Jewish Journal


April 19, 2001

Head Trip


Jim Wayne has cut my hair for more than 20 years. He created first the wedge look and now the clipped curly style of my professional photos. He cut my hair after my husband's funeral and let my hair grow long when I began dating. He set my daughter's French twist for her bat mitzvah and did a blunt cut for her high school senior prom. Once, in a fit of creativity, he chopped my locks to within an inch and dyed what was left purple. Curly or wavy, tinted or natural, we've been through it all. But though Jim and I go back a long way, nothing prepared either of us for the day last week when he took an electric shaver and buzzed me bald.

"You have a great-shaped head," he said. "You'll be fine."

His voice was a low growl, the way men sound when they are swallowing tears. The timbre reminded me of how my surgeon, C. Gordon Frank, sounded when he was getting ready to take out part of my lung.

"You're tough," Frank told me. "You'll be fine."

Jim sat me in Nicole's manicurist corner with the curtains drawn. We gossiped about politics, culture and everyone we all know. As I heard the sound of the shaver, I held on tight and reached for a prayer.

"Thank you, God, for allowing me to reach this season."

I felt insane. Why was I saying "Shehecheyanu," the prayer of survival, in the midst of chemotherapy? First, I couldn't think of anything else. But also because it was the right thing to do.

I had been losing my hair all week, beginning day 12 after chemo. My parents, visiting for Passover, were thrilled to see me looking normal and healthy, and I was happy to comply. Cancer is a disease as much about appearance as reality. We won't know how the tumor cells are doing until the next CT scan. But we all know that a woman with her own curly hair is doing well.

By the end of their stay, I was leaking hair all over my pillow. I wore my wig for my folks, so they wouldn't go into shock the next time.

"You look cute," my father said. "You'll do fine."

But as Jim's razor made its way up and down my scalp, I felt quite other than fine. I felt militantly grateful. And powerfully confused. Grateful to science for getting me to Taxol, the chemotherapy of choice for lung cancer.

But confused: The whole world would look at me, a bald woman with a fringe of black hair, and say "Oh my God, Marlene has cancer." I wanted them to say, "Oh, thank God, Marlene's in treatment for her cancer." If I weren't in chemo, then surely I would keep my hair and everyone might be relieved. And just as surely, I would die.

Coincidentally, I had forgotten to bring my wig to Jim's. I left his Beverly Hills salon and drove immediately to a feminist seder at Kehillat Israel. I walked into the synagogue social hall, late and tall. Immediately there were 150 people eyeing my new naked do. I felt strong and sexy, like in the '60s when I went out without a bra. And just as saggy when the night was through.

The next day I wore my wig. It is blonde, elegant and organized in a City Councilwoman Laura Chick way, which my curly hair has never been. There was nothing to explain. No politics of uplift. No one asked how I was, because with a wig, I look fine.

Here is my dilemma: I can present myself to the world bald, brave and true -- and scare people away. Or I can wear the wig, attractive and false, and get the comfort from others that I need to survive.

Judaism has two words for female beauty, reflecting the public and private spheres of life: they are yofi and chen.

Yofi is conventional, physical beauty, the kind that attracts men and women to each other at the currently popular Speed Dating extravaganzas. Would I wear my baseball cap or go bald to a Speed Dating session? Probably not. Would I wear the turquoise turban that makes me look like my Aunt Anna? Only on the 10th date, if then.

Chen is the more difficult, intimate beauty. It means finding favor. Chen is inner light, truthful self-acceptance, and it is rare indeed.

Maybe the answer for the wig vs. bald conundrum is that there are no set answers. Like cancer, I deal with it one day at a time, one situation on its own terms.

One might hope that my closest friends would find my bare skull attractive. They saw me through my surgery. They sit with me in my chemo. They understand my doctors. They say "Shehecheyanu" with each victory. They know the chen in me.

But if we are going to the theater, they'd probably say, "Yofi. Live a little. Wear the wig."

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