It's Only Hair
By Leah VanHoose
What in the world? I said to myself as I looked in the mirror. I was tying my hair up into the usual ponytail so I could head to the gym when I first noticed. I looked weird. Something was different. I touched both sides of my head over my ears. It was smooth, it was bald. Is that normal? I didn’t understand. I felt around my scalp a little more. I discovered a round circle, the size of a tennis ball on the back of my head as well. Smooth as a baby’s butt. My stomach sank. What the fuck is going on? I stood there in that tiny bathroom staring at myself not understanding what would end up happening to me. Not understanding how much my life would change. Not understanding how much I, would change.
My hair was a part of me, my identity, for as long as I could remember. I wasn’t allowed to cut it until I was in sixth grade. It was so long, it reached the top of my butt. Pigtails and ponytails and braids. My grandmother would spend Saturdays watching us, my sister and me, we’d watch Dallas and Fantasy Island and she would brush our hair. I wanted to be a Solid Gold dancer, I wanted to be the dancer with her hair to her knees. I’d dance on the coffee table, my stage of course, and copy her movements. She was so cool and sexy. I wanted to be her. My best friend and I in middle and high school would spend hours brushing each other's hair. I was so jealous of hers, it was beautiful and hung straight, heavy, and thick.
As much as I identified with my hair, it was never what I wanted it to be. It started the first time I was allowed to get it cut. What a day! Wendy, my sister, and I had an appointment! With an actual hairdresser! I was so excited, I was beside myself. Apart from the time when I decided to cut myself bangs in Miss Mary’s little bathroom before the school bus came to get us, scissors had never touched my hair. Sitting in that chair, with my head in the sink as she washed I pictured Farah Fawcett. That’s exactly how I was going to look. Sexy wings down each side of my head. I was going to look just like her! As she spun the chair around for me to look in the mirror a wave of disappointment came over me. I did not look like Farah. I looked more like Punky Brewster.
I went straight to the computer and looked up hair loss. I found what it was. I found Alopecia. Or, did Alopecia find me? As I researched, my stomach dropped further and further. Oh my god, I thought, NO ONE can ever see me bald! Jason can never see me bald! Can you wear a wig to sleep? He’s not going to love me anymore. I sat there and read as tears silently crept down my face. Only 1% end up with Universalis I read. Total loss of all body hair. Oh good. That was relieving. People usually have round circles that appear and then it regrows. Ok, I can deal with that. I wear a lot of baseball caps anyway. I called Jason. I was crying. He was unfazed. He told me to make a doctor's appointment and quit freaking out and I would be fine. You’re not going to die, are you? Well, I don’t think it’s deadly, I said.
I began to learn all about Alopecia. The fact that doctors have no idea what to do about it other than masking the symptoms. To inject your scalp with steroids in hopes to calm the inflammation. FUCK that. One of the worst procedures I have endured. You see, Alopecia is only painful in the fact that you are losing your identity, your confidence, a piece of you. It doesn’t physically hurt. It’s not deadly so therefore there is little research. Little knowledge exists about autoimmunity anyway. Why in the world would your body attack itself? I endured one round of steroid shots and never went back to that doctor. I knew he couldn’t help me.
So I hid it from the outside world as it continued to fall out in clumps, in the shower, on my pillow, and in my hands. I wore my baseball caps pulling what was remaining on my head down to my ears so you couldn’t see what was now most of the sides of my scalp. My fingers were drawn to it. The smoothness, so soft yet so hard to think about. It was all I thought about. People would see, they would see me losing my hair and that was hard. I didn’t want Jason to see it. I wouldn’t be sexy anymore. I would be beautiful in his eyes. Who could ever love a bald woman? I continued to hide it, from others, trying to hide it from myself. and then one day, I realized I couldn’t hide it anymore. Too much was lost. I was devastated.
My birthday is in September, right around labor day. Our friends were having a party. They knew, and I told a few what was happening to me. They loved me anyway. I knew this was the day I was going to stop trying to hold on to the little bit of hair I had left. I was almost completely bald except for the top of my head, kind of a reverse comb-over. All the girls and I gathered in Holly’s bathroom. She brought in a stool. I sat down and Kristin with clippers in her hand got to work on my mohawk. There were tears, there was whiskey and there was love.
I looked weird. I saw what I would look like with a mohawk. Not really my style. Then I saw what I would look like for the rest of my life. Bald. It was heart-wrenching. My friends supported me and teased me and loved me and I couldn’t have asked for a better way to introduce my head to them. I will forever be grateful to them for this day.
Through all of this, I continued going to the gym. In fact, this is when I discovered CrossFit. I believe CrossFit is the thing that showed me that I can still be strong, I can still be confident, and I can still be me. Me, even bald. After we shaved my head I switched from the baseball cap to a bandana. I felt the ball cap made me look like a cancer patient. The bandana still made me look like a cancer patient but less like one in my eyes. I’ll get into it later but in the public eye, any bald woman is apparently a cancer patient.
While this story is not about CrossFit, CrossFit was a huge part of my life. I became obsessed when I found it. I lived, breathed, and ate it. It consumed me and I believe distracted me from my condition, therefore my condition did not consume me as it has done to so many other women. I opened my gym 7 months after shaving my head. I built a community of people that supported one another. We were comfortable being ourselves around each other. Plus it was fucking hot in the summer so taking that bandana off my head around them was easy. But only in the gym. I was not ready to bare my head in public. Not one single bit.
“I love you, I love you, I love you!” Michael Franti sang along with 500 other people in the 9:30 club in Washington DC. It was magical to hear this and it gave me the courage to take off my bandana for the first time in public. Well, he also had a bald woman up on stage singing with him. That definitely helped too. I whipped that thing off and stood there in the club and I felt it. I felt the love, I also got a couple of free drinks out of it, so score! This started my foray into the public eye with no boundaries and when I say no boundaries I mean other people. They don’t give a shit. They will ask you if you have cancer with no hesitation.
There is something about the grocery store. Going into the grocery store without my bandana was the hardest trip to take. For some reason, it made me the most nervous of all. Like poop my pants nervous but I did it and you know what, it was worth it. I sat in the car getting up my nerve, whipped that thing off setting it on the seat next to me so I couldn’t chicken out halfway through and put it back on my head, and walked in. As I walked down the aisles everyone stared at me. Looking back now, they were probably staring because I’d left the gym and had on a tiny tank top, booty shorts, and tall socks. They were probably staring at my ass, not my head. But yeah, they stared. I got to the checkout line and the lady behind the counter looked at me and said “I’ve been waiting for you to take that damn thing off your head!” and you know what? I never put one on again.
While we are on the subject of grocery stores, actually it’s not only grocery stores but I would say they are where it happens most frequently, but really it’s every time I am in public. Someone comes up to me and asks about my cancer. I know I am bald. I know chemo causes baldness, but if you see me in person, I do not look sick. At all. I am fit. I am strong, and it shows. Granted every once in a while I am desperately hung over and maybe then I look like I’m on my third round of chemo but for fucks sake people, I DO NOT HAVE CANCER. Now, with all those big bold letters it looks like it bothers me and I have to say once in a while it does, like the time I got prayers from not only the lady in front of me in the checkout line but also the lady behind me in line. Fuck. Now I know people are just trying to connect with me and find some common ground. All of their stories are the same. They have or had or know someone that has or has had cancer. They want me to know it’s ok and they hug me and they pray for me and I know that I don’t have cancer but I am happy to receive their love. I know it’s why I’m so lucky in my life, I get tons of love from complete strangers.
I have twin boys. No, I have amazing twin boys. Granted I blocked out the first 4 years of their life and from the ages of 14-18, because babies are hard, and well, teenagers suck. I say that jokingly and I really do remember. Ryan’s hair went first he was about 14 then about 9 months later, Drew lost all of his. To say it was traumatic doesn’t cut it. People always said “well, at least they are boys. Boys can pull off bald.” NOT A 15-YEAR-OLD BOY! They aren’t bald and teenagers are the meanest creatures on the planet. Now, I had to be strong. I had to be proud. I had to find an answer. Why in the world where all three of us bald within a year of each other? Hmmm, Jason wasn’t bald! Was he poisoning us? We tested for arsenic, heavy metals, for radon. No, he wasn’t poisoning us... I changed my diet, went to Johns Hopkins hospital, went to other dermatologists, and read every single thing I could on autoimmunity and alopecia. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. No answers just acceptance.
Jason was and still is our biggest supporter. Jason gets what he wants and he’s not afraid to fight for it. Hell, that’s how he got me. He’s not really good with emotions. Claims he has none, but that’s not true. He has a strong love for us and he just shows it in a different way. He shows it by always supporting us, making us face our fears, and taking on our problems head-on. It’s hard to love but love nonetheless. On one of my particularly hard days he looked at me and said, “Leah, it’s just your head! It’s always been there, you can just see it now.” Good fucking point. We are lucky in the fact that we all have wonderfully shaped heads. No bumps or lumps, our faces are set in our heads very symmetrically. We are pretty lucky in that sense. We are beautiful people.
Going on 16 years of this we have had a long time to process and adapt and most importantly accept. You see acceptance is beautiful. It shows everyone else that you accept who you are and so they have no other choice but to accept you too.
Confidence is a funny thing. What it boils down to is self-love. When you realize that it doesn’t matter what life throws at you, you are equipped to deal with it and move past it. We are here to learn, to grow, and ultimately to share. I’m using my biggest challenge as my biggest platform. I want to share what I have learned. I want to share the love I have received and ultimately I want to teach you that you are an incredible being. We are fucking magical creatures! We run on light and energy! Believe in yourself and your abilities to take on your challenges and believe me, you will rise above them and be better for it.