Being a redhead has always been a big part of my identity. Even when I was a little kid and this way in which I was different was called to my attention a bit more than I would have liked, it was undeniable that it was a part of who I was. When I was a little older, I appreciated my red hair much more, and I was especially happy about it when my granny told me that redheads don’t go grey. Eventually, I learned this is not true across the board, and I developed a kind of existential dread around my hair, fretting about the day it would fade into a stawberry-tinged white (or until I had to do lots of maintenance to have it dyed back to something approaching its former glory).
I had short hair for most of the first couple decades of my life. I tried to grow it out a few times, but I was never able to get past the awkward in-between stage before I broke down and got it cut short again. But beginning when I was around 23, finishing grad school and moving a number of times (combined with a bit of laziness) meant not having a go-to stylist for a while. Next thing I knew, I’d neglected to get my hair cut (aside from the sometimes unfortunate bang trims I’d do myself) for more than 18 months, and it was long. Once I did find a stylist I liked, got my tresses trimmed and shaped, and learned to work with my long hair, it became an even larger part of my identity.
After my hair had been long for a while, I couldn’t imagine going back to a short cut. I could dream about it, though, and the dreams were nightmarish. I don’t recall exactly when, but some time along the line, I began to have dreams in which my hair was cut short against my will. The circumstances varied, but they were always the sorts of situations that make sense in the midst of dreaming but would not be plausible in real life. In these dreams, I would cry. In fact, I would cry so hard, I’d actually start to sob and wake up a blubbering mess. I calmed down once I realized my hair was still intact, but the uneasy feelings from the dream always stuck with me for a while.
I knew there were various possible reasons my hair could be taken from me without my consent—accidents, diseases, hair-fixated stalkers—but none of those were especially high on my list of worries. Instead, I returned to fretting about the increasing frequency with which grey hairs popped up and began to quietly threaten to overtake my scalp. My stylist insisted I was probably the only one who noticed them but still helped me cover them and make it look natural. So, my worries were largely kept at bay.
Then I was diagnosed with breast cancer.
Losing my hair was not my biggest concern, but it certainly was high on the list, along with losing my life and much of my independence (if only temporarily), pain and potential side effects of surgery, as well as many of the other non-hair related ravages of chemotherapy. At first I held onto hope that maybe my particular kind of chemo would not lead to hair loss. Acquaintances told me of cold caps that allowed some people to minimize their hair loss during treatment. As I went through a barrage of tests and got more information about my particular type of cancer and treatment options, my mind was set at ease in learning that my prognosis was quite good. However, there was no getting around it—the chemo was going to make me lose my hair.
I tried to look on the bright side. I love hats and scarves (and have a lot of both). My hair would grow back. I could get a wig. Getting ready to go out wouldn’t take so long. These offered some consolation, but dread, panic, and tears still welled up whenever I imagined my locks coming out in clumps.
So, like many women who have been in similar situations, I decided to exert what little control I had over the situation. I made an appointment to get my hair cut very short. I figured that would give me time to ease into things and would make for less trauma when my hair began to fall out.
Two days before I started chemo, I went from hair to the middle of my back to pixie cut. I’m not going to claim that wasn’t a bit traumatic in and of itself. In fact, I still have a whole stew of emotions about it simmering. I really do like the new cut a lot, but I hate why I had to do it. I also know that my remaining hair will only be around for a few more weeks. I’ve got a wig on order, but that’s never going to be the same. The hair will grow back, but I’ve got a long and difficult road of both hair-related and non-hair–related tribulations ahead of me before that.
For now, I just keep repeating a few things to myself:
- I loved my hair, and I miss my hair, but I am NOT my hair (no offense, Lady Gaga)
- Fuck you, cancer—I’m going to beat you