Bare Heads and Hearts: Shaving My Hair During Chemo Made Me Feel Free


In my cousin Barbara’s salon, a group of fellow Black women helped boost my confidence as I shaved my head after being diagnosed with cancer.

The razor buzzed relentlessly as soundtrack to free-falling strands, breaking the watchful silence from beneath plastic domes. They sneaked peaks at the shearing, those women in pink rollers andconditioning caps. Quiet questions lit their eyes as the razor cut a swath across my scalp. 

Those women were witnesses to my unshackling. I was made new. I was set free.

It was a weekday morning as I sat in the beauty shop. My cousin Barbara (one of my extended, maternal Fulton clan) wielded the electric razor with years of expertise.

Back in the spring, when I was first diagnosed with cancer, I had told family and friends (really, anyone who would listen) that I was going to cut off all my hair if it started coming out. I had seen pictures of other women in various scarves, turbans, wigs, caps and other accessories. Indeed, an entire online industry arose from a very basic need of most cancer patients (why mostly women??): coping with damaged hair follicles on the head. Barbara had agreed to cut my salt-and-pepper hair when the time came.

A few days after the second round of chemotherapy, my follicles gave up the ghost and the hair on my head began shedding tremendously. It was rather scary how much hair came out with each combing: I could fashion an entire, flowing wig from the nests of hair on the bathroom counter. I called Barbara, and simply said, “It’s time.”

That is how I came to be sitting in the middle of Barbara’s salon that morning, surrounded by elderly Black women who eschewed the weekend crowds and gathered in her shop to read Black newspapers and to exchange details of family reunions, distant grandchildren and church politics.

This morning, however, all eyes were on me, robed in a plastic drape while a razor plowed through my distressed tresses. They watched intensely. They watched without judgment, yet with a depth of empathy that slightly shocked me.

How could they understand, these older women who looked as if they would be horrified to contemplate losing all their hair? What did they know of this situation, these senior Sistahs who had pressed, permed or bewigged their hair for nearly as many years as I have lived?

When Cousin Barbara handed me a mirror to inspect the razor’s handiwork, I noticed several of the women nodding approval on the sidelines.

For them, I twirled in the middle of the floor, patted my newly naked nape and proudly proclaimed, “Wakanda is here!” Surprisingly, those older Sistahs clapped with vigor. The one with the walker next to her chair even said, “You look good.” 

In those moments, in my cousin’s neighborhood gathering spot, I was untethered from cancer’s impact: the intravenous flushings, rather alien chest port, endless laboratory tests, irregular digestive disturbances and the unnerving loss of taste (try eating when everything tastes like unflavored cardboard).

In the midst of those elderly patrons who cheered my courage, I was so much more than the sum of blood cell counts or lost pounds.What those women confirmed for me in that unpretentious space, where Black women bare heads and hearts, was that I could never be defined by the hairs on my head or anywhere else, for that matter.

So, I continue down this winding road, unashamed of my naked noggin. I get up, pray up, dress up (loving the colorful costume jewelry on my ears!) and stay up.

I am so grateful to Cousin Barbara and the razor’s simple strokes. And I cherish the unexpected support of those older Sistahs who waved me on along my journey.

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