Meowser with bald spot exposed
Meowser with hairpiece
Flashback, Pomona, California, 1989: My officemate R. and I went out for some drinks, and it got late and she invited me to come stay overnight on her couch rather than drive back to Glendale. R. is an African-American woman with a processed hairdo. At least that’s what I always thought it was, anyway. But right before putting on her jammies, R. nonchalantly slipped the wig off her head, revealing a very short Afro, and placed the wig on a fabric-covered foam head. She didn’t say a word about it, and neither did I.
Flashback, Bakersfield, California, 1999: Two years after PCOS-related male-pattern baldness became what I would soon come to know as a lifelong reality for me in my mid-thirties, I was in the market for some type of hair-resembling cover-up for my poor threadbare scalp, having muddled through for the past two years solely on hats, scarves, and the fervent hope that all my neighbors and potential employers were nearsighted. I happened into a tiny wig shop in a strip mall, still crawling with shame that I was one of those freaks who was going bald like a man, and while I was in there I saw a group of young African-American women trying on hairpieces and wigs and giggling. And watching them, and remembering R., all I could think then was, “God, we white women suck when it comes to this stuff. We think that if it doesn’t grow out of our head, it doesn’t count.’ Those women trying on those wigs, they don’t HAVE bad hair days, they feel free to borrow someone else’s hair if they want to! Why can’t we white chicks be smart like them?”
Of course, at that time I knew jackall that could fit in a worm’s mouth about what African-American women, especially those with “professional” aspirations R. never had, were expected to go through on a constant basis in order to have something “socially acceptable” on their heads — the scalp-lacerating hot combs, the noxious chemicals breathed and absorbed through the skin, the Kryptonite-esque avoidance of water anywhere near the face, the cornrows migraine-tight, tight, tight enough to hold a weave. (And if you’re still blissfully unaware of that reality yourself, this post, from an author named Ta Ankh on the Black Hair Yahoo Group via Pam Spaulding, spells it all out in grisly detail. In fact, just as an aside, if you can read just this piece alone and still look me in the eye and tell me “racism is dead,” I want to buy lots of real estate on Planet You, because Planet Me is still pretty frickin’ xenophobic.)
But even if my original line of thinking was somewhat shit-lubed, the basic premise of it — that I needn’t consider myself a failure as a woman if my hair never grew back again — is an idea that I need to hang on to even when it keeps wriggling through my fingers like a greased eel, which it does, again and again and again. Because my hair never did grow back again, and with it gone for more than a decade, it’s unlikely to. Lately I keep washing my hair with Nizoral A-D, which costs five times as much as my usual el-cheapo shampoo — why spend money on hair care products when there’s no goddamn hair to care for? — because it’s supposed to engender hair growth without the side effects of Rogaine, (which can include, among other things, more hair growth on the face, which I need like I need a giant runny nose growing out of my back). I keep checking my scalp every day for signs that I’m not wasting my money like my OB/GYN (who has PCOS herself) warned me I’d be doing if I laid out a thin paper dime for anything that came in a bottle that was supposed to restore hair growth. “Is that a new hair? I mean, it’s all gray and everything, but that totally wasn’t there before! ONE NEW GRAY HAIR, PEOPLE, ONE NEW GRAY HAIR!” When was the last time you heard a woman say that and actually look happy about it?
Flashback, Los Angeles, California, 1992: My friend K., who is a brilliant singer-songwriter-electric guitarist with cascading long, naturally blonde hair and an ongoing love-hate relationship with Sinead O’Connor in her buzzed-scalp phase, announces to me over dinner that during her coffeehouse gig that night, she plans to get her entire head shaved bald. Foolishly, I assume that this is all talk. Shave your head DURING a gig? Even K. isn’t crazy enough for that. But sure enough, that night K. plays her first song and then has her friend L. come up on stage with an electric razor and buzz off every last lock. Blonde hair all over the place. The crowd eats it up; the coffeehouse’s owner — L.’s mother — looks like she might faint from the cleanup job awaiting her after the show. K. rubs her head ecstatically. “I’m bald!” she screeches. “Look at me! I’m fuckin’ BALD!”
Here’s the thing. I know I don’t have to put myself through this. I know. I have a job where I do not have to have any public interaction whatsoever. I live in a town where it would be perfectly acceptable to flout gender expectations. If I wanted to shave my entire head completely bald like K. — or like Lindsay did once, to stunningly lovely effect — the only person who might complain would be C., who’d have to deal with my razor stubble when I nuzzled him. Razor stubble. Already a problem with that on my upper lip, chin, neck — yes, neck! — and anywhere else on my body that ever gets scraped with a razor (legs only when they’re going to be publicly visible or I want to wear tights). Do not want. Besides, my head gets cold nine months out of the year as it is.
And it’s not like I ever had good hair even when there was a lot more of it. My earliest memories involve my mom ripping a brush through my frizzy Jewish head, back in the days when there were no hair conditioners for children, when I was maybe 3 or 4, and telling me (although her own hair was smooth as a bunny’s) that it couldn’t possibly hurt that much. My hair stuck up straight in the air like Ed Grimley’s when it was cut short and grew out to the sides like a Christmas tree when it was long, despite glopping on tons of hot oil treatments and deep conditioners and embracing blowdryers and avoiding blowdryers or whatever some dumbass girl magazine told me I was “supposed” to be doing to make the stuff behave. It was pretty much a hairdresser’s nightmare, not to mention mine, and it commenced a very early love affair with hats and scarves. When I heard Whoopi Goldberg do her old standup bit (referenced in the Ta Ankh piece above) about the little black girl who wrapped her hair in a white towel and pretended it was long, luxurious, natural blonde hair, I too howled in recognition. (I actually got to see Whoopi perform this bit — which she also wrote — live when she was a rising star circa 1984, and it killed.)
I admire women and other femme-identified folks who feel free to screw with ideas of how much hair a woman is “supposed” to have and where. I really do. If they feel free to just let the mustache grow, let the bald spot be, and not apologize for it in any way, they are doing heavy lifting in this world in a way I cannot bring myself to do, not yet. Maybe it’s partly because I’m Aspie and thus feel like I’m potentially nerve-wracking enough to strangers as it is. Maybe it’s because I’m too invested in nice-Jewish-girlhood and don’t want to freak out my mom. But I’m certainly not alone, and I may even be handling it better than a lot of other women in my shoes. I bumped into this the other day during one of my periodic fits of hair-loss-related netsurfing:
A survey by Hairline International, the baldness support group, found that 78% of its female members no longer felt like women, 40% said their marriage had suffered and 63% had considered suicide.
Yes, suicide. Over hair. Granted, that’s in Great Britain and not in America, but I can’t imagine that American women who have the same problem are handling it with much more sangfroid than their British counterparts; Candace Hoffman of Herloss.org says an email questionnaire she distributed to over 100 women dealing with hair loss and baldness revealed that some of those women indeed “teetered on the brink of suicide” because of their condition. Once again, that bears repeating. Suicide. Over hair.
I am emphasizing that not to make light of how these women feel; I am doing so because this really is serious shit, this making women feel like they are total failures and would be better off dead for not fitting a mold for what they are supposed to look like. It really has to stop. I just wish I knew what the hell to do about it, when I don’t feel so hot about the state of my own scalp.
So I ask myself: If I’m willing to reject social programming regarding what the volume of my pantaloons should be, why should it be so much harder to reject social programming about what the volume of hair on top of my head should be?
Flashback, 2006: I am at a fat women’s swim surrounded by dozens of lovely fat chicks in bathing suits. I should be in my element, feeling totally relaxed and safe that I will not be pointed or laughed at for being a giant fatass in the pool. Instead, I find myself noting that not one woman besides me is wearing a bathing cap and that each and every one of them has a lush, full head of hair. “I’m the only bald FREAK in this entire place!” I say to myself, and find myself feeling very cold in the water on this hot afternoon indeed.
I don’t know. Maybe if there were as many bald chicks as there were fat chicks, it wouldn’t be so hard.
Here is one commitment I will make. When I hit the Chunky Dunk this summer, I will not have a meltdown over the hairs Nizoral did not restore. I will, instead, procure the most colorful, outlandish, ridiculous petaled swim cap I can find and wear it with pride in order to protect my head from sunburn and maybe strike up some interesting conversation while I’m at it. I’m thinking about this one. You will not be laughing at my fat ass, you will be laughing at — no, excuse me, with — my fabulously awful swim cap. At least that’s the story I’m stuck to for the nonce.
Meanwhile, in my above-the-water life, I have decided that itchy, hot full wigs can go fuck each other and have little itchy hairy babies without another dime from me. I have arrived at a compromise for when a hat or scarf won’t do, or I’m tired of them, and it’s this hairpiece from Jon Renau, matched to my natural color, with my bottom frizz straighened out with straightening cream. Maybe someday I’ll rip it off in public like Dustin Hoffman in Tootsie and freak everyone out.