How a Wig Made Me Love My Baldness

I began sheltering in place long before the virus, the day I was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. At fifty-four, I went from being an active, organic food-eating, open water-swimming, yoga-loving person who rarely had occasion to go to the doctor, to someone requiring a myriad of medications, appointments, and hospital visits.

It started after a swim in the San Francisco Bay. The waters were warm by bay standards—sixty degrees—and the current calm. It was perfect, except that when I got home, I felt a tenderness under my arm. I gently explored the area with my fingertips and came across something round and firm. Two biopsies later, I learned I had lymphoma. It wasn’t the indolent or slow-progressing type; it was the aggressive version. The kind that required multi-night hospital stays in order to administer a continuous four-day chemo drip.

After each treatment, my wife, Susan, brought me home and we sheltered in place. It took a while to get used to this way of life—scrubbing fruits and vegetables free of bacteria, constantly washing my hands, giving friends virtual hugs instead of real ones. And losing my hair. Well, technically I didn’t lose it so much as I took it off before I lost it.

I sat on the back deck of our Oakland home while Susan circled me with hair clippers. Batches of the salt and pepper hair dropped onto the newspaper. I’ve had all kinds of short styles, especially in my younger dyke days—bleached and spiky, buzzed on the sides and back—but this was by far the shortest. My hand moved across the stubble as I discovered dips and contours I had never felt before.

It didn’t last. Two weeks after starting chemotherapy, tiny hairs began dropping into the sink. The places where I still had hair were thinning too. A month later I was bald.

I thought about getting a wig, a neon pink bob maybe, but something always stopped me. I wanted to open to the experiences lymphoma was giving me and follow my body’s lead. Every morning I donned a 1940s style men’s pork pie hat instead. I felt like an old school gangster or a jazz musician back in the day.

But going bald wasn’t always easy.

The world isn’t used to seeing bald women. Men, on the other hand, have full permission. It’s a look. It’s handsome. Fashionable even. Not so for a woman. I got plenty of stares anytime I took off my hat. Cancer-related baldness shows differently. There’s no shadow of imminent hair beneath the skin. No darkness to signal that hair could grow if allowed to. It’s paler, more vulnerable looking.

I gradually got used to having no hair. It was me. Honest and real. Still, I never completely shook off my self-consciousness. Sometimes I kept my hat on when my head felt overheated because I didn’t want to deal with how people might respond. I never left the house without my hat.

Wigs are an individual decision, especially if you’re a woman. I understand. Cancer puts us through so much, if having a wig brings lightness or helps you feel good, then why not? I wasn’t always a hundred percent comfortable with my baldness but it was still the right decision for me. My truth.

Until it wasn’t. Until I found myself inside a wig shop in downtown Oakland.

With a friend in tow, I headed past the extensions and eyelash products to the back where a small collection of Afro and straight-haired wigs sat on white Styrofoam heads. I was betraying my baldness, the stance I had lived and believed in for nearly six months. I was about to turn fifty-five and was almost done with chemo. I needed to break out.

I scanned the options before me. There was a full and cascading Bonnie Raitt style wig and a short copper Tina Turner. Then I spotted a crimson rocker wig with disheveled bangs. I put it on and was transformed. It didn’t look anything like my real hair and yet it felt so me.

I bought it and wore it for the rest of the day. I felt happy. I had hair! It wasn’t real or serious but that was okay. I received zero stares from strangers and felt no inner bald-shaming. The power of hair coursed through me. I went to my local tea shop, to the public pool to swim, to the store and felt alive and unfettered. Some friends laughed when they saw me but others seemed slightly taken aback. Was it because they had stood with me on the courageous path of no-hair and now here I was thumbing my nose at my own fierceness? I had to admit it felt exhilarating to hide from my baldness. To erase it even.

Susan laughed when I came through the door. She got the fun part but said she still thought I was more beautiful without it. I loved her for saying that.

I put on the wig the next day but something had changed. I pushed the bangs around. It didn’t feel the same. I was honoring lymphoma, following my body into healing and allowing myself to be vulnerable and to show it to the world. I took the wig off and hung it on the end of a bookcase.

I was bald again. More badass than ever.

 

26 thoughts on “How a Wig Made Me Love My Baldness”

  1. Deidra Mitchem

    You’re absolutely badass!!! And, for what it’s worth, I totally agree with Susan…you exude beauty, with or without hair, from the inside out! (I also thought you looked quite sassy in your wig!). Bottom line. II love you, girl! 💗💗💗💗💗💗💗💗💗💗💗💗💗

  2. Stephanie Tilton

    Love the way you have stayed true to your authentic self through it all — but I’m not at all surprised. You are badass, whether bald, wigged or anything in between. Love you my beautiful friend!

  3. Sidney Morris

    I love both yous, and the badass copper rocker is the bomb. Knowing the vulnerable you, it doesn’t hide anything for me; it just works like a beaded doorway hanging in a Moroccan café that I want to part with my hand so I can discover the clarity of the magic that lies within…
    I’m in Mexico getting tons of treatments; feels like 2001 Space Odyssey world of some future. Little did I know that the world I left behind would leapfrog in to the future of weird. I’ve been watching the Radical Remission docuseries that my daughter Lily tipped me about and decided I needed to construct my personal acronym for the ten elements shared by all the 1500 spontaneously healed folks examined in the movies/books by Kelly Turner:

    S pirit is everywhere
    I intuition is the guide
    D iet makes it possible
    M ovement with merriment
    O ptimism is the answer

    R adical reasons for living
    E mpowerment bigtime
    A ccess to authentic emotions
    P eople are the source of love
    S upplements make me soar

    Love,
    Sidney

    1. Leslie Absher Post Author

      That acronym rocks! Love the energy and flow of it. I’m so happy to know you’re feeling good energy and getting care, my friend. Thanks for reading and for your amazing insight and for seeing the me, inside and out. Love the metaphor of the morrocon beads, too. And the permission to wig up when I feel like it. xxoo

  4. Beate

    What a writer you are, Leslie! I don’t know what it is about how you write, but when I read your words they always wiggle into my core and leave me with chills and sometimes, tears – you take me on your journey and make me feel it – thank you. Love and hugs from the Far Mystic North!

    1. Leslie Absher Post Author

      Thanks for going on the journey with my words and story. It’s every writer’s goal to have their words get under the surface, find a reader’s core. No higher compliment exists. And to hear that my words affected you, my friend, in this way is a higher compliment still. xxoo

    1. Leslie Absher Post Author

      Well, you tell my goddaughter that I was most obviously channeling her when I chose that wig. Do I look like a pre-teen girl? Noooo but I know how to channel a very special one…xxoo

  5. Kris

    Leslie Iilove you just the way you are!
    When you showed up for a bay swim with the wig on in made me smile! You were having fun with your badass baldness 🥰

    1. Leslie Absher Post Author

      Thanks for loving me as I am. And maybe I’ll turn that into a thing and just show up at all of these places with the wig and then yank it off for a laugh! Who doesn’t need a laugh nowadays? xxoo

  6. Fran Hegeler

    Love this, Leslie. Thanks for sharing your story. (You’re badass with and without a wig.) Keep swimming and keep on keepin’ on. Cheers, Fran

  7. Kimberly Graham

    Either way, hair or no hair, you are an amazing human being Leslie Absher!!! I love my crazy hair but I often wonder how it would be to just let it go, shave it off and rock the wig!!! We as women have so much of ourselves tied to our hair. I say screw that, do what makes you happy! You enjoy your hair, cool. Want purple hair like me, I recommend Purple Rain by Arctic Fox, LOL! I enjoy going to the Ren Fair and doing Cosplay at Comic Con so I have some cool wigs in green, red and an orange ombre one from Savers that I love the very most. It’s all just an affectation that makes us happy like a cool hat. I especially loved when you got the henna on your head! If I ever do get rid of my hair, THAT will be why. Henna design for the win!

    1. Leslie Absher Post Author

      You know, Kimberly, even though I kinda preferred my actual head, as I wrote in this post, wigs are super fun. I don’t think I knew this before. Another friend mused what I would look like in one of the Afro wigs from the store. I’m not a fan of cultural cooperation, but there might be a super curly wig that would feel good too. What I’m saying is hair should be fun and not too serious. You are right that as women we are socialized to be equated with our hair, only as good as our hair that day. Stupid and misogynistic. We all feel it or many of us do. The trick is to turn the paradigm on its side, rearrange it as a way of canceling it. Know what I mean? Anyway, I’m getting freed up around hair as I move through this journey and I like that. Thanks for appreciating this. I loved the henna crown too. It doesn’t last very long so that limits it but it was wonderful. Rock on!

  8. Michael

    Leslie, I continue to be impressed – no, blown away – by your talent for writing. You ROCK! I have shared some of your prose with my daughters, both in their 20’s, and they too are impressed. They are accustomed to many of my friends, colleagues and myself communicating our research, but scientific papers tend to be very dry and boring to them. And my wife is a mainframe computer nerd and none of us understand her. My daughters are in awe that I know someone that can actually put words to paper that make them feel emotion. I am so very happy that we found each other after all of these years and that you and I rekindled our friendship. I am so proud to be able to call you my friend. Wishing you and Susan all the best! Cheers, Michael

    1. Leslie Absher Post Author

      Michael, I am so glad you rekindled our friendship too. It’s one of the coolest things in life when that happens! And I am also gratified to hear your daughters can connect with and feel my words. That is a compliment of the highest order. And hilarious that none of you can understand your wife. She must look upon you all as strange too:) I am grateful to your generous spirit. Thank you for taking the time to write such thoughtful comments and for being a fan of mine (after all these years!) Cheers my friend, Leslie

  9. Isabelle Choiniere-Correa

    You write so beautifully and honestly, Leslie, and I agree with Susan that you are beautiful period. I really loved the henna you were sporting a little while ago and I certainly hope that you kept the badass sunglasses and cool leather jacket!

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