Podcast: On Hair Loss, Queer Aesthetics and Ritual

If you haven’t subscribed to Miri‘s new podcast, 2 AM Talks, it might be time you did. Recently, I was lucky enough to be its first guest.

After both losing our hair in the last few years—blame chemotherapy and genetics, respectively—Miri and I sat down to talk about what the experience taught us, in a  conversation that spanned religion, gender, science fiction and relationship abuse.

Listen here, or read the first half of our conversation below.

M. Hi Alex!

A. Hi! Good to be here.

M. I’m so excited to finally have you on here.

You chose baldness as one of your topics. Tell me a bit about why.

A. I guess this goes back to you. You had a health thing recently that involved losing your hair, right? You’ve posted and written a certain amount about that.

M. Yes. I went through chemo. I’m better now, I guess—that’s a work in progress!

A. Glad to hear it.

M. I did lose all of my hair, and it’s now growing back, but I’m still reflecting on what that experience meant.

A. I remember you saying a little while back, in one of our Facebook chats, that for you there came a point when baldness made you feel regal and queenlike. Something along those lines?

My baldness, my hair loss, is just quote-unquote male pattern baldness. (I’m a lot less binary than that, but that’s what it’s called.) In reality, the way I experience that now and what it’s become for me, cosmetically and philosophically and otherwise, is way queerer and more complex. I’m interested in seeing where those two experiences we have join up.

M. Yeah! I’ll tell you a bit about what that progression was like for me.

Obviously, when I was diagnosed with cancer, this was at the end of October 2017. As soon as I knew I’d be going through chemo, I knew what that meant.

I wouldn’t say that I struggled with that as much as I did with many of the other aspects of having breast cancer when you’re 26, 27. But I cherished my hair so much, and part of that was because I had this haircut. It was a very queer haircut, where on side is shaved and the other is these bouncing curls, and it was just how I expressed myself.

I remember after my diagnosis, but before I lost the hair, I kept running my hands through it all the time and kind of saying goodbye to it. It was heartbreaking, in a way. Then, right before I started chemo, I decided to make the transition easier for myself. I went to the hair salon and I had it buzzed short, and I had it dyed bright purple. It felt like kind of my war paint.

That hair stayed there for a few weeks, and then chemo started to take its toll. My hair started to recede, in actually a very interesting male-pattern-baldness sort of way. First it started to recede, then it started to itch and prick me horribly, because I guess that’s what happens when hair falls out. (They did not warn me about that—I thought it would just kind of fall.) And when I would run my hands through it, pieces would come out, gradually more and more.

So one night, I was like, ‘Fuck this. I can’t stand this any more. This is uncomfortable physically and mentally.’ So I went to the bathroom and I put on an interesting podcast, and I pulled out as much of it as I could. It wasn’t anything like pulling hair out normally, because it just came right out. And then what didn’t come out, I shaved off in the shower. And I came out of the shower and I dried off with a towel, and I looked in the mirror, and there I was. You know, without hair.

It was weird. But it wasn’t—you know, I don’t know why I expected this, but I expected it to be, like, grotesque, or one of those horrible soap opera character moments, when it’s like, ‘Oh, what am I? What have I become? I have no hair!’ It was not like that. It was kind of like, ‘Alright. This is the new reality.’

And at first I felt oddly protective of it. Not in the sense that I was insecure about my appearance or anything like that. I almost felt like it was this private, modest thing that I should keep covered. And I’ve never been religious, at least not in that way. It wasn’t coming from a history of that.

At home, I usually wore comfortable hats, and when I went out, I would wear—I had almost twenty different wigs by the end of this, that I loved, and I would wear these different wigs and make outfits with them. When I would go to bed (my partner stays over most nights), I would go the bathroom when I went to brush my teeth, and that’s when I would switch from my wig to my hat. Or I would wait until my partner was in the bathroom. I did not want anyone, not even my most intimate people, to see my head, and I would sleep in these sleep caps.

Then over time, I got lazy. The caps would fall off at night. First my partner saw me without hair, then my little sister was curious what it looked like, and I let her see it, and she was just like, ‘Cool!’ I would chill at home without anything on my head, and the pizza delivery guy would come see it. So I just started to loosen up about that.

The turning point came one night when I had gone out to the symphony. I had a beautiful wig and beautiful makeup, and I came home and I was feeling good, and I took the wig off in front of the mirror as I usually do, and suddenly it was like the face of a totally new person was looking back at me.

I looked like some sort of—I think one of my friends later said ‘like a space empress’. It was this fantastical, science fictional look. I had dark burgundy lipstick and a full face of makeup, and just no hair. And I looked like someone who reigns over an empire in space and has no time whatsoever for hair, and thinks that she looks amazing as is, and everyone bows down to her, hair or no.

And it was completely transformative. And of course, being a millennial, I captured it in the form of a selfie and I put it on Facebook.

People were very surprised, because they knew how I felt about that privacy thing. They were very surprised, but they were very positive! It was one of the most affirming things I experienced during my treatment, and after that, although I continued usually wearing a wig of some sort of whatever, I never saw myself the same way again after that, and I still don’t.

A. That’s fabulous.Wigs are a thing for me as well. I’m currently staring at a long, acid green one!

There’s a lot of social norms and implicit expectations around ‘male’ baldness, and one of them is this idea that I particularly don’t like, that as soon as your hair starts falling out, you just shave it. That’s what you have to do as a ‘man’. You have to shave your head, and don’t have any feelings about it at all. There’s kind of a comic figure of the man who wears a wig—in England it’s Bruce Forsyth who’s the famous person, but Donald Trump as well. It’s not actually a wig, but the comic figure of the man in a wig, you can kind of read him that way.

Now that my whole head’s shaved, including my face and eyebrows—the lashes are the only bit of hair there—I love the way my head can be this amazing genderless blank canvas I can just put stuff on, including wigs. I wear wigs, and I wear bright green, neon pink, ridiculous ones. I’m quite into the idea of wearing them deliberately so they’re noticeable, and people look at me and go, ‘Argh, what’s going on there?’

M. I really love this imagery of the face as a blank canvas onto which you paint or design something, and it can be something different every day, and it doesn’t have to be, you know, just because you identify this way or use these pronouns, then that’s the hair or makeup or whatever that you’re gonna have.

A. You mentioned wearing hats as well.

I don’t feel this as much because we know each other, and I wouldn’t expect you to be gatekeepy, but it’s strange, me talking about just a natural process of hair loss as (supposedly) a dude, and to somebody who had breast cancer. It’s like, am I allowed to have feelings in this conversation? You know what I mean? And I know the answer is yes, but again, that’s the. You aren’t supposed to have feelings about this if you were assigned male at birth.

My hair started to go when I was 15. I’m 27 now. I’m looking at the Facebook photos of people I was at school with who made fun of me, and their hair’s just starting to recede now, and I’m here going, ‘I’ve dealt with all this. I’m fine now. I’m a glamorous bald egg queen. Look at you being all insecure! Look forward to that for the next few years.’

But one of the things I’ve found out that nobody tells you about baldness is hats. You can wear hats. Like, you can really wear hats.

I always wanted to do the hat thing when I had hair, but it never worked. I can’t really explain why, but I had similar hair to yours—it never grew downward, it just went outwards—and hats on me were just never a thing that quite sat right. Now what I’ve found, because I have the blank canvas thing and I don’t have hair, is that when you get rid of all that stuff, you can commit more to other accessories. I’ve found that I can wear brighter and louder shirts, and it doesn’t look as cartoonish because you’ve removed one element, so you can add more elsewhere.

Again, it’s the mythos of the bald man. Everybody thinks bald guys wear hats to cover up their bald heads. No. I love my bald head! It’s just hats look fucking awesome on me.

M. I didn’t wear hats as often as I wore wigs, although that had a lot to do with the fact that it was winter, and if I wore a winter hat outside, that would be too hot for inside, whereas wigs actually provided a very good level of both protection from the elements and comfort indoors.

But yeah, I definitely hat that experience with hats, and I had some interesting ones. I had some ones with beautiful designs on them that I wouldn’t have really—I never would have thought to wear that. And I had a similar issue to you where it didn’t really work with my hair, especially when I had, you know, the side-shave and then the swoosh. If I wore a hat, the swoosh part would come out, but it would be plastered to my forehead, and it just wasn’t really cute.

Also, the experience of wearing wigs resolved a lot of my concerns about having very brightly coloured hair. Because I was always curious: what would its e like to just have neon pink or bright purple hair? And then I thought, ‘Ugh, what if I wanted to wear a yellow dress that day?’ You know? But with wigs and hats, you obviously switch it out, and it’s a canvas.

Some days I would feel like I was playing The Sims, just kind of playing with their hair and makeup and clothing. And during those long, long months of treatment and generally not feeling super great about my body, that was really health for me. It was very constructive.

A. I can see that.

You mentioned having a strangely ritual feeling about it, which I relate to as well. To me it has not exactly a religious, but a cultural or some kind of historical dimension to it, because hats are a big thing in Judaism, right? Traditionally, there’s that idea of covering heads and praying, and putting a hat on has just become a nice, regular part of my day when I’m going outside. I don’t know—it’s a very abstract, de-theologised thing, but it’s nice to have that as a thing for me.

M. I really love the idea of reclaiming ritual from religion. Especially personal ritual. This is something I actually ended up doing in a much more concrete way as part of my own cancer experience. (I can talk about that later.)

You don’t have to be religious, or have any particular kind of faith, to have that kind of connection to your head or your hair; or covering parts of your body, or uncovering parts of your body. It doesn’t have either, you know, ‘There’s a commandment that I have to do this or I’m going to face divine consequences’, or ‘Fuck it, whatever, it doesn’t matter, all I care about is how it looks.’ (That’s also a totally fine approach: I was just interested in something a bit more, I don’t know, personally meaningful.)

A. I remember your posts. You had a hair removal ritual, or something like that?

M. Yeah. There was obviously the day to day ritual of putting on the wig and taking off the wig and so forth, but then I also decided to prepare for my double mastectomy, which is something I really, really struggled with on many levels in the months leading up to that. I decided to try and recognise and affirm those feelings, together with my close friends and loved ones, as a ritual that I designed with the help of my friend Rabbi Alex Braver, who is the rabbi at the synagogue I attend. (Yes, I attend synagogue even though I’m nonreligious. But that’s a topic for another episode!)

We designed a ritual that put together some elements of traditional Jewish prayer, and also some things that I’d designed or come up with on my own, or incorporated from somewhere else. The very beginning of the ritual, actually, was a prayer that—I don’t remember the exact words, but it was something like, ‘Blessed is our Lord Adonai, who made me in a divine image.’ And then I took off my headscarf and remained uncovered for the duration of the ritual. And that was so fucking cool to me. It was so cool. And it really set the tone for the rest of the thing.

A. I’m into that!

I live in a very queer household, and my housemate, who also has the baldness thing going on, says ‘I always feel at my most femme when I’ve just wet-shaved my head.’ I have that thing as well. Two moments for me that were milestones were the first time I wet-shaved rather than just electrically clipping it (because first of all, it’s then completely gone—it’s more of a symbolic moment, and also, choosing to wet shave rather than clip it, you then move closer to shaving body hair in a way that’s coded as feminine), and then later, when  I, just on a whim this January, shaved off my eyebrows for the first time, and looked in the mirror and just went, ‘Ahh! Genderqueer lizard. Glamour Voldemort. Hi. I’m here for it.’

M. How did you come to that decision to shave your eyebrows?

A. Here’s the thing about shaving eyebrows: they grow back! For a variety of reasons, including disability based stuff, I’m not somebody who’s normatively employable, and therefore I don’t really have to look like it. But I just thought, ‘I’ll shave them off, and we’ll see. And if it doesn’t work, in a month’s time I’ll have them again.’ But it turned out, yeah, I was really into it.

Also, I was learning and am continuing to learn makeup—advanced theatrical, drag, prosthetic makeup, that kind of stuff—and I wanted to be able to draw eyebrows on and do stuff like that, and just have more of a versatile face. I look hilarious when I shave now! I use shaving foam like most people, but it’s on my jaw and on my head and then also on my eyebrows, so most of me from the neck up is this white, foamy moon creature.

M. That’s a funny image, definitely!

What you said about the wet shaving and what that was like? That actually makes me, for the first time, kind of regret how I went about things. You know that moment I told you about, when I finally like, ‘Fuck it, I can’t handle this, I’m gonna get rid of all this hair’? I think I needed to do that, because I remember, as I was making that decision, I was home from work and I was talking to my mom on the phone and I was crying. And I’m like, ‘I know it was going to fall out. It’s not that!’ Whatever, chemo makes you emotional. But I needed to take control of that, in the same I initially buzzed and dyed my hair. That’s why I did that, but I wish I could have been more intentional about it. First of all, I did it with the same razor that I just shaved my legs or armpits with, and I don’t recommend this course of action!

A. Why’s that?

M. It was uncomfortable!

A. Oh! That’s not a thing for me. Was it just that it was blunt?

M. Maybe I should have gotten a fresh razor for it, actually. Because it was totally fine for what I had been using it for, but for this—especially considering that my head was already kind of tender, and that I couldn’t see what I was doing, and heads obviously have ridges and bumps and things? It’s not that it, like, hurt or anything, and I didn’t nick myself. It just was, I would say, a pretty uncomfortable experience all around.

More to the point, I was just trying to get it over with. I wasn’t trying to have any kind of experience. I wasn’t trying to have any kind of ritual, in the way that I ritualised the days leading up to losing my breasts. And now I really kind of wish that I had thought ahead of time. Like, ‘How do I want to do this, and what does it mean to me, and how do I kind of honour that?’ But you know, of course I wasn’t in the best frame of mind for thinking of things in that way.

And it’s okay. It is what it is. But that would have been really special.

A. I get that. It took me a while to get there as well.

I originally tried to do the ‘just buzz it off and then feel fine about it’ thing. I will say I was never traumatic about it, or anything like that. There’s a layer, actually, of sadness about it. I’m conscious that I turned 27 recently, which is the start of the end of your twenties. You’re not a young young person any more at 27. And I’m conscious that I went through most of that time not ever looking or feeling conventionally attractive, particularly in notionally gay male culture. I never had that young-and-beautiful phase, so to the extent that my appearance is something I out time into and feel good about, it’s always slightly alternative now.

It was a couple of years ago, in late 2015, when I first got rid of my hair entirely. I just tried to buzz it off and then live like that, and not really have any investment in it or be intentional about it. Which for a while, actually, is quite difficult, because apart from anything else, if you’re just doing it electronically and shaving your head isn’t a normal part of [your shaving routine], you’ve got to do it every couple of weeks, and it’s grown back significantly by the time you buzz it off again. So that was a bit of a chore.

For a while I just decided, ‘Let it grow back and just live with it.’ One thing I actually had for a while was, there’s stuff which is hair powder that’s a bit mascara-y, so if you’ve got thin hair, it will just give it a bit more volume make it look more ‘there’. Which I wore for a while, and I had normal looking hair, and that was quite cool. One of the things I really resent the Cult of Enforced Unemotional Male Baldness about is the fact that, actually, if you’re a dude and your hair starts to go, there’s a load of different things you can do with it. You can buzz it off immediately if thats your thing, or you can just keep it short and let it do its thing, or you can wear it however and let it go.

Also, it’s worth saying: you were talking about the fact that your hair receded when you did chemo, and it did the supposedly male thing. I actually have what I consider to be the worst kind of pattern baldness. People don’t necessarily know there are different types. Some people, they’ve got it and it recedes. Like, it starts at the brow and it goes back, and eventually you get a receding hairline. Now what I had! And I didn’t have the bald-spot-at-the-back thing either. What I’ve always had is ‘diffuse thinning’, which is where across the top of your head, your hair is thin and it gets thinner everywhere at once. Which I think is the worst thing you can have, because there’s no stylish way of wearing that.

If you’ve got a receding hairline, you can have a widow’s peak, and that can look cool. There’s famous people I can think of who’ve had that look, and it’s fine. If it’s going at the back, you just keep it short everywhere you grow, like, a pompadour. There’s awesome ways to style that. There’s really nothing you can do if it’s just falling out everywhere, and so yeah, I was just left with the option of having it look a bit rubbish or nothing at all. But yeah, I’m totally pro the idea that people in general, but particularly AMAB folks and men and variations of that, should just do whatever they feel like with hair and not be shamed about it.

M. I can get behind that 100 percent.

You’ve mentioned a few times this cultural idea that men, or people assigned male at birth, have to just not care about their hair loss. What was that journey like for you? I’m guessing at the very beginning of it, you probably definitely did care.

A. When I had hair, I was always self-conscious about it. A lot of my old selfies, I would darken in that particular area near the front, so there was a bit more shadow and the thinness wasn’t as visible. It was never particularly a massive trauma in my life. I think a lot of the feelings I have about it are ones that I’m only processing now that I’m actually making time to think and feel about my (now lack of) hair. But yeah. It started to go when I was 15, in the middle of my teens, and people did not hesitate to point that out, which was not particularly nice.

There’s a lot of ways that hair is more politically and culturally loaded than we think it is. Religion is something we’ve talked about, but I had Jewish hair as well, the whole curly thing going on. Also, I had autistic hair in that I never liked having it cut as a child, and therefore I never really worked out what to do with it. One of the things that’s really nice about not having hair any more is that I never knew how to style my hair, how to make it look the way I wanted. It was always a very fractious relationship. And now that’s not even there any more!

It’s also really nice in summer, because I keep coming inside on hot days and just going, ‘Imagine how horrible this would be with hair. Remember that?’

There’s a lot of ways in which I’ve always had reason to feel that I didn’t own my body, or wasn’t in charge of it, or it was something that was narrated by someone else. And being a bald genderqueer alien egg now is my favourite thing.

M. And you know, like you said, I have no gatekeepery feelings about this, or else I wouldn’t even have done this episode. And I really wanted to do this episode! But what you pointed out about getting made fun of for something obviously completely out of your control, and that sadly happens to many people, about lots of aspects of their bodies or situations? The thing is, when you’re going through cancer treatment, nobody can say anything negative to you.

I mean, I’m sure that happens to people who are less fortunate than I am in terms of having supportive people in my life. But everyone was so affirming, no matter what I did. You know, when I buzzed it and dyed it, or when I got rid of it entirely, and all the wigs that I wore, and when I went bald, and when I did scarves, and when I did hats. Ad obviously, what I was going through was awful, and losing my hair was by no means the most difficult part of that, but it was a thing that I had to cope with. But I had all this outpouring of support.

Compare that with someone like you, an AMAB person who starts losing their hair very early on, or any person who starts thinning with age or going bald. Being [told] ‘It’s just ageing, you’re a dude, why do you care?’ That kind of invalidation probably makes things a lot harder to cope with.

A. And the fact that the normalised way of responding to that is not even to say, ‘No, I have feelings about that. Please don’t talk about it that way.’ It’s just to disengage emotionally from the entire process.

Actually, it strikes me that you probably know way more about this than I do, but to me, in my head, one of the things that abusive partners are known for doing is impressing on people, and especially women, the idea that they shouldn’t or are not allowed to care about how they look.

M. Yes.

A. The whole ‘Don’t wear so much makeup’ thing. And culturally, that’s what we’re told. If you’re a dude, or something along those lines, and hair loss is a thing for you, not only are you supposed to not care about it, but you’re supposed to be fine with people joking about, and not care about other people caring. So I guess there’s a lot of feelings there that I’m only becoming aware of retroactively now.

The flip side of that is that getting rid of my hair—first wet shaving and then losing the eyebrows and everything else—gave me loads of gender feels and queer affirmation. If you’re somebody in that situation and you google stuff because you’re interested, there’s a load of media stuff about, ‘So you’re a bald guy. Look at these famous bald men. Look how cool they look!’ But actually, all my bald role models are femmes and women and people like that. In cinema, there’s a particular trope of the bald woman who’s evil, and that’s definitely a reference point for me.

M. I want to go back to that, because I definitely have thoughts on that. But another thing I have thoughts on that you were just saying is that I hate that our culture does this: that appearance is so important, and that it impacts so much of how you move through the world, and yet we’re supposed to not care about it. Like, you need to pick one, okay? Either appearance can be super important and impact everything about how we live, and we acknowledge that and celebrate each other’s efforts to improve and care about our appearance, or appearance does not impact how we move through the world, and we don’t have to care about it. Right? Because it’s so hypocritical.

And you see that in everything. For instance, when they do those pols. First of all, I hate the idea of polling cisgender hetero men about women’s appearance, because who the fucked asked? But they do this, and they’ll ask them, ‘What kind of look do you prefer on women? No makeup, natural look, or like, full face of makeup?’ And they’ll be like, ‘Oh, I don’t like any makeup. I like it natural!’ And then you have them pick photos of women’s faces that they like, and you have foundation, blush, mascara, eye shadow, eye liner, lip liner. That’s what they think natural looks like! And I bet you, those same men, when their girlfriend is like, ‘Wait a minute, I need a few minutes to finish my makeup’, they’re like, ‘What are you talking about babe? You look good without makeup.’ She wears that shit every day, and that’s what you fucking prefer! Urghhh!

…anyway. Sorry about that.

I’m also angry about this idea that the only reason one could possibly have for caring about our appearance is that they’re shallow, or whatever. Which, first of all—if you just like to look good, and you like people to like how you look, that’s fine! We’re social creatures. We like affirmation. That’s okay. But more to the point, when you do your looks or I do my looks, that’s not primarily about, ‘Oh, I want people to think I’m pretty.’ It is expression. Especially for a queer person or a nonbinary person, to express their gender and all the feelings that go along with that, through their hair, makeup, fashion choices, whatever? It is like a canvas. It’s creating a work of art. Of course, when I say that, I’m like, ‘Ehh, my makeup skills aren’t really that worthy.’ But still, that’s the point.

Read Part two of this post at Brute Reason.

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Podcast: On Hair Loss, Queer Aesthetics and Ritual
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