I think more hours have been spent in discussing my hair and its inevitable loss during chemotherapy than any other single aspect of the disease, treatment and my response to it combined. Understandably so, as hair is a cultural and personal signifier unlike any other and can affect our concept of ourselves verystrongly. Everyone has a view, an opinion, some advice to proffer on this subject. Maybe it is because it is the one aspect of the whole mess that feels controllable to people, that they can relate to or feel they can offer something useful about. However, when the first oncologist I met spent more time talking to me about cold caps to prevent hair loss than his (subsequently retracted by another oncologist) passing comment about checking for symptoms of cancer spreading during chemotherapy, and when people I barely know breezily tell me I’ll be “absolutely fine” with a bald head because they know someone else who looked great with one, my understanding and tolerance of the hair obsession frays somewhat.
Long term hairloss due to alopecia, other illnesses, severe stress, male pattern baldness and many other reasons are all completely different to the situation I find myself in, so my comments are purely personal to my experience, which is (hopefully) temporary hair loss due to chemotherapy. I’ll be writing a different piece altogether if it fails to grow back, which does happen but not usually. Now that I am in the tricky trichological transition between thin hair and no hair, I can start to face my feelings on the subject. I have gone from a fullish head of hair to a Sally Webster off of Corrie bob to thinning octogenarian in the space of three days, and I expect new born bird to be next on the agenda. And whilst I am not exactly happy about the slow reveal of my entire scalp and the endless shedded hair on and in everything, I find that out of all that I have lost and all that I have to fear, mere hair has got to be lowest on my list.
I have always had an ambivalent relationship with my hair. I was born, as my grandma loved to tell me, with hair the colour of marmalade, although no colour photos seem to actually have recorded this. Like many pale skinned small children, my hair became white blonde, then developed into a strong mouse. The tantalising marmalade of my earliest days has always taunted me and I have hankered after being a redhead all my life, reading longingly about Pippi Longstocking and Anne of Green Gables and gazing at Titians and Rossetti paintings of Lizzie Siddal . A girl went to my secondary school who had the most stunningly beautiful hair I have ever seen — it shone purple in the sunlight, so richly coloured was it. I can still see her hair in my mind’s eye even though the last time I actually saw her was when I was 16. I’ve got the green eyes and freckles — where is my ginger hair? I feel utterly cheated. I was a very plain child, prompting a lifelong love of and identification with another mousey heroine, Jane Eyre. I could have handled the additional slights and barbs of red hair-dom. I could have been a ginger.
My plainness was not helped by a series of unfortunate childhood haircuts. There is photographic evidence of an absolutely horrifying bowl cut (which coincided with a particularly bad era for my face), whilst all my friends had their hair long in plaits and ponytails with cute hair bobbles and ribbons. And then, in 1981, Lady Diana burst into our lives with her idiosyncratic Sloane flick and small girl hair was never to be the same. Many a crime was enacted on pre-pubescent hair in her name. It must have been post Royal wedding that mine was sacrificed in her honour — by now Diana’s hair-do was tonged within in an inch of its life, bouffant and Dallas-esque rather than demure and coy and shiny. I remember being in a hairdresser in the Midlands, somewhere around Solihull, where we were visiting family, and flicking through what seemed like hundreds of imperceptibly different variations on the Diana flick, all in a handy plastic wallet file (surely a sign of a really excellent hairdressers). I was bemused and overwhelmed but made a stab at one which looked reasonably Princess of Wales-esque. The hairdresser basically gave me a short back and sides with a long fringe and then spent a further hour tonging and curling and Braun Independent-ing and hairspraying until it looked something like the picture. As soon as this masterpiece was washed out, however, the stark reality that I had no tongs, no hairspray and no styling skills had to be faced. I was left with a boy’s haircut which was a nightmare to grow out, so, for a couple of years , unless I had access to my friends’ tongs and hairspray, I endured the humiliation of being called “young man” by well meaning strangers.
It was with this tragically out of date and unstylish haircut that I started a new school at 11, a convent school for girls in the depths of Surrey, and I blame it for the fact that for the first two years I was pretty lonely. I made friends with some of the girls, all with luxuriant, long, upper middle class hair but didn’t meet any firm kindred spirits until the end of second year. 1987. A truly magical year music wise — with both Introducing the Hardline According to Terence Trent D’Arby and Licensed to Ill by The Beastie Boys released. My perseverance with growing out my Di-do was starting to pay off (into a bob inspired by Corinne Drewery from Swing Out Sister, her own bob modelled on silent movie star Louise Brooks), and I was ready for a proper friend to come into my life. The gloriously maned Vanessa magically appeared in the summer of that year. We were both in the same house at school (much less Hogwarts than that seems), and she and I were sitting next to each other on the field during sports day. I spontaneously “rapped” (I have to use that term so loosely) a bit of Paul Revere by the Beastie Boys, she finished off the line and we instantly became best friends. That summer, her poor unsuspecting dad took the both of us on holiday to the South of France, driving down there completely on his own with us in the back, one Walkman, an ear of the headphone each and Licensed to Ill on repeat. So much happened on that holiday that cannot be shared here for reasons of space and decency BUT one great love affair commenced and that was between me and every 80s girl’s favourite spray bleach in a bottle: Sun-In.
I returned fresh into third year a platinum blonde. For the first time in my life it seemed my hair could be an actual asset rather than my enemy and thus began my lifelong obsession with hair dye. I was transformed into a slightly less unattractive version of myself and I wanted more. For the next 30 odd years I remained in a cycle of dye / shave / grow / dye that was sometimes felt like a full time job. I was rarely satisfied and sometimes that extended to other hair too. As a passionate reader of peerless pop cultural behemoth Smash Hits, I once decided to shave my eyebrows off having read Martin ‘Frightwig’ Degville (Blee! — Ed.) from Sigue “Sigue” Sputnik review a Bananarama single and ask: “Why have they got eyebrows? Who wants that disgusting hair all over their face?” Now I LOVE Bananarama and always have — and had no great fondness for Sigue Sigue Sputnik — so why I stole one of my mum’s Bic razors and shaved off half of each eyebrow I have no idea. It looked as ludicrous as you might expect. My humiliation was complete when Tracey’s older sister Kelly marched me over to her friends in the playground to parade my idiocy. Their horror prevented any further eyebrow shenanigans for years, in fact I was too frightened of my own stupidity to even pluck them until Tracey and Vanessa couldn’t bear it any more and set to work on them in our tent at Reading Festival one year. Many years later, a quite scary Martin Degville asked me back to his house after a techno club and I declined, remembering my poor eyebrows (and also not really wanting to be any better acquainted with the by now superannuated Frightwig of yore).
I stayed blonde throughout school and it was about the start of 5th year, at 15, that I finally blossomed and started to actually look and feel at times, on occasion, in the right light, sort of beautiful. For a couple of years before this I was still an ugly duckling and the boys we knew, all at other public schools, were only interested in me as a friend, and often referred to how clever I was. Of course I was happy to be Plain Jane Superbrain but I wanted my Lassiter’s calendar makeover moment, and my very own Mike to arrive. I knew I looked weird in comparison to my friends who had a lot more money in their families to buy cool clothes. Mine were often my grandma’s 60s and 70s wardrobe that she altered for me, or from charity shops and it wasn’t quite the right style yet. Until 1988 and Acid House arrived in our lives, we met a much broader group of friends who all hung out in The Dukes’ Head in Walton on Thames (rave central) and suddenly my jumble sale chic was all the rage. At this point in my life, my hair was absolutely gorgeous — thick, long, a bit blonde from hair dye and a bit natural auburn tones. With my blonde, Tracey’s red, and Vanessa’s black, we called ourselves The Witches of Eastwick. For me it was peak hair, the zenith, the crowning moment.
After school I ricocheted between punk rock and dance music in all its wonderful variety, all of which involved litres of bleach, frazzled long hair, very short hair, ridiculous in between stages and lots of different colours. Between 1990 and 2005 my hair was white, purple, black, blue, orange, brown, on a few occasions my actual natural colour and most frequently, pink. At one point, just after university, my grandma who was dying of cancer said to me that she wanted to see my natural hair colour before she died. I duly shaved off whatever hair-colour I had at that point, but had to go very close to the scalp for the desired natural hair to be revealed. Was she grateful? Was she heck. “You look like a victim of the holocaust!” she sniffed, quite obviously appalled.
2005 saw the end of my life in the music business and the start of teaching and my hair palette became restricted in term time to the colours one might with a squint deem natural. During pregnancy it flourished but then the inexorable march of time started its cruel work and my hair was just a bit crap whatever I did to it. I decided to stop the dyeing madness once and for all and succumb to whatever was there — as it turns out, a bit grey, a bit blonde, a bit mouse, a bit red.
Which brings me to today. I’m booked in for my second chemotherapy cycle this afternoon and although I am nervous about feeling unwell, I am so keen to do it because I know it will help me to be better. What little hair remaining at the moment (and it is looking absolutely DREADFUL) will be gone and I am ready for it. I’ve been given several gorgeous head coverings by my ever wonderful friends. I’ve got two pretty ridiculous wigs. I’ve got a silver baseball cap. I’ve got three brightly coloured cotton turbans and one sequinned one in the post. I can handle the hair going. I can even handle the eyebrows going. I’m very much looking forward to my leg and armpit hair doing one. But deities — I know I haven’t really believed in you or done much in the way of worshipping you, but if you exist, hear me now. Please, please let me keep my eyelashes.