Hairy: A Perspective from a Cancer Survivor on Hair, Identity, and Expression

Rae Ferner-Rose discusses the complex and intricate relationship between hair and feminine identity, and how the sudden and unwanted loss of it can completely change our perceptions of who we are.

The first time I cried as a cancer patient was sitting in my consultant’s office with my parents. My diagnosis as an 18-year-old woman in the midst of early adulthood was so overwhelming that I was in an unbreakable state of shock. When I received the phone call which put my life on halt, I did not shed a tear, I didn’t break down like in films, I calmly replied to everything my very kind doctor said, told her I didn’t have any questions at that time and hung up. A week went by and I was sitting in a cold chair in my doctor’s office trying my best to listen to everything that I was being told. My consultant calmly took me through the stages of my treatment, then he uttered the words that were possibly the most probable words he could have said at that moment – “at about a month you will begin to lose your hair.” The first tear I shed was at hearing that. I shocked myself. Cancer patients lose hair, everyone knows that. I knew that. I had just been told about the pain, nausea, vomiting, fatigue, that I would likely experience. Symptoms that would leave me broken physically, but none of it mattered, I was going to be bald. I was 18, and I wasn’t going to have any hair at all. I was terrified.

Hair loss during cancer treatment is probably one of the most superficial effects of chemotherapy, however for me it was probably the hardest part emotionally. Watching hair fall out everywhere – and I mean everywhere – was a torment I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy. My shower post hair wash whilst I was in the early days of chemo often appeared like the crime scene of a manic barber. It was a constant reminder of my physical decay, a depressing recall of everything else I was losing at that time; my friends, my freedom, any sense of desirability that I saw in myself. Looking at myself in the mirror was like looking at an alien egg. I have never been a particularly superficial person, I don’t take much care over my appearance, don’t really wear much makeup or invest in any kind of excess skin or hair care products. And yet the overwhelming physical disgust I felt for my own body during treatment shocks me to this day.

Now my hair loss is behind me, I am starting to think more about why losing my hair felt so catastrophic in the context of my severe health crisis. 

The natural place to start is childhood. From a young age hair is linked to beauty and desirability. It is a little girl’s dream to be like Rapunzel with her beautiful long hair. Long hair is so heavily associated with femininity and beauty whereas short hair on a woman is seen as masculine, even rebellious, or dangerous. The media we consume as children is heavily saturated with images of girls and women with beautiful long hair, thick, shiny locks was the ideal, a figment of an ideal female identity. The epitome of beauty and desirability. Hair is so entangled in gender identity. This might be one reason so many women feel pressure to wear a wig during treatment despite many saying they are itchy and uncomfortable. Baldness is such a vulnerable state, you are open to so many prying eyes. I opted for a cotton scarf myself, but I can completely understand why some women would choose the comparative normality of a wig.

When I invited my friends round to buzz my hair off we laughed a lot, I tried to make an event of it, something positive even. I put a sped-up video of the process on my Instagram to a range of responses. The overwhelming reaction was that I was brave. I did not feel brave. I felt scared. But what choice did I have? My hair was coming out no matter how much I wished I could keep it. I made the choice to cut it off pronto because the idea of losing great big chunks of hair was horrifying. I couldn’t help feeling, even with the support of friends and family, like every feminine and sexy thing about me had been stripped from me that day. The little girl in me mourned my chance of ever becoming that princess in the tower, which perplexed my adult self who finds the idea of a man climbing my hair fairly undesirable. I hadn’t realised just how much my ideas about womanhood, which have been developing since childhood, were hinged on having hair.

Artwork by Emily Conn

Into adolescence, hair takes on a whole new meaning. Suddenly hair becomes a tool of expression, even identity. This newfound power is even policed in many schools with hair colour and cut being regulated by head teachers trembling with terror at the idea of girls with hot pink hair and nose piercings flooding the corridors of their schools. The way we style our hair during those key formative teenage years signals something about our identities, whether we want it to or not. Many of my friends used their hair as a form of rebellion against teachers and parents, a strip of green at that time took on the gravity of a tattoo despite its impermanence. I flitted between lengths and cuts, at one point donning a pretty unfortunate fringe (a mistake that will not be repeated). Hair undoubtedly was an important canvas for personality whilst I was navigating my teenage years.

This sense of ownership and rebellion around body hair follows us into our adult lives too. To me, hair in my adult life means choice. Body hair is a subject that has become growingly political and hotly debated, but it is also a very emotional and private aspect of the adult body. For me choosing whether to shave was always about my relationship with myself and my own body image, never about what other people thought. One of the questions everyone thinks but no one asks when you start losing hair is: Do you lose it all? And the answer is yes. When I lost my hair I felt like another defining characteristic of my adult body was gone too. Freedom and choice are both so key to a sense of autonomy as a young woman, the choices we make, although often misguided, define us as we learn and grow. Hair doesn’t always seem like a priority when we make decisions about our bodies, but once it’s gone, you realise just how integral it is to one’s sense of self.

Now I look in the mirror and I see a woman with short curly hair, she doesn’t really look like me, but I see myself in her eyes and her slightly wonky bottom teeth when she smiles. I hope she can come to love her alien curls, maybe if she does, I will too.

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