Hair, not the Musical


 I may have mentioned in a long-ago entry that one of my favorite writing prompts in my workshops with teachers and other adult groups asked people to write about the history of their hair. This is a topic that most women are immediately drawn to. Men less so, unless they have dealt with baldness, served in the military or have been caught up in the dynamic world of Black hair styling.

I don’t spend much time thinking about hair these days. l started balding when I was in my 20s, so it’s been who I am for more than sixty years. My granddaughter is fascinated by my baldness. Her standard greeting is a long, silent inspection, followed by a sigh and a resigned acknowledgement, “Still bald.” She knows I will receive it as she intends, with affection, free of any edge of malice.

However, the other day, I read a piece in The Atlantic by Miranda Featherstone about the devastating impact of losing her hair while being treated for breast cancer. We’ve known Miranda since she was a baby and have been awed by her development in recent years as an elegant and painfully honest chronicler of personal loss. In essays in The Yale Review, The New York Times and The Atlantic she’s told the world about events we’ve lived alongside her parents and siblings — the life and death of a brother who lived till the age of 9 without speech, sight, hearing or mobility; the loss of her mother, our dear friend Helen Featherstone; Miranda’s diagnosis of breast cancer as she approached 40.

As challenging as these topics might have been for Miranda, in some ways this latest piece about losing her hair may have been the most difficult to confront because it requires an acknowledgement of vanity that tends to be buried by “serious” women. After a lifetime of feeling good about the image that confronts her when she looks at herself in the mirror, she now sees an unrecognizable and unappealing creature whose very gender identity is in question. All of this seems ridiculously petty in comparison to the life-threatening illness she’s battling. Despite the reassurances  that her situation is temporary — her hair will grow back when the treatments end, perhaps in a different configuration than the original — she confesses her willingness to pay huge sums of money to get her hair back NOW. Her disappeared hair means more to her, she writes, than the two breasts she has sacrificed to her illness.

It’s not unusual now to see women with shaved heads who consider it a fashion statement unrelated to medical need. And crossing the gender line,  my favorite congressman, Jamie Raskin, recently went through his own round of cancer treatments. With little evidence of self-consciousness or self-loathing, he continued to make his regular appearances on tv talk shows with his head wrapped in rather outlandish and ill-fitting head scarves, an option that Miranda doesn’t mention in her essay, although I have no doubt she is resorting to head coverings of one form or another.

What appears to be as unsettling to her as the image she encounters in the mirror is the realization that she has not been honest with the students she serves as a school social worker. While trying to counteract the assaults of body shaming and other deviations from conventional concepts of beauty, she realizes that she’s been lying to them. Your appearance really does matter, especially to your own self-image, she concedes. There’s no getting around it.

Soon, Miranda’s hair will return. She will decide, if she hasn’t already, if she wants to have reconstructive surgery and she will resume her life, cancer-free, with her husband and children. We hope there will be no further need to unpack the crises in her life; she’s had more than her share already. I hope she’ll be able now to use her rare gifts to address happier, more uplifting aspects of what we hope will be a long and healthy life.

The funny thing about blogging – perhaps it’s true of all writing – is that you often wind up in a landscape totally different from the one you had set out to explore. If you can believe it, I thought I was going to be writing about houses. Addressing that topic right after what I’ve written feels almost blasphemous, so I’m going to save it for another week. This leaves the current entry a bit shorter than my usual postings. You’re free to use that saved time to read a page in The Covenant of Water (because that will take a little bit of forever) or an article from The Athletic in the NY Times sports page.

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Marv Hoffman

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