When a woman loses her hair
I got a buzz cut. I told everyone that I did it just because I felt like doing it. But the truth is, there was a little bit more to the story.
The little bit more part began when my hair started falling out. I was at university. Before uni, I had very long hair. Almost down to my waist. I thought it made me look like a mermaid when I swam. I didn't swim that much, but it seemed worth it. My hair was thick and wavy, with the occasional rogue corkscrew curl. When I finally went to have it cut, the stylist couldn't stop exclaiming, "So thick! So much hair!" I probably blushed modestly.
But then something changed. My hair began coming out when I ran my fingers through it in the shower. Not in large enough clumps for me to panic- just enough to notice. A year later, it was half its former volume. By the time I graduated college, I avoided swimming pools. I hated the way I looked when my hair was wet, it was so thin that patches of my scalp showed. On my 22nd birthday, I stared at myself in the mirror after showering, and was horrified by what I saw. My hair looked sickly and miserable. I'd had enough. I made a doctor's appointment to talk about it.
"My hair is falling out," I told the doctor.
He examined my scalp. "We'll run some blood tests."
He called me a few days later and told me that I was anemic. Nothing life-threatening, but I needed to start taking a lot of iron. He wasn't sure about my hair. "It might grow back."
I took three doses of iron every day, and gradually, I began to feel better. I hadn't even realized how tired I'd been all the time. Suddenly, I didn't feel like I needed to lie down in the middle of the afternoon. I could work clearheaded for hours and hours. Life was better, but my hair didn't change. It didn't grow. I was constantly reaching up to adjust it, to make sure it wasn't exposing too much skin. I had to check it every few minutes, especially if there was any breeze at all.
I was a horrifying thing—a woman losing her hair, in her early twenties. Nothing about this was right. Everywhere I looked, women with gorgeous hair paraded through the streets. Women with lush, lustrous, bright hair. Women with thick, mysterious dark hair. Little girls with masses of hair they didn't even know to appreciate yet. I heard women complaining about how thick their hair was. How difficult it was to manage. How it was too curly, too straight. How it wasn't the right color. Everywhere I looked, I was reminded of how essential hair was to being a woman. Every description of a beautiful woman lingered on her spectacular hair. Every image in a commercial. I felt like I'd been left behind. I felt betrayed by my body.
When I went back for my now-frequent blood tests, I asked the doctor if there was some other option.
He looked apologetic. "We don't understand very much about hair growth," he said, speaking for the entire field of medicine. "You might want to try a form of Rogaine."
I stared at him. "Isn't that for...men?"
He nodded, looking straight at me, like this wasn't that huge of a deal.
"Oh." I nodded back. "I guess I could."
He scribbled a word on his little pad and ripped off the piece of paper. "Minoxidil," it read. He told me to go to my local pharmacy.
I went the same day. If I waited, I wasn't sure I'd be able to do it. The hair loss treatments were behind the counter, and I had to ask for the one the doctor had recommended. It had a picture of a man's head on it. It said, "For Men," in bold letters on the front of the box.
"Are you sure you want that one, honey?" the woman behind the counter asked skeptically. "It's for men. For men who are balding."
"Yes," I said, avoiding her gaze. I thought I could feel her staring at my hair. She probably felt sorry for me. And why wouldn't she?
I snatched the box and paid without looking up, my hands shaking. I went home and pored over the application instructions. And then, every day, I put my hair loss treatment on. I put it on in secret. I was living in New York City now, in a tiny studio apartment. My boyfriend came over in the evening a few nights a week, and I had to make sure he never found my generic Rogaine, my shame. I had to make sure no one ever found out about it. After a few months, I quit the treatment, because I was too embarrassed and too afraid someone would find out.
But a year or so later, when my hair still stubbornly refused to make a reappearance, I was back at it, determined that I would stick with it this time. I did. For nearly a year, I stuck with it. And when it didn't help, and I went to bed each night slightly dizzy, stinking of chemicals, I finally decided that I needed to do something different. Instead of trying so hard to get my old hair back, I needed to change the way I thought about my hair. I needed to change my hair itself.
It took me a while to go all the way—to buzz it. First I cut it short. But even that didn’t seem quite right after a while. And so one day, randomly, I ducked into a unisex salon and told the woman working there to buzz it.
She hesitated. "Are you sure?"
"Please. Just do it."
I stared at myself in the mirror after. All of my features were in place, but my head was reborn, dusted with peach fuzz. I looked dramatic and vulnerable and somehow—pretty. "You look good," said the woman who had done it, still holding the clippers. I said, "Yeah, I do!"
And then I went home and put on a sexy, feminine dress and heels. I went to meet a friend downtown. And as I waited there, standing tall, people kept coming up to me. "You look amazing," they said. "I love your hair."
No one had said that to me in years, and it felt fantastic. But the best part was that finally, finally, I loved my own hair. I loved not having to think about it. I loved making a statement by not having it. I loved being totally exposed, rather than trying to cover up.
I realized that day that there’s a chance my old hair will never grow back, and even if it doesn’t, I’ll be fine. I’ll look good.
Since then, my hair has grown back into a shaggy short do, but I have no doubt that I’ll buzz it again when I need the confidence boost—just to remind myself that sometimes flaunting the stuff that you’re most self-conscious about forces you to embrace it. It forces you to acknowledge who you already are. And this is me: a young woman who isn’t ever going to try to hide behind her hair again.
And the next time I go swimming, I might even be a mermaid with a buzz cut. Why not?