I’ve been bald for several weeks now, and I still love it. I’ve put a big glob of shampoo on my hairless head in the shower only twice so far.
Reactions to my new look have been mostly positive. People tell me I can pull the bald thing off. I have big facial features, and it balances out the baldness somehow. They’re strong enough to stand on their own, without a hair frame. Babies seem to like me, and I think it’s for this reason. If someone increased my facial proportions just ever so slightly, I’d look like a cartoon. I’ve never had my caricature done. I’m convinced it would look just like a regular drawing.
I recently thought back to a conversation I had in high school with a friend about my nose. I hated my nose. It’s not exactly that it’s so big, it’s just kind of weird. It’s not like other noses. I mean, I wanted to be weird when I was 15, but weird in a cool way so that counterculture peers would accept me and people who might make fun of me would leave me alone. I don’t think any 15-year-old girl wants to be known for her unique nose.
Anyway, my friend’s wise words that day put me at peace with my nose. She said that my nose fit in with all my other facial features and that if I had a smaller nose, I’d look strange. I realized she was right. I wish I could say from that day forward, I shed all my insecurities and had some epiphany about what makes you unique can make you beautiful, but that didn’t really happen then. No longer hating my nose was an important step forward, though, in a still-ongoing journey of self-acceptance.
Now that I’m bald, this is probably not even the “weirdest” I’ve ever looked. Maybe it’s the most subversive look I’ve had, but not on purpose.
In my mid-teens to early 20s, I was goth. When I lived in Columbus and walked by this sports bar with a giant patio on The Ohio State University campus, I would habitually cringe and wait for insults to fly my way from drunk guys, but in later years, I remembered I wasn’t goth anymore so I wasn’t such an easy target. (Still, really drunk guys will yell for lots of reasons, so groups of them in situations where they can yell at me, safe behind some kind of patio fence, still make me nervous.)
In my 20s, I wore all sorts of crazy outfits. I wasn’t exactly Lady Gaga, but I love fun clothes. Even recently, when I worked in an office (often by myself), I would still sometimes have themes to my weeks: polka dots, black-and-white, cats, gingham.
Now that crisp fall weather has arrived, however, my head has been getting cold. I have my Kangol hat, a purple floppy hat from a friend, a purple cap knitted by another friend and my Heisenberg fedora, of course. And I have plenty of hoodies.
Unless I’m going to an office or a business thing, I don’t usually wear my wig. It’s partially out of the same laziness I’ve always shown toward my hair situation. My wig doesn’t look very realistic either, particularly because I keep fiddling with it—shifting it, touching the back to make sure it’s not puffing out, snapping at its band.
In those situations, I wear the wig for other people. I don’t want to be too distracting by being “the bald lady.” Or the “bald cancer lady” at the office. When I wear my wig, I feel a little bit less like myself, though.
In fact, I went to dinner in my neighborhood the other night after a long day at work and just left my wig on. I didn’t notice until we were almost done eating that there was a bald woman at the table of three next to us, as if we were seated in an invisible bald woman/wig area. I felt like kind of a phony wearing my wig then—I wanted to rip it off and say, “Hey, nice ‘do!”
I think we might be leading parallel, hairless lives, because I think I saw the same person at a concert on Friday. She can pull off being bald and wearing glasses, though. I’m not a huge fan of wearing my glasses, but I mind much less now. Still, I think I look a little like the Beacon’s Closet baby mascot. Oddly, I don’t mind wearing my glasses with my wig. They work together.
As long as I’m talking about wigs and glasses, an aside: Does anyone remember a TV commercial for Focus contact lenses that showed a man and a man in drag out to dinner? (It aired in 1996, so it’s OK if you don’t.) Suddenly the man in drag says, “I have to tell you something!” and he wipes off his lipstick, pulls off his wig and confesses, “I have astigmatism.” Then his date tells him about soft lenses for astigmatism. Not only did I find out I could have disposable lenses, but I loved it for some reason so much that I’ve remembered it for 17 years. So I think about this commercial when I think about pulling off my wig in a public place.
I don’t get many stares. I did get an oddly dirty look on the train that day that left me wondering if I looked like a skinhead. I don’t think so. Dirty looks on the train can be about anything.
I caught someone’s jaw drop once, but she appeared to be from out of town, because she was seated outside having dinner with a bunch of people wearing nametag stickers. She quickly composed herself, but she just didn’t have that looking-without-looking thing that New Yorkers have down, the dead-eyed subway stare—the skill of looking very intently at nothing at all.
Perhaps she wasn’t from out of town, and, like me, she wears all her emotions on her face. Maybe the look wasn’t about me. But for a moment, our eyes met, both of us confused for a second. My look said,”Huh? Is it because you didn’t expect a bald lady when you looked up from your falafel? Or is it because I look like someone who would steal your falafel from your plate as I walked by?” I was casting an envious glance at her meal, and perhaps it was a protective feeling that made her look up at that moment. Maybe she was opening her mouth to say, “Hey, lady! Get your own food!” But she saw that I was bald and either thought I was too bad to mess with or knew that I was going through chemo and decided to be nice.
If I was worried I’d be the weirdo on the train, I quickly remembered that you have to do a lot to draw attention to yourself. On my way to a housewarming party, a man painted silver got on a few stops later. (What do people painted in silver do? Pretend to be statues? Robots?) But no one looked at him either, except for me.
I think my head sparked a discussion between two teenagers, but it wasn’t really about me. They were trying to come up with the name of the bald singer and one of them finally remembered it was Sinead O’Connor.
On a train ride home, someone stole my thunder by throwing up. I didn’t even notice, until someone warned me to watch out for my shoes, as the motion of the train caused some vomit to roll toward our area. Then, before switching train cars, the stranger and I reminisced about other times we’d seen people vomit on the train. (This was the third time for her in two years and the fourth time for me in five years, though once I was only visiting and it was New Year’s Eve so I’m not sure that incident counts. I have never thrown up on the train, but I’ve fallen asleep on a stranger, who was not at all happy about it. That’s why this is not the City of Brotherly Love, but the City That Never Sleeps, especially not on the shoulder of a public transit stranger.)
When I shaved my head, I had kind of hoped maybe I would get seats on the train. Not necessarily people standing up to offer, but at least I’d get dibs as long as no pregnant women were around. A few years ago at Upright Citizen’s Brigade, I saw comedian Pam Murphy’s one-woman show, “The C Word,” and she has a really funny, true bit where she plays two parts: the cancer patient on the train who hopes for the offer of a seat, and a seated passenger, wondering if she should give up her space.
I realize I fall into a gray area, along with pregnant women who aren’t fully showing yet. I mean, what if she’s not pregnant? In these cases, I sometimes just get up and pretend like my stop is coming up to ease my conscience. I’m also terrible at noticing pregnant women and have stared at someone’s belly for a full minute before I realize I should stand up. I saw one non-showing woman reading a pregnancy book on the train to let people know that yes, she would like to sit.
But I know all bald women don’t necessarily have cancer. And most of the time I’m fine, and I don’t even need to sit. I just like to sit.
I really just need a seat once every two weeks, right after chemo, when I’m tired and in a Benadryl haze. That day was today. I happened to get a seat on the first bus, but today everyone was in a mood. The bus stopped to pick people up and it wasn’t an official stop, so the bus driver wouldn’t let someone off. At least four people who weren’t affected by this were angry. It was just one of those days when everyone’s in a contagious bad mood and no one could break it.
I certainly couldn’t. I was just trying to stay awake and yearning to get home. I should say that today of all days, I guess I looked more like a cancer patient than ever, because I was also wearing a cancer center sweatshirt and my hand was bandaged where they had put the IV in. I was short a hospital gown and a sign, but what can you do?
The next bus was crowded. There was a group of naysayers that you sometimes find at the front of buses and by train doors who loudly assert that there’s no room. Sometimes they’re right, but often, they’re not. I tried to go past them, but got caught in a crush, and someone was yelling at my boyfriend because he was too close to her. “Let’s just leave!” I said, defeated and medicated. We finally got to the space that was behind the group, the space that they told us wasn’t there.
I was still tired and a little cranky that I had to hold on the strap with my numb, bandaged chemo hand, but my other arm hurts from blood clots (that’s another blog). Mostly I was sad—I didn’t want a seat. I just wanted people to be nicer to me, even if it’s because I’m sick.
And people are often nicer, or nice in general. It’s not always the way you think it will be. Good things happen, even on public transit. A stranger will warn you of a stream of bodily fluids heading toward your velvet flats. A comedian I recently saw said a bus driver stopped the bus and wouldn’t move again until someone gave up a seat for a really old woman. (The story was way funnier than that; I’m paraphrasing.)
Some people go beyond nice: someone I ran into this week had gone to the beach the day before and had risked his life to save a stranger who walked into the ocean and tried to commit suicide. He said that hardly anyone was there on a weekday, and he was initially annoyed that a guy had set up his beach towel pretty close to his own, but it turned out to be fortuitous, because this man also helped to save the woman. So things that might seem unfortunate sometimes turn out to be lucky. (Sometimes they’re just irritating. I don’t think the person I fell asleep on gained any good fortune from it.)
I know I’m lucky to have such good support and so many kind words from everyone. I realize it’s selfish in a way to hope to temporarily work my way into the train hierarchy of people who get seats first.
I was just looking for perks, something few and far between when it comes to cancer. Being bald, however, has quite a few benefits. Fast showers. A blank canvas on which to put temporary Cleveland Browns tattoos for football season. My impending Walter White Halloween costume. For now, I can content myself with these perks.