Sunday, June 7, 2009

It's Just Hair...Or is it?

I used to love Sundays for the extra newspaper stories, coupons, and classified ads, partnered with strong coffee, of course. I still enjoy these things. But I’ve discovered a new reason to love Sundays: That’s when the secrets are posted on PostSecret.

Created by Frank Warren, PostSecret is a group art project that involves people mailing their secrets anonymously on a homemade postcard. The only rules are that they must be true and never shared with anyone before. If you haven't checked out the website, do so. It's amazing to see what people say when they know they won't be discovered.

My biggest secret used to be that my hair was really a wig—an auburn, vacuum-seal, custom, natural hair piece made of fine European hair.

It looked real, and that was the problem. I was determined to make people think it was real. Or at least to make sure they never, ever wondered if it was real or not. Like most people with a big secret, I went to great lengths to cover it up.

Some people want to go where everybody knows their name. Me? I moved to another state where nobody knew my name, or my original hair color, or what my hair used to look like before it fell out. In this new place, people knew me as Christy with the auburn hair. They had never seen me with patchy hair, or with a comb-over hairstyle, or in wool berets. Every now and then, someone in this new place would make a joke about redheads, and it always took me a minute to remember that I was the redhead being referenced. Ah, they don’t know my secret, I’d smile to myself.

For a long time, I didn’t go to the gym because my fancy hair didn’t mix well with sweat. Imagine wearing a flimsy silicone hot pad over your head while you’re on the elliptical machine. That’s what made up the suction cap of my fancy hair piece: bendable silicone. Try it sometime. It’s not fun. Finally, Mom figured out how to sew Velcro strips of synthetic hair into breathable baseball caps: a three-inch strip of short bangs in the front, a longer strip of shoulder-length hair in the back and sides. We were careful to match the color of the synthetic hair strips to the color of my fancy hair piece. The length too. That way people wouldn’t wonder why my hair looked different in the gym than, say, the grocery store. Or in the office. Suddenly, I was able to work out again. I started running. I toned up. And if anyone noticed the difference, they didn’t say anything.

It took even longer for me to get the courage to swim. My suction hair piece was supposed to stay on in the water, but I never trusted it. The suction required a completely bald head, and I still had hair patches back then. I liked my patches – a couple at the bangs area, a couple at my ears – because they made my fake hat hair look more natural. Besides, real people swam laps in a swim cap. But I couldn’t just drive to the pool in a swim cap. I’d look ridiculous. Which meant I’d have to put the swim cap on in the women’s locker room. Finally I figured out a plan: I’d make the switch behind the shower curtain. It wasn’t easy. I was the only person taking a big duffel bag into the shower stall. But where else would I put the fancy hair piece without anyone else seeing it? I would walk into the stall wearing the fancy hair, and walk out in a blue swim cap, the fancy hair carefully tucked away in the duffel bag. After the swim, I reversed the process, removing the swim cap, then replacing the hair piece onto my nearly bald head, always behind the curtain. I would even dab a little water on my wig and wrap my head in a towel before departing the shower stall. One time a friend asked, "How does your hair always dry so quickly?" I smiled. She didn’t know.

Keeping my big secret took a lot out of me. Not just energy, or time, but opportunity, too. To trust. To set an example. To educate. To increase awareness.

It’s like the movie, Milk. Great movie. What did Harvey Milk say? Something like, if they know one of us, they will vote for us. I can't recall it verbatim. But the idea was that people didn't even realize that they knew gay people, because so many gay people were afraid to come out.

Okay, so it's not exactly the same. But so many alopecians hide their baldness. They don't share their secret.

I am finally ready to unleash my secret hair confessions, both from my days with and without hair:
  • I cried when I got my first perm because I didn’t like the way my hair turned out. It was too curly. (Wasn't that the idea?)

  • I lied when I said the sun naturally turned my orange, yellow, and then a platinum color only seen on strippers. It wasn’t the sun; it was Sun-In. I have no idea why.

  • I spent way too much time wishing my hair was something it wasn’t: curlier, blonder, fuller, thicker, shinier.

  • I cried myself to sleep every night for months when my hair first started falling out.

  • I felt guilty for crying over my hair. It wasn’t like I had lost a limb or anything.

  • I felt guilty for wanting a cure for alopecia. It wasn’t fatal.

Is it just hair? We like to think so. But until we can truly open up about the topic, until we can confess how much time and money we spend on our hair, how strongly we react when our hair doesn't turn out the way we want, how negatively a bad hair day can affect our self-esteem, how important the right hair color, length, and style is to our identity and our sexuality...until we can admit all that and more, how are we supposed to have a fair discussion about baldness in women? How will we accept it, perhaps even embrace it?

What do you think?

© 2009 Christy Bailey


mojee said...

ilove you panuelo girl. i love your honesty and bravery.

Anonymous said...

Very thought provoking (as usual). You're right that hair for women defines a lot in our society (though not in all societies). In fact, your comments remind me of the issues African American's have faced with hair. Many of us have "ethnic" hair--curly, kinky, very textured. Others have "good hair" (looks "white").

A whole industry grew from the desire we had for "good hair". I've heard that Tina Turner started wearing wigs when a perm (straightening) went wrong and it took off her hair.

If you saw the movie Malcolm X, you may recall the scenes when he was getting his hair "conked". The homemade approach to doing this involved the use of lye. All this just for "good hair".

From this prism, I have to agree that we pack a lot of societal baggage onto hair. That said, I don't believe that the path to change is as long as it may seem. I say this because I think different people put a different value on the "...right hair color, length and style..." Perhaps the goal is to build a larger community of the people who don't put so much (or any) value on these things, so that it's less of a societal secret.

Fewer woman hiding their baldness would help. The question is what would prompt these women to no longer hide their baldness? What would cause them to put less value in the societal image of hair? What would prompt more women to do what you're doing and speak out?

Sorry if this is rambling, but it's late and I'm pretty tired.