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On being bald and being authentic

I never thought of myself as a wig person. And by that I mean, in the very short time in which I have had to consider whether or not I would want to wear a wig I had felt decidedly against the idea. I don’t have a problem with wigs it just seemed like a lot of work and a lot of money to get a good one and I felt like I could just wear my head wraps and be happy.

But then I shaved my head and I started to wonder about my wig decision. I wasn’t certain that I loved my new look. Without the head wraps the word that most often came to mind when I saw my newly naked head was: alien. Not only did my bald head remind me of a paler rendition of a little green man but I felt alien to myself. I didn’t recognize the person I saw staring back at me. With my head wraps I felt a little better but I still felt bald. I mean my head wraps physically cover my head but they do not cover up the fact that I am bald underneath.

Right after I shaved my head I met a few fellow cancer patients with really lovely wigs. Even knowing they were cancer patients I couldn’t always tell that the hair on their heads wasn’t theirs. They talked about what a pleasure it was to pick them out and get them fitted (apparently in DC you MUST see Hans for all of your wig needs) and how warm they kept their heads. I began to really question my decision and not just because Hans sounded awesome and my head was always cold. I thought about how these women went out in the world looking, and potentially subsequently feeling, “normal.” Whereas I had become the subject of many a stranger’s stare they blended in with the healthy, cancer-free crowd. Would I feel better about myself if I could pretend that I wasn’t bald…if I could fake it instead of just covering it? Would I have to explain myself less? Would I feel beautiful again? I also wondered if I was selfish for not getting a wig. Was I putting other people through something by moving around the world with a visible sign of illness and at such a young age? For all I knew my presence could leave someone feeling anything from perplexed to questioning their own mortality. (Andrew said that if I was having the latter effect on people that perhaps it could be considered a gift, that maybe I was making people a little more grateful for what they have.)

I was conflicted. On the one hand it seemed like a wig held the possibility of feeling “normal” for a change. On the other hand my life was nowhere in the vicinity of normal anymore, so why even pretend? I told my therapist (I highly recommend therapists for anyone facing life-threatening illness, life-altering traumas and/or life) about my consternation. She had some very wise words for me: “The most important thing is that you feel authentic.” And I realized where my consternation had come from. For the women I had met having a wig made them feel more like themselves, more authentic. For me, it would have had the opposite effect. I would have felt like I was lying, like I was hiding this really big and important part of my life. This is my reality and I want to/need to embrace it in order to cope. For me part of embracing it is covering my cold bald head, yes, but not trying to hide it. This is who I am in this moment. And I want to be honest about that. I want to be honest with you. I want you to know me and I want you to know the most authentic version of myself I have the energy to muster.

For right now, that authentic version includes being bald. Since I put the final kibosh on the wig situation I have started to like my bald head more and more. I finally mustered up the courage to get in front of the camera with it a few days ago. I had committed to doing this self-portrait series but I was dreading the bald pictures. I was afraid they would make me feel uncomfortable, that all I would see is the alien. To my eternal surprise, however, I thought I looked beautiful. It helps that my head has a bowling ball-esque curvature but I really felt sincerely beautiful.  Without all that hair I felt like I could literally and figuratively see myself better. And I liked what I saw. Thank goodness for that!

Wondering about wigs has been just one example of my quest for/struggle with authenticity since this cancer adventure began. In some ways I feel like one of the greatest gifts cancer has given me is the permission to be as honest and authentic as I want. I mean, I have cancer! Nobody is going to tell me I am wrong for feeling what I’m feeling or doing what I’m doing. Some of the judgement that might normally make me feel self-conscious about how much I put out there just isn’t there anymore. I get a pass to just open up and lay it all out on the table. Which is what I am doing here in my little corner of the Internet. So thank you for letting me do this, for listening and reading, for all of your kind words and for all the love you’ve given me and my bald head in the last few days. Despite the indescribably shitty circumstances in which it came to me, I will forever be grateful for this opportunity.