, we are shifting what it means to get older. We are staying healthy and living longer. We are getting married less, forgoing children. The rules are changing. I’ve chosen to change with them.
I shaved my head because I wanted a look. Something polished that worked with my lifestyle, where I could swim in the mornings and ride my bike before work, without having to worry about my hair frying in the chlorine or walking into the office with a still wet sloppy bun every day.
I didn’t shave my head because I cared less about what I looked like. I did it because I cared more about loving myself. I wanted to really see myself when I looked in the mirror, my face, my eyes, me. I wanted to do the what’s up nod to all of the other bald girls out there who have made the jump. I wanted to make a statement with my looks that said more than, I didn’t have time to get ready this morning, or I don’t care what I look like, I wanted to say instead, that I do. I wanted to say love me because of, rather than in spite of. I wanted to say all of these things to myself.
And I am.