I was born a Kewpie doll, with one single red cowlick on the top of my head. A few wisps appeared around my first birthday, and my mom celebrated by taping a pink bow to my head. When my hair finally grew in properly, I mostly screamed at my mom's combing efforts, and toddled around with the beginnings of dreadlocks, probably as retribution for the tape.
When I learned to read, I discovered Pippi Longstocking and Laura Ingalls Wilder, and became obsessed with their pigtails and braids. Only then did I allow my mom to get after me with a comb, leading to a brief golden era where I looked like an American Girl Doll. I moved into an Orphan Annie phase soon after, where I insisted on sleeping in pink foam rollers so I'd look more "the sun'll come out tomorrow"-like. My skull ached, but I was in character.
Then there was an inglorious adolescence marked by big bangs, Aquanet and electric styling tools. I was frizzy but determined to be the boss of my hair. I begged my mom for a back-to-school perm every fall, and almost always cried when it came out too curly. I bleached my bangs with Sun-In at a slumber party, then fretted when my red hair looked orange instead of Barbie blond. I burnt my forehead with molten curling irons and got Bedazzled bobby pins stuck in my french braids. There were tears and tantrums over school pictures ruined by my hair experiments. "It's your own fault," my mom would say. "Just leave it alone."
My hair never grew out of the awkward phase, and as an adult I've only doubled down on trying to tame it. Once, on the eve of Y2K, I entered a salon with a magazine clipping of Julianne Moore in long, sweeping Cleopatra bangs. I left with a jagged inch-long fringe of mini-bangs that didn't sweep across my forehead so much as stand up in protest. I looked like Jim Carrey in "Dumb and Dumber." I cried as I paid the stylist who gave me the bangs of an idiot, and I cried some more at the barbershop I fled to for a re-cut, where the old man behind the chair said there was nothing he could do. A few years after the idiot bangs, I finally got up enough courage to cut my hair again and went for an edgy bob, but wound up looking like Peppermint Patty's mom. Cue more tears.
My Nashville era was tough on my tresses. I tried for the big hair of country stars, but always came up short. I paid a stylist my last waitressing dollars to weld thick hair extensions to my own baby-fine strands, but the weave pulled at my scalp and made me itch. I looked pretty good, but felt flat-broke and ridiculous. I fantasized about pulling my hair out at the roots and starting over.
Little did I know I'd get a chance to start over someday, thanks to breast cancer.
The first time I shaved my head, I barely cried. I was only a week into chemotherapy, and the poison hadn't gotten to my follicles yet. I walked into the barbershop with a full head of hair, feeling as good as anyone can feel about a cancer haircut. I was getting a jump on it.
My boyfriend went with me, gamely volunteering to get his hair buzzed off first, in solidarity. I watched and got my courage up while the barber gave him the Marine standard high and tight, shearing his beautiful Game of Thrones-ian locks to the floor. When it was my turn to get in the chair, I didn't hesitate. It had taken six months for me to grow out an ill-conceived bob into shoulder-length messy layers—it took five minutes for the barber to turn those layers into a half-centimeter crew cut. Then it was done, and G.I. Jess stared back at me in the mirror.
I whooped when it was over, like a bungee jumper, or a bit player who's just done something stupid on MTV's "Jackass." I left the barbershop drunk on adrenaline, victorious. We had doughnuts to celebrate, and went on with our day like it was no big deal—just two crazy kids getting matching punk hairdos.
I sorta liked my crew cut. It felt light and airy, like years of bad hair days had never happened. The sun and breeze felt so good on my scalp, I didn't wear a hat for almost a week. I put my hairdryer and curling iron in storage, and bombed around town imagining myself a chunky Annie Lennox or a live-action Tank Girl. Go ahead and stare at me, I'd think while in line at Starbucks. Take your best guess: Am I sick, or is this just a ballsy fashion choice?
But my inner Tank Girl only lasted about 11 days, then chemo had the final say and my crew cut fell out. That was the second time I shaved my head, and that time I cried a lot. The clock struck 8:30 on a Monday night, and hair began migrating off my head in handfuls, like tufts of volcanic ash. I was only losing a crew cut, but I was terrified. I was going to be very sick soon, and my falling hair was just a warning shot. Chemo ain't kidding.
My friend Jenee found me in my apartment, sobbing, my hands full of hair. "Get in my car," she said, and drove me straight to the nearest SuperCuts. I cried in the passenger seat and kept right on crying in the chair while the SuperCuts lady shaved my patchy crew cut down to a shiny chrome dome. I only stopped crying when Jenee threw herself in the chair and demanded a buzz cut of her own. Then I started laughing hysterically. The stylist was so shaken by the spectacle of the two of us, she shaved Jenee's hair right down to the scalp—not even stopping at a crew cut. She was as bald as me when it was over.
It's a crazy and brave thing to do, what Jenee did. It made me feel less alone in a dark moment. But that night wasn't the first time I've cried at a salon, or even the first time I've cried at a SuperCuts. I can only hope that Jenee and I met my lifetime quota for hair traumas, and that it's all up from here.
I've been told my hair might not come back red after chemo, and there is a teensy statistical chance it might not come back, period. I'll deal with it as it comes. Wigs don't faze me now. After rocking the Telly Savalas, any future hairstyle will do. I'll never cry about my hair again.