Rejoice, bald men!
“If a man’s hair falls out from his head, he is bald; he is clean.” – Leviticus 13:40
Well, at least there is good news with the bad news. My hair may finally have fallen out – I’m bald – but at least I’m clean. Except that this verse is talking in the context of leprosy, so I guess it may not apply to me and my baldness. In fact, in the Old Testament early baldness was associated with mourning and lament over something – people made themselves bald on purpose to show their sorrow (e.g. Ezek 27:31). It was a way of outwardly showing that something is wrong in the world that affects the bald person. That sounds accurate to my baldness. So maybe my baldness is biblical. Maybe that also means that anyone who tries to make fun of my bald head will get mauled by two bears like the kids who mocked Elisha (2 Kings 2:23-24). That might make being bald worth it if the kids were jerks. But then again it’d also be sad that they’d have to die because of my baldness, so maybe I’d have to remain bald to show sorrow over their deaths – recurring male pattern baldness.
They said I’d start losing my hair after the second week of chemo, and around Day 15 I started to see my hair come out more on my pillow or as I combed or washed it. After a couple of days of this it got to the point where I could literally grab clumps of my hair and just pull them out without any effort at all – which, let’s all be honest, is pretty cool initially. At the very least it would make for a cool party trick. Unfortunately, at this same time my beard started doing the same thing. So I had to stop washing my beard or brushing it with my boar’s hair bristle brush because it would pull out handfuls of my precious red beard. So I decided to take action and try some different hairstyles out before I lost everything. Here is some of the progression:
On the top left is the beginning, then I decided to try for some hipster styles that are in these days. I think I could have pulled off the buzzed sides if I could just figure out how to shape and style the top tuft of hair (is “tuft” the right word here, hipsters?), but the fauxhawk wouldn’t have worked for me because I lack the fullness of hair needed to get that front portion the weight it needs (I inherited the receding hairline gene). So I finally settled on a simple short buzz-cut on top while retaining the full beard below (my real prize and joy). I wore it like that for a couple of days, and in retrospect, I should have worn skinny jeans, a plaid woodcutter’s shirt, and found some thick framed glasses so that I could complete my hipster outfit and blend in at my nearest Starbucks (unfortunately Midland doesn’t have as many “hipster” coffee shops that “stick it to the man,” so local hipsters have to use their Apple laptop’s to edit their Instagram photos in a mainstream coffee shop here).
After a couple of days, though, I started to notice more of my beard falling out on the right side of my face because I often sleep on that side. The result of this was that my beard looked lopsided – really thin on one side and almost normal on the other. Not an attractive look. So I cleaned up the sides and went with the moustache and goatee look you see on the left side. I didn’t really plan on keeping that look for a long time – but thought it would be funny to go play games with my friends with my new modified facial hair – then by the end of the night I completely forgot about it when I stopped by HEB to grab a few things quickly, and I remembered after I got some interesting looks from other shoppers and the cashier. Unfortunately, the beard was really falling out by now so I had to constantly deal with hairs in my food with just about every bite (Oh the horror, Caleb! I probably could have easily returned a lot of meals and had them comped by the manager if I were that type of guy – but I’m not – at least Normal Jason isn’t, can’t really speak for Chemo Jason). I thought maybe trimming everything down would minimize and manage my hair eating habit, but instead it just meant I ate more trimmed, short, and hard-to-detect hairs. Ironically, the only thing that really wasn’t falling out that fast was my moustache – but I didn’t really feel like rocking the creeper stache right now, so it eventually went too. And so I became a bare-faced 15-year-old once again.
I rocked the buzz cut for about a week, but then it started thinning pretty bad and there were patches of hair that were going bald quickly, as you can see below:
So I finally bit the bullet and just shaved it all off. Here is a before and after mug shot so you can see the difference.
“[Bald] and Unashamed”
“And they were both… naked and unashamed.” – Genesis 2:25
To be perfectly honest, I thought it would be a whole lot easier to accept finally shaving my head and being totally bald than it really has been. I thought I would be “[bald] and unashamed.” I mean, I knew it could be hard for women because in our culture not many women typically go about shaving their heads voluntarily, whereas it is fairly common to see bald guys all around, young and old. Lots of men embrace the baldness. So I figured it would be easy for me to do the same.
But I was wrong.
After shaving my head, I didn’t have a problem with showing my family or friends my bald head at all, but I did feel very self-conscious about my bald head when around people I didn’t know. Ironically, one of the places I was most scared about visiting was my oncologist’s office. You would think that if there is anywhere it is okay to be bald in front of other people it would be while sitting in an infusion room with other bald people going through chemo. But for some reason when I woke up yesterday morning I felt an incredible sense of fear and worry about going to my appointment. I actually noticed my hands physically shaking in the waiting room before going in to get Winston back, and I nervously and timidly approached the front desk to check in. I was “[bald] and ashamed.”
Before and After
I talked with my little sister about this fear and anxiety that had taken ahold of me that morning, and we sort of worked out two different reasons why I was so self-conscious about finally being bald. The first one is that I’m sharply aware of the before and after that I see in my face’s appearance. It’s not that I went from a buzz cut to bald, or that I was just trying out a different hair style for a little bit, or even that I just shaved my head to see what it would look like with my beard. When I look at the before and after photos above I see a world of difference. Losing the beard was hard, as I suspected. At work, I was known as “the beard” or “red beard.” One time while I was working the gate another airport employee came up to me and said they thought we got a new hire because they didn’t recognize me without my beard at all. I mean, look at the picture that my good friend’s daughter drew of me and her – my distinguishing feature is a beard, and she wasn’t even told to draw me like that. My hair (and mostly my facial hair) was a part of who I was. So seeing the stark difference of before and after came as a sort of shock to me.
Now many people will say: “Well, just wear a hat, tons of guys do it all the time so it will look normal.” But the problem is that I really never wear hats regularly, so it still highlights the difference of the before and after. Others will tell me that lots of people shave their heads and don’t have any facial hair, and it works. That’s true, but then again I am not those people – it is uncaractaristic of me to do that. So I’m still left with knowing the difference in my mind and seeing that those reasons aren’t sufficient for me. Even at the oncologist’s office they saw the sudden change. The receptionist got to know me and she would warmly greet me by name when I came up for an appointment, but after shaving my head I noticed that she hesitated initially before saying “Hi, Mr. Custer” – not long, but long enough to know she was a little shocked at how different I look now. It’s hard not to notice and internalize that. I look drastically different. Bald works for guys (and is much, much easier than for girls), but it’s still hard. No one told me that.
Nakedness and Shame
But as I thought about it and talked with my sister more, I realized that there’s something deeper going on inside, more than just seeing a different before and after in my appearance. What I think is making me so fearful is that I feel naked and ashamed, and I can’t hide it. Putting a hat on or pretending that I just decided to try out the bald look is somehow dishonest or misleading – it’s like putting fig leaves over my nakedness. It sort of works, but I know it’s not going to fully fix the problem.
My sister said that shame is the feeling that something is wrong with ourselves, and other people can see that something is wrong. I think what most makes me uncomfortable about being bald (or “naked” if you will), is that it lets people know that something is wrong with me. But more than that, it doesn’t give me the option to hide it – although I can try with varying degrees of success (depending on how good of a seamstress I can be with the fig leaves of hats or hipster style). Before I lost my hair I looked normal, and the only people that knew I was going through chemo were the people I told. I had the ability to reveal this intimate detail about my pain and sorrow, that something was wrong with me right now. I could decide who I would let into my pain and suffering. But once I lost my hair I felt like I was robbed of the ability to share or not share with someone – my nakedness, my baldness, my suffering, my shame was now revealed, often against my own will. I think that’s why I’m not ashamed of my baldness around friends and people I know well, because I already let them in, and I chose to reveal this intimate thing that is so prevalent in my life. They already know that something is wrong with me – they know about chemo. But now it feels like I’ve lost that ability to disclose my pain. When the person at the airport remarks that they thought I was a new hire because I “shaved my hair off,” it’s no longer my decision to tell or not tell them about chemo – they know something is up. Now I wonder how many people notice but don’t say anything.
I guess at the root of it is a loss of control. Perhaps I’ve always been naked before people, I just thought I could hide it with fig leaves. Maybe I’ve always been a great seamstress (or “tailor”? Is that the male version of a seamstress?), and now I just don’t have the energy or ability to keep up the rouse anymore. So maybe this is a good thing, in some way. Maybe I can slowly learn to be “naked and unashamed” in one part of my life.
Or at least bald and unashamed…
While I’m on the topic of baldness, I have a few questions. Bald men (or balding men) – whether by nature or by choice (I don’t discriminate) – help me out here:
- Do I really need to wear sunscreen all the time to keep from burning? Or is that just an initial thing?
- How do I clean my head? Do I use shampoo, but just a dallop? Do I need something special like face wash? Or do I just use a normal bar of soap or body wash?
- How do you shave your head on your own? I’ve still got some stubble growing in patches, so I want to keep that under control. How often do you shave? What’s the easiest way (electric razor? machete? waxing?)?
- Any other bald man tips for me?
Also, while I mourn the loss of my beard, I have found a way to daily give tribute to my beard and sacramentally remember that loss while also anticipating it’s great (and full) return when all things are made new (or maybe a little earlier): my friend found these awesome gummy beard candies (thanks AJ!). So I plan to eat one a day, and as often as I eat, to do it in remembrance of my beard.
More posts from the Contemplating Chemotherapy series:
- Intro to Chemo (Day 1)
- The New “Normal” (Day 2)
- The Drop-Off (Day 3-7)
- Chemo Jason vs. Normal Jason (Day 8-14)
- “[Bald] and Unashamed” (Day 15-28)
- Thanks(giving) for Chemo?
- Advent, Watching, and Waiting with Chemo
- “To Live is [Chemo], to Die is Gain”