I could see it coming a mile away - I always seem to be able to spot them. The drunk guy having a slight altercation at the entry to a restaurant, just south of Time Square. Having been turned away by the door attendant, he continued his amble down the street only to turn just in time to catch my eye.
Him: “Blessings, sister. I wish you all the best”.
Me - nodding politely “Thanks” - barely audible, attempting to keep walking.
Him: he approaches, eyes fixed on me. “My mom had [insert unintelligible disease]. I pray for you. I’m a healer”.
Me - still trying to be polite for some reason “K, Thanks.”
A few more exchanges as I try to politely indicate I was not interested in continuing the conversation.
Me: “Thanks, but we’re trying to just get on with our day”.
Him: “I was just trying to be nice….” Other dismissive statements trail us down the street as he finally stops following us.
This is not new for me.
When I stopped hiding my baldness with a beanie, at about 17 years old, I started to have people approach me to touch my head.
Some were polite - asking first. I often said yes.
Some just went for it and being non-confrontational I let it happen.
It took me a long time, well into my 20s, to accept some excellent advice from a close friend who questioned whether I was actually okay with it.
Sure - partying, drinking, clubbing, attention seeking me was okay with it. This was my most prominent feature and I’d been accepting (albeit reluctantly) people’s opinions, thoughts, prayers and questions about it my entire life.
On reflection though, and considering the presented context from her - that people don't generally come up and touch other women in the face - I realized I’d just been doing what I’d done my entire life - letting others’ invade my personal space, out of a desire to not make the situation more uncomfortable. Choosing the path of least resistance.
I’d never stopped to question why other people thought this was totally okay, or how they’d react if the roles were reversed, even though I knew I would never do the same to another person - simply because I knew how it felt on the receiving end.
I think we all do this sometimes, especially women. We put aside our boundaries, our discomfort, our frustration to ensure smooth sailing. To not disrupt the status quo.
Recently I was meeting some friends in Time Square, NYC. Literally the first time I’d seen a friendly face in about a year of social distancing and caution.
Hence it had also been a year since I’d been in a situation (for any extended period of time) where a complete stranger would be able to comment on my bald head. Up until recently this was at least a weekly occurrence for me - throughout my life. I wrote a whole post about these kinds of questions here.
You’d think by this time, 3 decades into living as a bald person, I would have my responses down pat. Apparently I’m a little rusty.
The drunk man described above not only made assumptions and comments, but physically followed my friend and I down the street.
Sometimes, I’m still not great at dealing with it.
I felt embarrassed. These friends hadn’t spent that much time with me, and I’m sure this was a fun insight into my life.
I felt ashamed. I didn’t invite this, but I had also dealt with it badly. It’s a pandemic and this guy was up close in our business, no mask. My friends had their kids with us.
I felt powerless. I know I’m not. I know I have to be more assertive. After a year not having to confront this kind of interaction, I’d lost my New York edge - which had taken a while to build up to be honest - if you haven’t been to NYC, it’s a different type of edge than what you need in my smallish home city of Brisbane
I felt angry. At myself and people’s entirely ridiculous need to invade the personal space of others and pass comments.
I stewed on it for days. I almost wrote to my friends to apologise, but my husband reminded me it wasn’t my fault.
Why do we do this?
This is not a new story. I’ve heard many similar situations from others with appearance diversity - where they were confronted by someone’s comments or stares or prayers and also didn’t respond in the way they had wished later.
We take on this situation instead - acknowledging the person, trying to have a minimum interaction with them, before attempting to leave it. Allowing this person our time, energy and depending on the situation, personal space. We spend hours going over it in our heads, and wondering what we would have done differently.
Should we just tell them to f*** off?
Should we explain alopecia/cancer/lupus [insert hair loss condition here] and treat it as a teaching moment - yay for education and raising awareness?
Should we have just ignored them? Pretended we didn’t hear?
And following this we start to imagine how they may have reacted.
If we’re rude - will they start yelling abuse at us?
If we explain alopecia - will we get a big tirade about how we’re so strong? Or how sorry they are for us? Or worse - how their best friend’s, sister’s, niece gave up gluten and all her hair grew back?
In my opinion, this is especially difficult for kids with alopecia. Taught to respect their elders, and/or already struggling with looking different, they sometimes try to absorb or take on the embarrassment of incorrect gendering, or invasive questions - staying silent, or smiling and nodding. Also, if this is a pattern we relied on as a child, it can follow us into these interactions in adulthood.
For many of us, it starts with this recalculation of past experiences and spirals into attempting to predict all future interactions and what we can say next time.
If this turns into a solid standard response that diminishes our anxiety - that’s great.
If it instead fuels our anxiety about our hair loss, or difference, then it can significantly impact how we engage with those around us.
As a coping mechanism, I think we all need the rote explanation that summarizes and dismisses (and if you choose to - educates) as quickly as possible so we can stop expending time, energy and emotions on people who more often than not - do not deserve it.
We are no one’s teaching moment.
I sound harsh. I know.
My most recent experience bothered me. As with many experiences I’ve had looking different, they come in cycles. Repeating in different ways and teaching me something every time.
In my particular situation this time, it was a drunk man, his mate was nearby and I was with a young family. I couldn’t risk a full on confrontation. If I’d been alone, or with just my husband - the situation would have been completely different.
I liken it to any woman being confronted by a man on the street - whether it’s a “polite” request to smile, a pretty compliment or a vulgar cat call - most of us will try to get away from the situation with as little confrontation as possible. Just having another man with us will often prevent these situations from happening (for better or worse).
If it was a sober person who had come up to me, it might have been different.
If it was a woman, or a child, different again.
September is Alopecia Awareness month.
August 7th is Alopecia Awareness day (first Saturday in August).
I’ve had long enough to stew on this, and while I can sound harsh above, I do strongly believe in advocacy, representation and living my life as a bald woman - showing people that it’s okay to look different and educating others on hair loss.
Not every moment is a teaching moment though, and we should never feel pressured to answer any questions we aren't comfortable with.
As my pregnancy progresses and I start imagining a world in which my kid will grow up - I dream of a place where looking different is embraced and not dismissed. Where beauty standards don’t shut down the uniqueness of each individual and instead allow space for those who would previously have been put aside.
A world where acceptance is the norm and empathy flourishes.
For now though, I want to reassure you that if you are experiencing hair loss, and the comments, stares, questions of others - that you are not alone. That even if you don’t deal with it in a way you love - it’s okay. Years of practice have made it easier for me - but not all the time.
At some point I want to write more about how to deal with it. It’s coming, I can feel it brewing inside of me.
In the meantime, I strongly believe that as we continue to raise awareness and represent - hopefully these situations become fewer and farther between. For me, even though I sometimes tire of it, if someone asks me questions about alopecia this month - I will make the choice to educate them, because I know I have the resources to do so.
If this is not for you this month, then I 100% support you saying fuck off, or no, or ignoring people. Just because this is an awareness month - doesn’t mean you need to go running into advocacy mode. You do you.