When I published a picture of myself without hair two years ago — wan, wide-eyed and in the middle of chemotherapy — I feared there could be repercussions.
My main concern was presenting myself in public during such a stressful time. Attracting ridicule for the way I looked played in the back of my mind.
As it happened, the response was only positive. Instead of people responding to me as someone sickly and unsightly, the reactions were quite the opposite.
I was buoyed by the reactions and continued to post photos throughout treatment. I drew enormous strength from the human connection I found on social media through the isolation of COVID.
Then, recently, a digger dug in.
An unexpected discovery
My husband Hugh, also a journalist, has been reporting on the Ben Roberts-Smith defamation trial for the past few months.
Someone on social media took exception to his coverage — arguing he was terrorizing battle-hardened diggers when they were vulnerable — and to settle scores this poster decided to target me for ridicule.
Mustering levels of comedic genius comparable only to Chris Rock’s infamous performance at the Oscars, the owner of the account produced a meme comparing me to the sunken-eyed, straggly-haired Gollum from The Hobbit.
Given I am also skinny and long-limbed, the likeness was uncanny.
It felt to me they were trying to strike someone at their most vulnerable.
It is only a small set of people willing to publicly take a stab at someone for looking sub-optimal while going through cancer treatment.
Little did they know, it brought a wry smile to my face to think a bloke out in the ether could wound me by poking fun at my beloved baldness.
You see, after going through chemo, I discovered I rather liked having no hair.
What this social media poster didn’t know is that during the lowest points of my treatment I had identified with pallid Gollum.
But I had more often thought of Charlize Theron in Mad Max: Fury Road, Sigourney Weaver in Alien 3, and Sinead O’Connor when she took a stand against everything expected of her.
A hairy double standard
The experience got me thinking: why is baldness acceptable for men but so confronting when embraced by women?
And why are those same bald heads on women so troubling for some men, yet something experienced quite differently by the women themselves?
Since losing much of her hair to androgenic alopecia, self-described “hair loss boss” Kellie Scott (also an ABC journalist) has been a voice for the follicularly challenged.
As she sees it, part of the problem is women are still subject to a lot of “bulls**t beauty standards” and women with long hair hold more value in society.
Nothing too surprising there, other than how at odds those ideas are with women’s lived experience.
Scott’s research into hair loss and her interaction with women experiencing it has shown that while the loss of hair can be extremely challenging for women, shaving it off can be a bold and welcome step.
“I’d say 99 percent of women who I’ve seen buzz their hair in the community say it’s nothing but empowering,” she says.
“They are so glad to be rid of that daily reminder that their hair isn’t living up to the Pantene commercial they saw on TV.”
Prepared for the fight of my life
That was certainly my experience.
Two weeks into chemo, with hair falling out in clumps, I did not identify with how I looked.
Some days the fatigue meant having to take a break halfway up a flight of stairs, but in my head I was a mortal combatant and in the fight of my life.
Doing away with the frivolity of pesky hair and going about soon suited the frame of mind I needed to get through.
Just as it has many men wanting to look the part.
So it’s curious that someone who considers themselves “battle-hardened” would look at a bald woman and see someone fragile, vulnerable or weak.
Of course, the intention was to land a low blow, but as the Oscars incident with Jada Pinkett-Smith demonstrated, some men are uncomfortable with shaven-head women.
“I think men feel threatened by it,” says Scott, admitting the comment comes from a hetero-normative standard, and she believes shaven-headed women “don’t fit the box we are supposed to fit in to”.
Hair, or lack of it, comes with baggage
Black women’s relationship with their hair and society’s expectations of it is complex and not for me to explore, but I did find it strange that Pinkett-Smith’s husband, Will Smith, felt the need to jump to her defence.
To me, she looked very much like a person who could defend herself.
Of course, a lot of men struggled with their own hair loss.
But Scott says there is a double standard applied when they take control of their depleted crania.
“It’s acceptable for men to then buzz their heads and [they will] possibly be seen as even more masculine for doing so,” she says.
A bare female head, by comparison, is often mistaken for a sign of radical thinking, a rejection of gender norms or worse, Scott argues.
Scott points to the reaction Britney Spears received when she shaved her head — something we all have a bit more insight into now.
“Women who shave their heads aren’t all having a mental breakdown,” she says.
Attempting to reduce women by either cutting their hair or ridiculing their cropped locks is a centuries-old device; think of Joan of Arc from history or Cersei Lannister from Game of Thrones.
What a self-defeating strategy.
Surely, in stripping away the superfluous, the result is not a lesser but a truer form, unadorned by the nonsense we coat ourselves in.
Nothing reveals the core of your being like confronting a life-threatening condition, so to me it felt appropriate to go through it stripped bare.
And perhaps not surprisingly, I did not spend those challenging months thinking about how I looked.
Perhaps that’s what most troubles those upset by women who dispatch their tresses — the suggestion that she doesn’t care what you think of how she looks.