Why I Hold My (Bald) Head High

joanna montgomery

Going bald was something I began contemplating as soon as I learned I had cancer. In anticipating the event, I assumed it would be traumatic. A woman losing her hair? It's such a part of who we are as women.

Even the term "bad hair day" is a commonly understood part of the vernacular of our culture. We all know what it means. It means that if you think your hair looks shitty, you're likely to feel shitty and unattractive the rest of the day.

But when it happened, the hair fallout, on Day 17 after my first chemo treatment ... it really wasn't that traumatic. I had known it was going to happen. My oncologist had told me that with the cocktail of chemo I was being given, there was no chance I wouldn't lose my hair. And my scalp had been sore and tender for a week, warning me via Morse code that the exodus was eminent.


The Sunday morning it happened, I was washing my hair in the shower and it started coming out by the handful. My follicles were "releasing". It was on.

When I looked at my palm full of hair and shampoo bubbles, I thought, "okay...here we go." And that was about it. After nearly six weeks of anticipation, I was ready to get the show on the road.

My husband and I had already decided that at the first sign of hair loss, we would take control and, as my husband said, "shave the f*cker." So that's what we did, when our baby was asleep and the house was quiet.

We cued up George Winston on the sound system and set up a chair in the bathroom. We didn't talk. My husband just began shaving my head with electric clippers, set at the lowest guard, which was about an eighth of an inch. He didn't hesitate (like I would have). He just got right to it. I couldn't see myself in the mirror because the chair was too low. I just closed my eyes and let myself feel the hair falling on my neck, chest and lap. It was almost soothing, and extraordinarily intimate. I felt like my last shield was being removed. And I was okay with that. I felt safe.

When my husband finished, he asked if I was ready to look at it. I told him I wanted to be alone when I looked at myself for the first time. He respectfully stepped out of the room and closed the door.

I waited a few seconds, took a deep breath, and stood to view myself in the mirror. I looked myself in the eye and took in my new appearance. I teared up a bit, but didn't cry. I just looked, turning my head this way and that. After a minute or two, I got in the shower to wash off all of the loose hair.

When my husband asked me afterward what I thought, I told him that it wasn't as bad as I had feared. However, it felt like a bit of a cop-out to have left any hair at all. If it was all going to come out, why not take it all off now? I didn't want to leave any hair for the chemo to take. I didn't want to find any hairs on my pillow (no matter how short) or clogging our shower drain. So we decided to take off the rest. And we did, with shaving cream and a straight razor and no fanfare. I was ready.

Prior to the big shave, I had three primary fears about having no hair.

1. That I would have a jacked-up head shape with weird lumps or dents. You've seen them. Some people have good head shapes for baldness. Others, less so. Fortunately, my head shape wasn't too bad. I could live with it.

One fear down.

2. That my husband would no longer find me desirable. When we first met, my hair was cut into a modified mohawk...a look that definitely stood out, especially in the corporate law firm where I worked. My hairstyle was part of how I expressed myself historically, as do most of us.

Well, after the head shave, my husband made it clear that he still found me attractive. I think he just likes edgy looking women (and science fiction). With the bald head, I still look a bit edgy. At any rate, I don't think he's just blowing smoke...he's not really the type to do that. I don't think he's turned off by the baldness. He may actually be turned on by it.

Another fear down.

3. That I'll look like a sick person...that I won't be able to hide that I have cancer. This one isn't as cut and dried.

Something happened with the head shave. With my shaved head, I may look sick to some. Others may just think I shaved my head by choice. For some reason, I no longer cared what people thought about my appearance.

As I started going out in public with my naked head, I didn't feel as self conscious as I thought I would. Rather, I felt somewhat defiant. As in, "if you don't like my bald head...screw you." And I also felt more than a little bit proud, like a fighter who is winning a battle. Because after all, if the chemo is killing my hair follicles, it's killing other things as well. In other words... it's working. And my bald head is a badge of honor.

So, third fear down.

I can hold my bald head high, knowing I'm doing everything I can to beat this disease.

To anyone going through chemotherapy, I would recommend taking control and shaving the head.... not waiting for the hair to fall out. It was an empowering experience to lose the hair on my terms, not the cancer's terms. To not see hair on my pillow. To not see thinning places on my head or bald patches. To shave the f*cker.

And the other empowering thing I did? Documented the process. My husband took photos along the way, and we also scheduled a photo shoot with a professional photographer friend who made the experience safe as well as fun. We laughed a lot, as we always do. The vibe was not one of sadness, but one of victory and empowerment. It felt great. Again, it was about taking control where I could. And this was one thing that I could do on my terms.

Photos via Brooke Kelly Photography, Nashville

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