As a young child I’d often daydream about what I would be like as an adult. Would I be successful? Would I dress well? Would I have a dog? I could visualise my future clearly in my mind’s eye: as a grown up, I’d be married with children, happy and fulfilled. I’d be stylish and beautiful. I would be all of these things and more by twenty-five, which seemed like an impossibly old age at the time.
At twenty-eight, I can tell you that I’m not married and I don’t have children, which are things that I’m not invested in right now. I am happy with my life and feel very privileged to do the work I do, and I feel fulfilled as a result of that work. I like to think that I’m stylish, but the question of whether or not I’m beautiful is a fraught one for me.
Like many women I feel like I’m constantly navigating what ‘beauty’ means as well as having to unlearn a lifetime’s worth of negative messages about my appearance—ones that come from the media, our family, our friends, ourselves, and unwarranted comments from passing motorists. Like many women, I have complexes about my body. But there’s an aspect of my appearance that complicates things, because unlike most women, I’m bald.
Having hair as a woman gave you cultural currency: it earned you a place among a community of women, and it made you an object of desire.
Within a few months, I went from having thick, long hair that hung past my shoulders to a handful of wispy hairs that I covered up with a bandana. As a lonely teenager desperate for friends and for romance, it struck me then how having hair as a woman gave you cultural currency: it earned you a place among a community of women, and it made you an object of desire.
Until then, I’d underestimated how much of our identity is informed by our hair, and how deeply it connects us to each other. We make universal small talk about hair; we redefine our look with it; we create rituals around it (monthly visits to the salon); others define us by it (“He/she’s a blonde/brunette/redhead”), and we obsess over it to the point where hair care has become a billion dollar industry. Our hair is inextricably linked with who we are, so what happens when you lose it?
Our hair is inextricably linked with who we are, so what happens when you lose it?
I found that I lost myself; I wanted to disappear. As a teenager, any kind of difference is unwelcome, and being bald only compounded my differences. I already stuck out like a sore thumb because I was an Asian-Australian growing up on the Sunshine Coast in Queensland in the 1990s, when One Nation and Pauline Hanson’s toxic rhetoric about Asian people resonated strongly with locals. As a bald Asian-Australian, things only got worse.
When I wasn’t being avoided, I was being bullied and stared at, so most of my adolescence was spent trying to blend in, to become smaller and unseen. I stopped trying to look ‘pretty’ and ‘feminine’, things I desperately wanted to be, because I’d never seen a pretty, bald woman before. I wore my brother’s hand-me-down clothes and made my own bandanas with plain material I bought from Spotlight.
And I stayed silent during conversations about makeup and boys; I didn’t feel like there was much sense in trying to be ‘girly’. When my hair grew back in my final year of high school, I expected to feel whole again, like my life was fixed, and for a period of time I did feel that way. But it wasn’t long until I felt bereft, like I was grieving for myself.
Men’s interest didn’t make me feel desired or sexy; it made me feel angry and sick. Why was I wanted now, when I was the same person with or without hair?
Out of school, I transformed physically from a bald Asian kid who inspired no sexual interest to a young, Asian woman with a full head of hair and a basic understanding of makeup application. Suddenly men desired what I represented: an ‘exotic’ beauty and model minority upon whom they could prey.
Inside, I was still jaded and confused. Men’s interest didn’t make me feel desired or sexy; it made me feel angry and sick. Why was I wanted now, when I was the same person with or without hair? (In this way, I’ll always be grateful for how alopecia exposed me to how performative appearances and gender can be. At best, these things are an apparition.)
With age and time, I’ve become more comfortable with my baldness, but that’s only because I actively sought out other examples of bald women leading ordinary lives. I still hold those examples close to my heart: Anna Fitzpatrick, a New Zealand model, and Gail Porter, a Scottish media figure. Their presence normalised having alopecia and reassured me that I could have the same confidence as women who have hair. I recently saw Black Panther and that helped too. Any kind of representation for minorities means the world; it’s always helpful to have more of it.
Homecoming Queens will premiere and be available to stream via SBS On Demand this Thursday April 12.