In college, my dear friend and roommate, Steffani, cut my hair. And then she sat down in the chair I had been in and I cut her hair. We were too cheap for a hair salon and besides, we loved the bob-at-the-chin, tucked-behind-the-ears, cutesy look. We weren’t really cutesy types of girls, but we wanted THAT haircut so we trusted one another with the scissors. We kept the bob all through senior year – laughing at how we looked alike, but not really. She was blond, I was brunette. Her hair was thick like mine though, and so our twin cuts did match in a strange sort of way. We weren’t really trying to look alike. We just happened to like the same haircut, which for some reason we thought humorous. Both of us bucked trends and didn’t really aspire to crowd-pleasing. It’s just one of the things I loved – and still love – about Steffani.
Now, we look nothing alike. Twenty-five years out of college, my hair has assumed a kind of soft-wave perm look – without the perm. I’m lazy with it, so I keep it long for no other reason than the ease with which I can throw it up in a ponytail or a messy bun-thing. It goes in ten crazy directions if I try any type of short hair. Forget the bob. Those days are long gone for me, and for Steffani. A photo of her on Facebook the other day elicited dozens of comments of her beauty and courage. Steffani’s hair is gone. Completely, and not by choice. Of course, you know where this is going. My college roommate, who is always frozen in time for me because we only see each other every few years, has breast cancer. It doesn’t seem possible or right. Stupid cancer. Three months of chemotherapy took her beautiful blond hair and the bob haircut that she was still able to rock – even 25 years after college. She could have hidden the baldness under a wig. They make superior wigs these days that don’t have that phony, too-perfect sheen like the ones so many women in my mother’s generation wore. And the headwraps for chemo patients are cute enough for anyone to wear. But Steffani chose to quietly communicate the reality of her life right now with complete transparency. And that’s where the courage comes in.
As women, stripping our faces down to their natural beauty with no makeup is frightening enough, but further isolating our faces by taking away the hair is horrifying. I’m mostly over the makeup thing, but please, please don’t take away my hair. It gives me security and a certain amount of compensation. In stressful work moments while I sit in front of the computer, I twirl the ends or nervously braid the back while I wait for the rainbow wheel to stop spinning. I spend far too much time checking the back of my hair after I put it up, and, confession: when the roots get gray my hairdresser covers them with some chemical solution so I can once again frame my face with something attractive. I know Steffani grieved the loss, but when I see her face without the hair I’m a little envious. Not of her baldness – but of her courage. I’m envious of the beauty that emerges from a woman who, in the face of tragedy, doesn’t retreat, but instead embraces it with a certain amount of defiance. She stared at cancer and didn’t blink. Although she might disagree, I think her beautiful bald head is enough evidence.
I’ve stared at Steffani’s picture quite a bit and wondered if I would do the same thing. Do I have it in me to really let go of all the nonsense that I only imagine keeps me secure and pulled together? Am I so afraid of the world seeing me without my out wrapping? My veneer? I’m seriously pondering this one. If who we are on the inside isn’t enough, then perhaps it’s time to pay more attention to what’s going on in the inside place and spend less time dressing it up.
Steffani’s blonde hair will soon grow back, but she has revealed the true beauty that lies beneath all the trimmings. And it is a more beautiful face than I could have ever imagined.
So to my courageous, beautiful, gentle, and tougher-than-nails friend, I say: Carry onward. Grow back your hair. And thank you for teaching us that it does NOT define you, or us. And keep staring that stupid cancer in the face. This too shall pass.