A Fact is a Fact

dworkin-new“A fact is a fact,” my students say.  So for the last twenty years I have used the fact of baldness to challenge their claim, hoping to demonstrate that facts have meaning only within relevant contexts.  That well-dressed young hunk is bald in a post Michael Jordan kind of way.  But those emaciated people wearing yellow stars are also bald….  Did Sinead O’Connor’s smooth pate display gender-bending rebellion?  And that bald little girl, she is undergoing chemo.  

Now I can walk into class and ask for my own hairless head to be interpreted.  “Mobile advertising”—that’s how my friend, colleague, and cancer-survivor Jim Brown put it.  Yes, I want my baldness to be a kind of public service announcement, a reminder for us to support those whose baldness is not chosen but is caused by cancer therapies. 

But the fact of my baldness has other meanings, too.  I decided to raise funds for the St. Baldrick’s Foundation by allowing people to “vote” with their contributions – shave or don’t shave.  I told anyone who asked that I would prefer to shave.  But in some cases, that didn’t matter!  A surprising number of people simply did not want to see me shave. 

Were these votes coming from men, attached to traditional images of femininity?  No.  While a few male friends cast “no” votes, for the most part it was women who vehemently preferred that I keep my hair. 

When I explained my potential transformation to my classes, the look on some of my young female students’ faces was one of shock.  A few seemed almost frightened.  Perhaps these young women are still learning to define their own female identities and become comfortable with their sexuality; a bald-headed female professor would be a source of confusion.

But what of a number of more mature self-described feminists who voted “no”?  One good friend my age in fact felt so strongly about it she donated a very large sum in the “keep your curly locks” column.  There didn’t seem to be any way the “yesses” would match the “no’s.”  But then so many people came through:  colleagues, students, Joplin friends, and then—thank you, Facebook!—former students far and wide, friends I haven’t been in contact with for over a decade….  (To be in the position of prompting this generosity for such a wonderful cause has been inexpressibly moving  and gratifying for me.   Thank you, EVERYONE who donated!)

So in the end, how did it feel, after a lifetime of attention to my thick, curly hair, to have it all removed?  Great!  The first sensation was that there was a lot of air around my head.  Then I felt like my head was very small.  Now when I look in the mirror, I see a different, but recognizable, me.  I don’t feel less feminine or less attractive.  (If some people see me that way, so be it.) Yes, I have long admired Sinead O’Connor, and recent Facebook messages reminded me that when I began teaching here in 1991, I apparently had a picture of her in my office!  Yes, the fact of my baldness for me means something like “redefinition.”  So maybe I can be a mobile advertisement for that, for the acceptance of different body images—an acceptance which, after all, is part of healing and supporting cancer survivors. 

 Maybe you can mention I raised $3,700!!? (The site says a couple hundred less, but there are checks that haven’t been counted yet….)

— Dr. Joy Dworkin
English Department

Steve Smith

Stephen E. Smith is News Bureau Manager at Missouri Southern State University and editor-in-chief of "Accents."