Siobhan Shields is a writer and filmmaker. She was chosen as one of Edinburgh City of Literature’s Story Shop writers for 2016 reading her short story ‘Sadie and the bomb’ at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. She is part of the inspiring Write Like a Grrrl community. Her Twin Peaks themed short film ‘Diane’ was screened at the London Twin Peaks Festival in November and won second place in the US Twin Peaks Festival Short Film Contest in July 2016. She is currently working on a collection of short stories. When she remembers to tweet you can find her @Siobhan_Shields
When we arrived it was so early the waiting room was bare and cold. We waited for longer than expected as the room slowly warmed up. The mobile scan unit wasn’t working and so the nurse walked the first patients over to the hospital, leaving just me, and another woman. I was suddenly hot and took off my woolly hat. The woman, sitting opposite, looked at me sadly.
“I wish I could go bareheaded like you.”
“Oh?” I hadn’t realised she was wearing a wig. Not all cancer patients lose their hair and it was a good wig.
“You could?” I added hastily.
“Oh no.” She said. “I hate my wig, it’s hot and it’s itchy but I have to wear it.”
I could feel her misery radiating towards me and I understood it because I had felt it too.
When I was first diagnosed with breast cancer and learned that I would lose my hair due to the chemotherapy, I imagined myself like Samantha in Sex and the City with a different fashionable wig for every hour of every day in the week. Wigs of long pastel unicorn hair transforming me into a beauty without any effort. The reality was very different. With the impending realisation that my hair could start falling out at any moment I settled for a wig as close to my own style as possible and consoled myself that at least it would be black—the colour I had been dying my hair for over ten years—and would make me feel like myself. When my wig arrived it was, to my horror—dark brown—and sent my precarious sense of self, battered by cancer diagnosis, biopsy needles and an urgent need to decide if I wanted to have my eggs harvested, spinning into a full blown panic.
The wig was itchy and hot. I spent full days at work almost crying with frustration as my scalp felt as if it was being prickled by a thousand needles but I wouldn’t take the wig off. I was worried about upsetting my co-workers, what people would think and was ashamed of my attempt to fool the world I had hair when in reality my head was shiny and bald. I felt ashamed for something that wasn’t my fault. Why did hair, or a lack of hair, have such an effect on my emotions and sense of self-worth?
A woman’s relationship to her hair can be complex and is at once deeply personal and highly public. Hair is part of the identity that we show to the world and our culture attaches great meaning to the appearance of women’s hair. Long hair is seen as youthful, feminine and beautiful whereas short hair is seen as unfeminine or even masculine. Long hair is so tied up in ideals of femininity that women often cut or shave their hair to disguise themselves as males or at least downplay their femaleness. From Joan of Arc who cut her hair into the male style of the time to avoid the unwanted sexual advances of her own army to Sinead O’Connor, who shaved her head as a retaliation to record executives who pressurised her to have a more feminine, sexualised look. Just like Joan, Sinead felt it was dangerous to be female in her workplace; the male dominated music industry of the 1980’s.
A woman with no hair, a shaved head or masculine styled hair is dangerous because she does not conform to a patriarchal society’s ideal of what a woman should be.
As a shaved head can signify a woman as unfeminine it can also signify her as guilty. The removal of a woman’s hair as a punishment has been used throughout history from the shaving Joan of Arc’s already short hair before her execution to ‘Les femmes tondues’ (the shorn women) of France after the end of the Second World War. Women accused of collaborating and having sexual relations with German soldiers were stripped and beaten without fair trial, their heads shaven. These women were then paraded through the streets and ridiculed, often accused by other collaborators trying to distract from their own misdeeds. Some may even have been victims of wartime rape, further shamed by the removal of their hair and therefore ostracized from their community.
An enforced shaved head was a way to punish ‘Les femmes tondues’ and also a way to continue that punishment by marking them as different. As striking as a red A, a shaved head signifies difference, otherness. In a woman it signifies dangerousness. Female cancer patients often say that losing their hair can be one of the most stressful and upsetting parts of cancer treatment. This is partially due to the stigma attached to a woman with a bald head but also that it’s often the only way people know that you’re ill. A bald head tells the world you have cancer before you’re ready for that information to be public, before you’re prepared to answer all their questions. A bald head connotes disease, illness and death. It can scare people, even yourself. No wonder we keep our wigs on even though they’re itchy and hot!
Even so, I was scared that strangers would realise I was wearing a wig and ridicule me. I was worried that when people saw my bald head they didn’t see me, they just saw CANCER. Fear of being labelled as different, as masculine, as guilty of something, as ill and worst of all (in this patriarchal society) as unfeminine was part of the reason the unveiling of my bald head scared me. My bald head made me dangerous!
A couple of weeks after my first chemotherapy session my hair started to fall out. I had imagined I would wake up one morning, look back at the pillow and a full head of perfect hair would be sitting there and my bald head would be shiny and prickle free like a bowling ball. Losing my hair was a much longer process. My hair started falling out in strands and then clumps. I made my boyfriend cry by ripping out a chunk of hair in the middle of an argument. I left hair everywhere, like a cat, on my pillow, on my desk at work, all over every single item of clothing. I sticky rollered myself a hundred times a day and checked in the mirror at lunchtime for new bald spots. Worst of all it hurt. A lot. My entire scalp felt like a bruise, sore to the touch, as delicate as a mouldy peach. It was a relief to buzz it all off. The weak contaminated chemo infused hair was gone and my shaved head felt clean. I felt empowered. No longer frustrated by my shedding hair. My newfound strength was dented slightly when the hairdresser told me to put on my wig “for my dad” who was coming to pick me up. My sister cried when she saw my vulnerable naked head but, on the whole, it was an improvement and my baldness felt safe when I was with my loved ones.
In public it was different. I wore the itchy wig and bought a new one when I couldn’t stand that anymore. I went into town for a day out wearing a new wig and wig cap but had to get a taxi home when I started feeling dizzy and nauseous. I cried in the taxi the whole way home but wouldn’t take off the wig. When I arrived home and threw it off in disgust I discovered the wig cap was too tight and had left a dented line that didn’t go away until the next day. Eventually after many other annoying wigs I just wrapped a cotton scarf around my head and tried not to worry about cultural appropriation.
When the chemo was over my hair started to grow back in and I didn’t know what to do with it. During a hospital stay during surgery I looked in the bathroom mirror and a young(ish) person with old lady grey hair stared back. I dutifully waited the six months recommended then dyed my hair my usual black. It looked wrong. I went through lots of different styles. I even shaved it off again at one point and with my buzz cut I felt like myself. I dyed it blonde. I cut in a fringe. I tentatively became comfortable with having hair again.
So when the woman in the waiting room looked at me with such admiration for showing my bald head I couldn’t bear to tell her the real reason for my carefree attitude towards my appearance; I wasn’t particularly brave, I was exhausted and past caring and this was the second time I had done this. Three years after my breast cancer diagnosis my cancer spread to my bones and liver and I started chemotherapy again. I went through the same emotions about losing my hair but it was easier the second time. When I felt her misery at her hair loss and itchy wig, I felt angry. I felt angry that she felt she still had to live up to this ridiculous female ideal at the expense of her own comfort when she should be allowing herself what little comfort she had. I felt angry that she couldn’t go into the world bald without worrying what people thought. I decided to take her compliment and wear my bald head as a badge of honour. I decided to be ‘dangerous.’ I wish I could say it’s easy and that I’m empowered but sometimes it’s hard. Sometimes I can feel people staring at me, sometimes I feel ugly. For me it’s probably easier than it was for women years ago. Shaved heads and shaved hairstyles are becoming more fashionable. There have been strong depictions of shaved headed women in films and TV shows such as Furiosa in Mad Max and Eleven in Stranger Things (Eleven’s really a child but at once strong and vulnerable and different as emphasised by her shaved head. It broke my heart a little when she donned a blonde wig and worried if people thought she was pretty but it didn’t change her personality as a strong girl who saves her friends, or stop her from being dangerous.)
Ultimately, it’s simple. Women should be able to wear their hair how they want without worrying about what message that sends out into the world and what people will assume about them. Women without hair should be able to feel comfortable however they deal with their hair loss. I want to be the person that the woman in the waiting room admired me for being. I’m trying to wear my bald head with pride. I’m trying to embrace being dangerous.