I was diagnosed with breast cancer this summer, and since then have had a double mastectomy and two courses of chemotherapy that have left me breastless and bald. For a woman who had large breasts and long hair, it’s been a big change. But I’m finding I’m strangely comfortable with my new appearance, shocking as it may be to others.
I’ve written on this blog about how I was really looking forward to my double mastectomy, and I followed up with this post after my surgery about how much I love my post-mastectomy body. The latest change in my appearance came from my chemo. My hair started falling out three weeks after my first treatment, and was a patchy mess when I went in for my second. Shortly afterwards I had a friend buzz my remaining hair off with barber’s clippers, leaving me bald.
I thought I was ready for it (I’d had the same friend buzz my hair in a very short pixie cut before my chemo started), but it was still a shock. Bald heads are a sign of maleness in our culture; very few white women willingly go bald, and are considered outliers if they do. Long, thick, shiny, straight hair on women is prized by people of European descent. The few times in my life when I’ve purposefully cut my hair very short, I’ve been chastized for it, by both women and men. Bucking the cultural norm is definitely not okay, and even makes news.
And yet I really love my bald head. Many of my friends have commented that my skull is a nice shape. The artist in me thinks I’m more beautiful than I’ve ever been in my life, since going bald. I love looking at my head, and touching it. Part of me wishes I could keep it bald, even after my hair starts growing back. It’s so easy to care for, so minimalist.
My struggle has been going out in public since losing my hair. Until recently I was still working full-time, as a fundraiser for a nonprofit. I felt physically well, but didn’t want people to assume I was sick. (I figured they’d guess I had cancer as soon as they saw the bald head.) Before my first business meeting after my hair was gone, I vacillated: should I wear a scarf on my head? A hat? Did I need to explain my appearance? To be honest, most of the time I forget I look different – I still feel like the same old me on the inside.
(The business meeting? I wore a hat because it was cold out, but took it off as soon as I got inside. I explained that I was doing really well physically. It seemed to be a non-issue.)
Then one night I was passing by a mirror in my apartment, and caught sight of myself out of the corner of my eye. I was shocked – I really looked like a man. To be honest, I thought looked like my dad, who had been bald. My mom affirmed it when I posted this photo on Facebook.
For many women going through breast cancer treatment, this part – losing the external signs of womanliness – can be very hard. At every step along my cancer journey, health care professionals have assumed that I wanted to mitigate this loss with prosthetics and wigs. And I’m not diminishing that need that some women may have. But I’ve been very clear with myself and others since my diagnosis: if anything, I want to be the poster girl for normalizing the realities of breast cancer treatment. I want it to be okay to be breastless and bald if you’re a woman. I want it to be okay to work through illness, if that’s what you want to do. I want it to be okay to be who and what you are, to be flexible in the moment, and do what you need to do to be well and whole (be it a take a nap, or go for a walk, or have a good cry.)
But I can’t deny it’s been fascinating – and a little disconcerting – to explore the emotional and spiritual landscape of ambiguous gender appearance. I feel like our culture has become more open to considering gender identity since celebrities like Chaz Bono, Laverne Cox and Caitlyn Jenner have shared their transgender experiences. But each of those celebrities seems to have settled on a gender appearance that puts them very squarely within the norms of their identified gender. I wonder if society is ready for people who are openly gender-ambiguous, even if only in appearance.
I guess what I’m trying to say is, I’m a woman and I love being a woman, but I’ve been wondering what it would be like to live the rest of my life in the No-Man’s (and No-Woman’s) Land of asexual appearance. Where I could be mistaken for a man (or transgender, or a lesbian) sometimes, and that would be fine.
I also wonder if I would feel differently if I were younger, or in a relationship with a conservative partner. Maybe part of my comfort with ambiguous gender appearance comes from being near menopause and single – and happy with both of those conditions. I was already knowingly entering a part of my life where my appearance and desirability were becoming less important. I’d heard from older women that you become invisible after “a certain age”. That didn’t seem like a bad thing to me. There’s a reason that contemplatives take a vow of celibacy – the pursuit of sex takes up a lot of energy. What if looking gender-ambiguous saves me from superficial and superfluous flirtations and drama? What if I can focus more time on my work and my creative projects? What if I can have more authentic relationships where people look past my exterior and value the person I am inside?
Part of me still worries about being labelled strange, however. About being ostracized for being different. If I were another 10 years older, I would laugh it off, because by then I’d be facing my 60s, and I know it really wouldn’t matter what I looked like. But I’m finding I’m thankful for activities like aikido, where everyone (male and female) dresses the same for practice.
Honestly? Breast cancer isn’t turning me into a man – it’s turning me into a pre-pubescent girl. (This will become even more true when I begin taking hormone-blocking drugs after my chemo.) And if I remember correctly, my 10-year-old self was pretty awesome. Who could complain about that?
You may also be interested in these blog posts by Michelle about her breast cancer experience:
- What martial arts taught me about fighting breast cancer
- Why I’m happy about having a double mastectomy without reconstruction
- My pre-mastectomy boudoir photo shoot
- Loving my post-mastectomy body
- What martial arts is teaching me about fearing death
- Exercise and chemotherapy
Michelle Lynne Goodfellow works in nonprofit and small business communications by day, and also enjoys writing, taking photographs, making art and doing aikido. You can find more of her work at michellelynnegoodfellow.com. Michelle has also written about her breast cancer journey on her blog, Kitchen Sink Wisdom.