“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