Archives for posts with tag: femininity

I like my hair. It is long, with soft curls, and dyed an appealing shade of reddish brown. I am in the last year of my 40’s and my hair is longer than it has ever been in my life. Even including the time in the 70’s, when I wore my long hair tied back with one of those over-sized yarn pony tail holders. Back then, I used to run around barefoot and spent a good deal of time climbing trees. For many years, my feet were very calloused and my hair consisted of a neighborhood of knots and tangles. I just used to brush the top layer of hair to provide a presentable appearance. Every once in a while, I would have to sit in a chair while my mom painstakingly separated the tangles and the knots. Ow! Ow! Ow!

By the time I was 12 or 13, I was convinced that I had “bad hair”. In the 8th grade, I got a stylish feather cut. I used a curling iron religiously. I kept that cut for a number of years. It looked pretty good. By college, I shortened my hair even more and by the time I was 20, I had a pixie cut, which I loved. I kept my hair short for many years, no longer than a bob. By the end of college, I stopped using a curling iron.

I was still convinced that if I were to wear my hair long, it would be ugly, the way I remembered it being as a young adolescent. Then I got pregnant. I was 31 years old and my hair was growing very fast. I decided that it was time to see what hair longer than a pixie cut would look like.

After a few years, I discovered that my long hair was pretty. Also, I discovered that it was much curlier than it had been when I was younger. I didn’t have bad hair, after all. When my hair went gray, I decided to color treat it. Curly hair tends to be dry. Color dries it out more, especially the do-it-yourself stuff. I realized that if I were to keep my hair long, it would need professional help. I get my hair colored, cut, and deep conditioned every seven weeks.

When I was diagnosed with breast cancer 2 1/2 years ago, I started growing my hair even longer because I could and I wasn’t sure how much longer I would have long hair. I figured that if I had chemo and lost it all, I would never grow it back to long again. It would take years and years and at that point, not be “age appropriate”.

When chemotherapy was not recommended for me, I kept it growing. I have not stopped letting my hair grow except for a light trim, since my diagnosis. When straight, my hair now falls to the middle of my back. For the record, I believe that it has officially entered the realm of “not age appropriate”. I find that for the record, I don’t give a rat’s ass. I like my hair. It may not be with me in the future but now it’s here. It’s mine and I like it.

There are a lot of breast cancer writings about hair, what it means to a woman, and what it means when it is lost. A bald head is a dramatic difference in a person’s appearance. But hair carries so much significance, even if still remaining on one’s head.

How important is it to have good hair?

When my daughter asks my husband, “Dad, how does my hair look,” he sometimes replies, “It looks good but it would look better if you brushed it.” At this point, my daughter and I give each other knowing glances. She has curly hair, too. Brushing or combing curly hair while it’s dry breaks up the curl and to most eyes, does not look attractive. The only time I brush my hair when it is dry is to remove the tangles prior to straightening it with a flat iron. The last time I did this was a couple of months ago. My hair looked crazy and I thought it might make for a funny Facebook selfie, a kind of public service announcement explaining why curly hair is not dry brushed.

Curly tops: Don't try this at home.

Curly tops: Don’t try this at home.

How important is hair to people?

You would not believe the amount of advice this photo elicited about how to better care for my hair. It was pretty funny. But then I realized that the people commenting had seen MANY photos of me and my hair. It had never looked like this. Perhaps I am exaggerating, but it made me wonder if the sight of a woman with “bad hair” was so surprising that people forgot how I normally look and jumped straight into an urgent mode to save me from my split ends. Suggestions of coconut oil, olive oil, etc.

Hair is really important to a lot of women. I don’t want to lose mine, I know that for sure. Maybe it SHOULDN’T be that important. But it is. And one of the lessons I am learning in my life is that lots of things “should be” a certain way but they are not. We can only work with the way things are.

So please, please, please when one of your loved ones or even yourself loses hair as a result of chemo and is feeling sad about it, think twice before saying, “This shouldn’t bother you.”

If it bothers you, it bothers you. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t. What should be is not relevant to this particular situation.

I dreamed last night that I packing up to leave my office at the University of Washington because I’d run out of grant money. That actually happened in 2007. I thought I was all packed and then found a bunch of cabinets full of things yet to be packed. I realized I had a plane to catch to go home to Seattle. I walked around the university campus and it was actually the campus of Indiana University. The University of Washington is in Seattle. Indiana University is in, you know, Indiana.

I walked around campus trying to get someone to help my move my remaining boxes before I was due to get to the airport. A couple of men offered to help me. I finally realized that I could not be in Seattle and Indiana at the same time. And how was I going to transport all of my office stuff back home and still make my plane. And then for some reason, the men and I walked into a building. The building exploded right as we walked up to the doorway, but some how we survived. Then I woke up.

In the dream, my assumptions about where I was, what I was doing, and how I was going to do whatever it was I was doing, exploded right in front of me. We live our lives according to assumptions. Those assumptions can be challenged in gentle but persistent ways. They can also be thrown on their head.

Until May 24, 2012, I assumed that I would not get cancer in my 40’s. I assumed as a woman from a long line of long lived women on my mother’s side that I would live a long life. I assumed that I would be alive long enough to raise my daughter and to retire in my 60’s or 70’s. (Note to hubby: Early 70’s, tops, and working part time.)

Then the assumption of health that supported all of my future life plans crumbled. I have worked to pick up the pieces, make new pieces, and reworked the foundational assumptions I have about my life. And all along, I have worked to be true to the person that I was before and not define myself only by fear and insecurity.

The early part of this process focused on physical reconstruction of pieces. Surgeons have subtracted and added in many iterations. When I was home following my mastectomy in August 2012, I was looking on Ebay for clothes. I had lost a considerable amount of weight and I do nearly all of my clothes shopping online. I came across this photo.

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The mannequin pieces do not fit together and the arms are placed on the wrong sides of the body. It makes the whole figure off. The large hands in particular reminded me of how drag performers can look. They have many feminine physical characteristics through make-up, body padding, binding, falsies, and good acting skills. But there are almost always clues. Things that don’t look quite right. Some drag performers take advantage of this to comedic effect. Grady West, who developed the character, Dina Martina, is a 50 something year old man with a pot belly and hairy back. He wears over the top feminine glitzy costumes that are several sizes too small and his dresses don’t zip up all of the way. Dina’s make-up makes Tammy Faye Baker look like a model for Pond’s cleansing cream. He uses the mismatched puzzle pieces to great advantage and his shows are hilarious.

Other drag performers aspire for “realness”, to be able to pass as a real woman. I was introduced to this concept when I saw the excellent documentary, Paris is Burning, which was filmed during the mid- to late-80’s in New York City. It was about the “Drag Ball Culture” in the city. (Remember “voguing”? It started there, not with Madonna.) I was fascinated by the communities that were built by the men in this culture. Most of them had been rejected by their families and by society, as a whole. But they made their own families with “drag mothers” and familial living situations. I thought the way that the men found a way to pick up the pieces and make news pieces to construct their own families was inspiring.

I know that there was a short time after my mastectomy when I was worried about “passing” for a real woman. But mostly, I have been trying to reconstruct the pieces of my mental life and to dance to the changing rhythm of my daily life.

Life has pieces that change. Life has pieces that need to be replaced. Life has pieces that are lost and cannot be replaced. But my life is whole and I belong here.

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George Lakoff

George Lakoff has retired as Distinguished Professor of Cognitive Science and Linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley. He is now Director of the Center for the Neural Mind & Society (cnms.berkeley.edu).

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