Through most of my life, the physical feature in which I took the most pride was my hair. OK. Maybe that alternated with my eyes, which are so dark a brown they’re almost black. Like pools in a rock quarry. But I had no control over my eyes. My hair, on the other hand, I could cut short, grow long, style up or leave down. All of which I did over time. And did again.
Colgate-Palmolive, where I worked for 17 years, had a Christmas doll pageant. The company purchased doll bodies which the employees dressed for children in poor communities. Handmade outfits competed for prizes in various categories and winners were photographed. It gave me a visual history of my changing styles, from updos and hair so long I could sit on it, to short, professional cuts that look almost androgynous.
Shortly after I left Colgate, I was diagnosed with stage two breast cancer. Chemotherapy left me temporarily bald. Surprisingly, this did not distress me. Perhaps that was because I had the (probably mistaken) notion that I looked cute bald. Or exotic or artsy or just interesting. This was around the time the duck-fuzzed Sinead O’Connor was in her heyday.
In my book, Cancer: A Coping Guide, I recount the story of my mother’s reaction to seeing me bald.
Once, when I visited my mother and had my head covered with a scarf, I could tell that she was curious to see what my bald head looked like underneath. I told her I’d show her, if she promised not to cry when she saw it. She said she wouldn’t. As soon as I took off the scarf, her mouth started to crinkle up. “Here come the waterworks,” I thought. But instead, she burst into a fit of uncontrollable laughter.
When my hair grew back in, I kept it long for awhile. My mother nagged me to cut it short. She may have laughed at my bald head, but she never liked the way I looked with long tresses. I reminded her that I was forced to go without hair for over a year. I just wanted to be able to run my fingers through it and really brush it for a change.
Eventually, I tired of long styles again and had it cut. My mother was right, of course. I do look better with it short. It’s been at least a dozen years since I’ve had locks down to my shoulders or longer. Let’s face it: older women look better with shorter dos. Most of them they dye their hair lighter, hoping the color will blend with their increasingly visible scalp.
One reason my hair was special was that I had extremely thick tresses. I followed the daily toilette prescribed by my Madison Avenue stylist, George Michael. (He serviced one style and one style only: long and straight.) His directive: lean forward, head down, and brush from the nape to the ends 100 times every day, using a natural bristle brush. I kept doing this even with short dos until around the time I retired. Then I got lazy.
Whether a consequence of my laziness, or an inevitable aspect of aging, I can’t say. But my hair has become finer and less populous. I worry that I’m going bald. The strays left in the shower drain when I wash my locks are forming ever-larger clumps. There is no pouf left in my crown. Every morning, the mirror reveals a demoralizing reflection of “bed hair” or “pillow head” or whatever you choose to call that look that says: “I didn’t bother to brush it or comb it. What’s the point? It has a mind of its own.”
In the winter, there’s also static electricity. Thin wisps rise up in drafts of heated air, leaving me looking like a psychotic Alfalfa from Our Gang. If I dampen them to kill the static, my hair flattens and I look even more like I’m balding. All year long, I find strands on my clothes. Occasionally, it’s a really long one that has somehow remained embedded in the loops of an old sweater, reminding me of what my crown jewel used to look like. Mostly, they just remind me that they’re falling out.
I cannot ignore it any longer. I am going bald. And at a rapidly increasing pace. Perhaps if I return to that daily ritual of brushing 100 times, I can slow the process. I wonder what my mother would think about this. She’d probably tell me to dye my hair light and get a perm. (She thought that curls hid her bald spot.) Somewhere up there, George Michael is having a coronary. I can almost hear him shouting: “97, 98, 99, 100!”