Is The Bald Woman A Warrior Or A Survivor?


The shaved female head is having a cultural moment. But for
me it’s always been associated with the BRCA1 gene and the
carnage cancer has strewn across my family tree.

Posted on March 22, 2018, 14:56 GMT

Hannah Barczyk for BuzzFeed News

To be inducted into this matrilineal dynasty of bald
women, you must first offer up your buccal cells, gently
stripping them from your tongue and the inner lining of your
mouth with a sharp-tasting rinse and whipping them into an
alcohol-soaked squall, then expelling the resulting wash into
plastic tubes. The motion is performed twice, for 30 to 60
seconds each time. You do not question the repetition, the
length of time required for each iteration, or the need for
procedural compliance; instead, you aspire to thoroughness
because you pride yourself on your scientific rigor, like the
woman in the white coat who insisted that you do this. You
are silently grateful that in this particular establishment —
an otherwise unmemorable space into which you, unlike the
other women in the waiting room, had entered without a belly
extruding with life — they ask for saliva, not blood. Once
the buccal cell–infused tubes are sealed and marked for
shipment to a facility off-site, you say goodbye to the woman
in the white coat, whom you can tell has mentally moved on to
her next patient. You exit through the side door into the
parking lot and remember that it’s still the middle of the
day, and that you have to get back to the office for your
next meeting.

Who can blame her for preferring conditions promissory of new
life, over those premonitory of how one might die?

When she calls a couple of weeks later, you’re walking with
your coworkers to lunch at the company cafeteria. You duck
into a quiet nook under a staircase. Until this moment, you
had forgotten about the buccal cell collection and the
preceding interrogation: How old were your mother and your
aunt when they were diagnosed? How old were they when they
died? What kind of cancer did your mother have? What about
your aunt? Any other family members? How old are your cousins
As you press the overheating smartphone to your ear,
you realize that you can’t recall the gynecologist’s face.
What is familiar is her divided attention on the other end of
the line; you suspect that she would rather be attending to a
waiting room of pregnancies. Who can blame her for preferring
conditions promissory of new life, over those premonitory of
how one might die?

When she delivers the news that you’ve won a genetic lottery
that you had hoped to lose, that you’ve tested positive for
the BRCA1 mutation and therefore face a significantly
heightened risk of hereditary breast and ovarian cancers, you
find your brain drifting to the memory of the first time your
mother wore a wig for a night out with the family and how
you, at age 9, had inched away from her in the backseat of
your family’s secondhand Volvo, unsettled by its sheen and
the way it held its form. You find yourself recalling her
bald head, the strange look on her face that afternoon when
she murmured the possibility that you, then still a wisp of a
child, might have to confront an unwanted genetic inheritance
in adulthood. Because the thought pained her so, or maybe
because the thought of a divine universe so cruel or a
daughter so unlucky seemed inconceivable, you did not hear
her consider the possibility aloud again.

The medical term for hair loss, alopecia, is
derived from the Greek word for fox — alopex. I’m
neither a classicist nor a zoologist — I’m an engineer by
training — so this etymological factoid is a thing of
curiosity. Since I don’t know the exact circumstances of the
term’s provenance, I imagine foxes wandering among Greeks of
antiquity, just as Socrates meandered through the Athenian
marketplace seeking an amenable interlocutor, just like the
modern-day urban fox nosing about Londoners’ backyards,
feasting on excess, picking up parasitic mites, contracting
mange, and shedding tufts of fur. And perhaps because a
furless fox was such a spectacular and troubling sight, or
perhaps because fur littered across the Athenian marketplace
was such a wretched eyesore, this animal has inadvertently
secured a place in the Western medical canon for posterity.

Even in film, the bald or shaved female head has to be
justified, set up with motive. 

There are many causes of alopecia; one is as a side effect of
chemotherapy. What engenders chemotherapy-induced alopecia —
in the language of warfare that has come to permeate the
public’s vocabulary for how to confront disease — is that the
cytotoxic chemicals deployed to target rapidly dividing
(enemy) cancer cells also attack rapidly dividing (friendly)
hair matrix cells. One medical resource I looked up online
explains that “alopecia is a transient and
usually (although not always) reversible consequence of
cancer chemotherapy that can be psychologically devastating.
For some patients, the emotional trauma may be so severe as
to lead to refusing or delaying treatment that might
otherwise be beneficial.” Another (more awkwardly worded)
medical website attributes this trauma to the platitudinous but
true observation that “hair has important functions in
culture and communication.”

The cottage industry of internet articles understands
something about this, especially with respect to hair on a
woman’s head. The proliferation of articles with titles like
Actresses Who Completely Transformed for Roles, and Lost
Their Long Locks on the Way” or “The 21 Most
Badass Bald-Woman Moments” suggests that there is
something at risk when a woman casts off her hair. Just as a
fox without its fur is no longer the magnificent animal in
its magisterial beauty, these titles suggest that a woman
without her tresses is a Platonic ideal subverted.

Warner Bros. / Courtesy Everett Collection

Natalie Portman in V for Vendetta, 2006.

Even in film, the bald or shaved female head has to be
justified, set up with motive. In the third installment of
the Alien franchise, Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley
crash-lands on an inhospitable planet upon which a maximum
security prison is located; she is asked to shave her head
under the pretext of a lice outbreak among the inmates: men
genetically predisposed to rape and murder who have recently
embraced religion. Among this colony of brutal, monastic men
who have not seen, or considered, a woman in decades,
Ripley’s shaved head is a visual conceit, designed to
simultaneously erase and enunciate her gender. Then there’s
V for Vendetta, in which England is overtaken not by
lice, but by an Orwellian government. Evey Hammond, the
ingénue played by Natalie Portman, is captured by an agent we
presume to be operating on behalf of the totalitarian state,
thrown in solitary confinement, and tortured; her girlish
curls are forcibly shorn. But Evey keeps her head shaved even
after she is freed: What was once a site of violation is
transmuted into a symbol of resistance to tyranny and

Some of these subtexts are more joyfully manifested. My
favorite bald female character in film is the one Danai
Gurira personifies in Black Panther: Okoye, the fierce
and skillful general of the Wakandan special forces and
leader of Dora Milaje, an elite force of bald female
bodyguards. In the opening moves of the film’s thrilling
casino fight sequence, Okoye rids herself of the disguise she
had reluctantly donned for her undercover mission — a wig —
and tosses it with a marksman’s precision in her adversary’s
face. When the scene played at the theater where I watched
Black Panther, the row of high schoolers sitting in
front of me whooped in exultation, and I along with them. The
gesture was imbued with symbolism — a woman warrior
dismissing oppressive patriarchal standards of female beauty,
a black woman in dialogue with the sociopolitics of hair.

Two weeks after the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School
shooting, Teen Vogue published a piece on anti-gun student-activist
Emma González’s shaved head, insisting that her buzzed head
is “much more than just a statement.” The way this editorial
proclamation is worded seems to anticipate its readers’
collective passion for the layers of meaning that have been
grafted onto the bald female head. In an interview with the
Humans of Marjory Stoneman Douglas Instagram account,
González presents this foil:

I decided to cut my hair because it was a pain in the neck,
if you’ll forgive the pun. It was really hot all the time;
it was very cumbersome and very heavy, leading to a lot of
headaches. It was expensive to keep it up, and as prom time
came around, I figured it would be cheaper to not have to
worry about doing my hair. The more my parents said no, the
more I wanted it. Actually, I even made a powerpoint in
order to convince them that I should do it. I figured I
would look really good with it, and I do.


Emma Thompson in Wit, 2001.

The kind of bald female head to which I’ve become intimately
accustomed looks and reads differently from what might be
pitched in a PowerPoint deck or artfully cropped in a movie
set trailer. It is the result of collateral loss, a signifier
of something gone awry in a body’s biology. When it comes to
representations of the chemotherapy-induced bald female head
in cinema, I think of Emma Thompson as Vivian Bearing in
Wit, Mike Nichols’ 2001 screen adaptation of Margaret
Edson’s Pulitzer-winning play. Bearing is a professor of
17th-century English literature — a scholar of the poet John
Donne — who has been diagnosed with stage 4 ovarian cancer.
“There is no stage 5,” Thompson’s fourth wall-breaking
character says dryly, her eyes trained directly on the
camera, as though letting us in on a terrible cosmic joke. I
feel a particular closeness to the film and its protagonist
because of particular resonances in real life: My mother, a
teacher of English literature at an all-girls public
secondary school in Malaysia, passed away from advanced
metastatic ovarian cancer a month after she turned 50 and I,
15. Her pedagogical gifts to her two daughters, who have
since grown up to become a lawyer-turned-professor and an
engineer-turned-writer, respectively, include a love for the
works of Alfred Tennyson, John Keats, and E.M. Forster.

Given that my mother passed away nearly two decades ago, I’m
a little more than surprised by the rawness of the movie’s
emotional impact on me — first the catharsis of inconsolable
sobbing, the chest constricting under the anguish of grief,
physicalized anew, then the mental replay of the moment I
rush into my mother’s hospital room and encounter her body,
undeniably, incontrovertibly vacated of life. For this
reason, Wit is a personal favorite that I rewatch
sparingly. The last time I watched it, I noticed, through the
blur of tears, that Vivian Bearing’s head does not look like
my mother’s did. Bearing’s head is smooth, perfectly shaved,
almost luminescent. My mother’s, like the bald heads of
cancer patients who don’t have the time to meticulously tend
to hirsute matters between trips to the hospital and the
demands of work and family, was like a landscape at the cusp
of winter — sparse, unevenly rugged, lit by twilight.

I am occasionally visited by night terrors about death
and dying — a metaphysical fear so abstract that it is
difficult to put into words. These terrors are fueled, in
part, by the cognitive impossibility of imagining a long and
medically uncomplicated life. This act of imagination
requires pitting myself against the odds of my genetics — a
45 to 60% lifetime risk of breast cancer, and a 40% lifetime
risk of hereditary ovarian cancer — as well as the apparent
carnage strewn across my family tree. And yet, testing
positive for the BRCA1 mutation does not offer binary
certitude, like a paternity test, or the forensics labs in
detective TV shows. Because the emergence of cancer itself is
a statistical event that depends on a complex interplay of
genetics, lifestyle, and environmental factors, some BRCA1
mutation carriers never develop breast or ovarian cancer.
What does it mean, then, to think about my future
probabilistically? If I choose to eat broccoli today instead
of bacon, to sit in my chair instead of doing the chair pose,
how will the sum of all these tiny, quotidian decisions that
constitute life at large factor into the continually evolving
calculus of cancer?

I don’t talk about these tests with my friends or coworkers,
because the tests have become routine preconditions for

The first step in the medical playbook for those genetically
predisposed to cancer involves what doctors call increased
. This means that the cadence of my year is
not defined by the changing seasons as much as it is by the
tests and screening modalities to which I must avail myself —
mammogram in May, pelvic ultrasound and CA125 blood test in
June, MRI in November. Any detected abnormality is
aggressively investigated; suspicious cells are extracted and
tested for malignancy. (In the case of the one biopsy that
I’ve undergone, the abnormality in question turned out to be
standard-issue fatty tissue.) Surveillance is a way of taking
stock of probabilities.

Here’s an analogy: If cancer were an approaching tropical
storm with an uncertain path and strength, the doctor is the
meteorologist who monitors the temperature and atmospheric
pressure and periodically adjusts her prediction of the
likelihood of devastation ahead. But weather prediction, as
we know, is imperfect. The superhuman prediction that I
sometimes wish for in medical surveillance — and here my
engineering inclination betrays me again — is more like that
of a self-driving car. The car, with 360-degree vision over
the length of two football fields, senses and detects
entities on and off the road, continually notes each entity’s
observed historical and present behavior in order to project
its motion in the future — essentially deconstructing the
choreography of the world around it and reinterpreting it as
a matrix of probabilities so that it might plot a path
forward, all in mere fractions of a second. This
sophistication is not yet within the province of medical

I don’t talk about these tests with my friends or coworkers,
because the tests have become, over the course of the past
five years, routine preconditions for living. I dislike the
feeling of having to steel my pragmatism against the shock of
someone’s outsize reaction. I may understand the root of the
sentiment, but I still find that refrain — But you’re so
! — particularly tedious, because it is both
irrelevant to the reality at hand and frequently delivered
with an undertone of pity. I’m particularly averse to the
role reversal that happens when I have to assure someone that
despite terms like “predisposition to hereditary cancer” and
“biopsy,” all of this is, to use the turn of phrase, par for
the course.

The belief that taking control of a situation immediately
inoculates us against fear feels like a lesson from a
Hallmark movie.

Which isn’t to say that I’m impervious to the the anxiety of
being reminded of my mortality several times a year, or the
stress of integrating these procedures into a 60-hour work
week. And yet, amid the yearly slew of tests, there are
periods of quiet suspension from the urgency of living — when
I’m lying facedown in the MRI tunnel for 35 minutes, its
giant magnets buzzing, droning, clicking, and knocking
overhead. I play a game in my head, in which I attempt to
assign specific pitches to the machine sounds I hear. I try
to recall the songs in Charlotte Gainsbourg’s album
IRM. The album has an interesting backstory —
Gainsbourg goes to the doctor with a headache weeks after a
minor waterskiing accident and discovers, presumably through
MRI, that her head is filled with blood. The album, released
several years after she recovers from surgery for a cerebral
hemorrhage, is an intermittently catchy, cryptic, and pensive
meditation on mortality. The title track uses percussion and
recorded samples of an MRI machine to invoke her experience
of being in the belly of the imaging beast.

There are also brief moments of awe. Two years ago during my
annual mammogram, the radiology technician, a competent and
kindly woman in her fifties, turned the computer screen
toward me so that I could glimpse at what she saw: the
interior topography of my left breast rendered in stunning
high resolution, a crisp black-and-white photograph lit up by
an intricate network of capillary and tissue.

The BRCA gene had its high-profile coming-out in 2013
when Angelina Jolie published an op-ed
in the New York Times, in which she revealed her BRCA1
mutation diagnosis and her decision to undergo a double
mastectomy. This procedure, along with prophylactic
oophorectomy — the surgical removal of one’s ovaries — are
preventive measures that some women who are BRCA mutation
carriers ultimately undertake, after years of surveillance,
to radically reduce the probability of developing breast and
ovarian cancers. If a bald woman is a subversion of some
ideal of femininity, I can only imagine the burden of social
judgment borne by a woman who must remove the very parts of
her body that supply and manifest her womanhood. Jolie must
have understood that she could use the power and reach of her
celebrity to blunt the stigma of a woman compelled under
medical circumstances to remove her breasts. She understood
that — more effectively than any public health campaign — she
could educate the broader public, especially those with a
high incidence of cancer in their extended family, about the
BRCA genetic test and their medical options. When a pair of
researchers from Harvard Medical School capitalized on the
op-ed’s publication to examine the effect of celebrity
endorsements on health services, their findings confirmed a
conclusion we might have vaguely intuited: After the op-ed
was published, daily BRCA test rates increased by 64%
compared to the previous year. I’m more astounded by the
longevity of the op-ed’s effect — the study reports a
sustained increase in BRCA testing rates throughout that

Scott Gries / Getty Images

Robin Roberts was in the Isaac Mizrahi Fall 2008 fashion
show as part of GMA’s “I Dare You” series Feb. 7, 2008,
in New York City. That was the first day Roberts appeared
on TV without her wig.

When I mentioned the op-ed to a friend over dinner, she was
reminded of another moment of celebrity candor about disease.
She recalled the moment on Good Morning America in
2008 when its host Robin Roberts, who was undergoing cancer
treatment at the time, decided to appear on the show’s
catwalk wigless. Back home, I looked up an archived video of
the segment — it is a genuinely rousing moment. What also
occurred to me, at the same time, was that any mental
recalibration that viewers might have had to do at the sight
of their beloved morning host in her full baldness might have
been offset by her regal presence in a red sequin Isaac
Mizrahi gown.

Angelina Jolie’s op-ed ends with her assertion that “Life
comes with many challenges. The ones that should not scare us
are the ones we can take on and take control of.” I don’t
share this sentiment, as I’m arguably in a different place in
my life and medical decision-making. Control seems to me to
be a foundational myth — a mind trick that affirms our sense
of personal agency and galvanizes us to action, yet
forecloses an honest reckoning with the complexity of
navigating chance and uncertainty. The belief that taking
control of a situation — and by association, taking action —
immediately inoculates us against fear feels like a lesson
from a Hallmark movie, with tales of positive thinking
actualized and insuperable challenges overcome.

Several years into cancer and during a brief remission, my
mother used our first family computer to print out a copy of
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem A Psalm of Life. She
pasted the printed sheet on the built-in wooden cabinet in
the study room. As a child, I read the sheet so often that I
was able, for several years afterward, to recite the poem by
heart. I was moved by the stanzas that exhorted the reader to
fearlessly seize the day: “In the world’s broad field of
battle / In the bivouac of Life, / Be not like dumb, driven
cattle! / Be a hero in the strife!” Reading A Psalm of
now, I feel embarrassed by this sentimentality,
feeling as if I have been caught lingering too long in the
self-help aisle of the bookstore. But I’ve come to appreciate
the chastened wisdom in the poem’s last stanza: “Let us,
then, be up and doing, / With a heart for any fate; / Still
achieving, still pursuing, / Learn to labor and to wait.” ●

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