Last week I was approached to be a hair model.
It was the middle of the workday. I was out getting lunch. A young, heavily made-up woman followed me into the curry stand and watched me pick up my food. When I moved outside to the picnic tables, she came up to me.
“I’m sorry to bother you, but I noticed you have curly hair.”
“Yes, I do.”
“Is it natural?”
“Great. Our salon is looking for models. I know this is random, but would you be available at 10:15 tomorrow morning?”
I wasn’t available at 10:15 tomorrow morning. Undeterred, she gave me her card and took down my phone number, saying she’d call me if the need arose in the future. We shook hands, and she walked away, head up, eyeing the women walking by with Blackberries in one hand and shopping bags in the other.
As soon as she was out of sight, I let a huge grin split my face. I felt tears pressing against my eyelids. She didn’t know how much she’d just rocked my little world.
When I was a child, I had a thick, unruly mane of hair. It was coarse; it was wavy; it was hard to corral. I loved it. As I tumbled into puberty, and especially after I was diagnosed with PCOS, my hair became a security blanket. Given everything that was suddenly wrong with my inner female parts, having thick wavy hair was one of the few things that made me really feel feminine. I was fiercely possessive of it, embarrassed by my love of it, reluctant to show it off. I wore it in a ponytail, cut it off, grew it back awkwardly, wore it in a ponytail again. Just knowing it was there, and it was mine, was enough for me.
Then I went to college. Over the next four years, as I sank myself into studies and fueled myself with alcohol and junk food, my hair began to thin. Slowly, imperceptibly, the strands got thinner and frailer and fell out in messy tangles. By my senior year, the waves that had stood up from my head of their own accord now sagged limply around my ears. When I ran my hands through my hair, my fingers didn’t snag like they used to; instead, they came out tangled with dark loose strands. I was losing my hair, and I was in denial about it.
It wasn’t until I graduated and came back home, and a hairdresser pointed out the truth–that my scalp was clearly visible through a mist of baby-fine hairs–that I realized my security blanket had been lost. My hair was no longer the feminine saving grace I’d thought it was. Everyone could clearly see I was unhealthy, that my body was broken, that PCOS had made a helpless fool of me. It was visible, right there on my head.
All my life, I’d seen and soaked up the message that women have hair, and young women have full heads of hair. I’d come to believe–maybe as a buffer against the blow PCOS had dealt to my self-image–that my hair was a crucial part of what made me feminine. Now that was no longer true. And even though I had thought I wasn’t vain enough to care, the realization sent a hot shock through me.
I grieved for my hair. The day I walked into a drugstore and bought Rogaine for the first time, I cried in the car on the way home–ashamed that I had to resort to the same kind of tricks as insecure middle-aged men. This was a kind of vanity I hadn’t acknowledged before, and I had to persuade myself that it wasn’t frivolous to care. Yes, hair is a small thing, but it was a huge part of my identity. And I wanted it back.
I sucked it up and started treatment. Slowly, the shedding stopped. My scalp grew less and less visible. I figured out ways to hide the patches of skin at my temples. After the better part of two years, I could look in the mirror and not feel sickly just from the sight of my hair. But I couldn’t bring myself to love my hair anymore. It was limp and thin and unable to hold a style–something to be dealt with, not something to admire. I’d never get my thick, rebellious hair back. I couldn’t count on it to make me feel pretty.
So, just as I did in high school, I’m back to hiding my hair. I wear it in ponytails or braids most of the time. When I wear it loose in public, I feel apologetic, and spend the day fussing and cringing. I’m not proud of this, but my hair makes me think less of myself. I wish it weren’t what it is–I wish I’d never had to lose it–and I’ve struggled to come to terms with that.
Then, this one offbeat day, I decided to wear my hair down and curly and to hell with trying to look pretty. And this young woman saw something in it, something she liked, and asked me if I’d be a hair model. It’s not that she thought my hair was stunning; in fact, she likely zeroed in on me because I had no discernible style at all. But she saw a normal head of curly hair. Not a thin half-lost head of hair; a normal one.
It’s a big fat step towards feeling feminine again.
And I’m more than okay with that.