It's that time of year again, when people raise money to support people with blood cancer by shaving their heads.
I'm feeling quite uncomfortable about it this year.
I understand that it probably started as an act of solidarity, so that people who lose their hair due to chemotherapy don't feel so alone. I'm on prac at a high school at the moment and some students shaved their heads at lunchtime, charging admission to the hall.
I couldn't go. I couldn't bear people laughing and cheering. To lose your hair due to chemotherapy is actually awful. The hair dies on your head. To lose it is confronting. It comes out in dead handfulls. When it happened to me my primary concern was to hide it from the children because I knew how disturbing they would find it. I made an appointment for a hairdresser to shave my head as soon as possible and wore a scarf to try to keep from scaring my children. If I was caught in a breeze without the scarf I reckon my hair would have blown off my head.
When I was bald and getting about wearing a scarf I remember exchanging looks with other bald women and not knowing if they had participated in a fundraiser or if they were cancer patients. They would have looked at me with the same question.
To have your head shaven against your will is an act of violence. It is done to people to strip them of their identity, in jails and the armed forces and in concentration camps. In ancient Greece women would shave their heads when they were in mourning. In some Islander cultures a girl's head is shaved to punish her.
When you lose your hair to chemotherapy it doesn't grow back nicely. It grows back coarse and weird. For people who voluntarily shave their heads, their hair will grow back soft and lovely. They don't lose their eyebrows and eyelashes. It isn't the same.
So, while I'm happy for people to raise money for people with blood cancer, and that they are prepared to do something to raise it, and I appreciate the work of the Leukaemia Foundation (they certainly do good work in driving patients to hospital, providing accommodation for patients, and raising money for research for treatments, which is desperately needed for people with Multiple Myeloma), I'm just not up for the cheering.
Maybe next year I'll feel differently.
I wrote this before I finished reading A Short History of Stupid, by Bernard Keane and Helen Razer.
In the final chapter on Conspicuous Compassion (the idea that we show publicly that we care, sometimes through consumption, to make ourselves look and feel good, even though it does nothing to help the causes we purport to care about), Razer writes about giving money to a young man collecting for a charity in a shopping centre. He wears a bandana, like a cancer patient. She is concerned he was immuno-compromised so rang the charity and was told he was not a cancer patient but wearing a bandana 'in solidarity'.
"In solidarity with whom and by whose explicit permission? I was actually pretty appalled. I imagine if I had cancer to the degree it would require an immune-compromising toxic treatment such as chemo or radiotherapy, I would not want anyone representing me in fucking cancer drag. What is this? Leukaemia cosplay? What makes it okay to do near-death fancy dress and what the fuck is happening to my actual compassion when it is induced so often by imposters?"
Thankyou, Helen Razer.