This year has made me feel, at times, that I look like a freak. What should I do for my head?’

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It can be traumatic for women to lose their hair, writes advice columnist Eleanor Gordon-Smith, but your hair doesn’t need to be a symbol of fragility

I had breast cancer in 2002. It came back a second time this year. I had a double mastectomy and chemo. I have had reconstructive surgery but expect more. It’s been a rough year. Mostly I am proud of getting through all this. But I am concerned about my daughter’s wedding, which is in six weeks.

I have a wig for Zoom calls, but it doesn’t look great and it is not me. I bought it online; because of Covid I could not go to a wig shop. I have very little hair, a quarter inch, but you can still see my scalp. I don’t know what to do for my head. Do I wear a wig that is hot and not me? Do I go with my own hair and look like a man with a crew cut, but wear it as a symbol of pride for a tough year? Do I wear a scarf that will hide my head but not the fact that I have no hair?

I am usually not vain but this year has made me feel, at times, that I look like a freak. Any thoughts?

Eleanor says: It’s astonishing how traumatic it is for women to lose their hair. At least men experiencing hair loss see plenty of other men who are bald as parking meters reading the news or chairing companies. It’s very rare to see balding women, let alone balding women in power. Most female TV anchors have solid heads of hair and still wear a horsetail worth of extensions. Hair has managed to become a visual symbol of the things women are contractually required to be: youthful, attractive, vital.

This is of course a total crock, but knowing that doesn’t stop us feeling ugly in its wake.

It makes me very sad to hear you feel “like a freak” but it makes me even sadder to hear you say you’re “usually not vain”. It’s not vain to want to feel beautiful at your daughter’s wedding, especially after an ordeal like this.

We are conditioned to chastise ourselves for vanity – the only thing worse than a woman who isn’t living up to the standards of beauty is a woman too preoccupied with meeting them. But this is, if possible, even more of a crock. It is not a vice to want to look and feel beautiful and confident and free after all that you’ve been through. It’s a way of treasuring yourself and this occasion.

The trouble is, we confuse “beautiful and confident and free” with a particular list of physical traits, and appearances that betray sickness and ageing often don’t make the list. People are fantastically uncomfortable with visible reminders of illness and mortality, because they don’t like that only coincidence stands between them and a similar fate. We recoil from the signs of life’s fragility by coding them as “ugly”: we ask people to cover their scars, or their bald heads, or to make their medical equipment surreptitious.

But your hair doesn’t need to be a symbol of life’s fragility. You and your family could also see it as a sign of (literal) new growth. It could be a display of how much change we can bear in our long and tangled lives, while still being irrepressibly ourselves.

You should go however you feel most like yourself. That’s what your family wants there: you. That’s what everyone who loves you is overjoyed to still have: you.

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It is possible to be beautiful and bald. It’s possible to be beautiful and sick. These kinds of beauty have precious little to do with how we look – or at least, precious little to do with our obedience to a list of ways that other people tell us to look.

It has to do with spirit, and the things that make us irreplaceable. Humour and spark can’t be cultivated with expensive shampoos. That’s the kind of beauty it is worth displaying. It is the kind that I’m confident you will display, whatever you do with your hair.