Counseling professor explains how alopecia areata led to her baldness
Four years ago, Chereè Hammond joined the faculty in the master’s in counseling program at Eastern Mennonite University. Shortly after beginning the semester – it was a Wednesday, she remembers – she shaved her head.
She was tired of combing out clumps, of seeing precious strands between her fingers when she casually, forgetfully, ran her hands through the wisps that remained. Passing mirrors or windows, she had become obsessive about its loss, disturbed by its thin frailty, so like her grandmother’s hair.
Afterwards, looking in the mirror, she said: My hair is not a contingency of my happiness. There is nothing that has changed inside.
This practitioner of mindfulness, educator, wife and mother took a deep breath and with slow deliberation and soft eyes opened herself to perceptions of Otherness: woman, man, heterosexual, homosexual, Buddhist, Christian, cancer survivors, persons enjoying health, a person who is stared at and yes, who stares back, a receiver and giver of unasked-for acts of compassion.
Her choice to be a bald woman is layered in the contested complexities of gender and aesthetics, of sickness and health, of perception and revelation. Her own experience and interactions with others have provided rich insight into the subjects she teaches: human growth and development, multicultural counseling, psychopathology.
The hair would never come back. Hammond has embraced the baldness, savored its ambiguities, and grown to love the meditations it has inspired about identity, impermanence and non-attachment. She is still learning.
“In this university setting, we teach through the vessel of our authentic selves,” she says. “When we come to a space where something big and complex and layered happens, it can’t help but affect how we teach, why we teach and even what we teach.”
Chereè Hammond’s insights, in her own words
I have had alopecia areata, which is an autoimmune disorder, since I was 12 years old. This disease attacks the hair follicles and causes hair to fall out. It also causes your nails to flake. That is the only symptom; otherwise, I am perfectly healthy. At first, it was little dime-size bald spots that were easy to cover and would eventually just close up. I had dark brown hair and very dark brown eyebrows and long dark eyelashes. I don’t have any eyebrows or eyelashes now. Those are what I miss the most.
Four years ago, I experienced a shift in the way alopecia manifested itself and in a span of about 10 weeks, I began to lose much of my hair. I became almost obsessive about it. It was my first year at EMU. In a new setting, you’re more aware of how you present yourself. Here it seemed like I was literally falling apart, that things were falling off of me.
As a counselor and a counselor educator, what you don’t want is to have students worrying about you. In the courses I teach, students do a lot of introspection and have their own emotionality. If they’re looking at me and wondering if I’m unhealthy and I’m unwell, then that detracts from their learning. It was upsetting to me, wondering if they felt stable and solid and held in the classroom if I look like I’m sick.
So I decided that I was going to shave it. At that point, it was a temporary solution to an upsetting and distracting situation. I thought it would empower me and it did. But I did not think that I would never have my hair back. It is rare for alopecia areata to progress to alopecia universalis, which is the loss of all the hair on your body. That’s what happened soon after.
I taught a class in the morning. Then I went to the salon and they shaved my head. They gave me a little cap that women with cancer wear and I was walking home and I thought, “I really hate this thing and I’m not going to wear this.” I took it off in this kind of slow-motion moment of deciding.
When I was walking to my house, I passed my friend’s house and her little girl was playing out in front. She noticed right away and asked about it. And I said, “Yes, would you like to touch it?” And she felt it and I felt her feeling it. That was the first human contact with somebody that I knew. She was able to voice her curiosity and I was able to experience a response to my choice that was filled with warmth and shared laughter. It was this really lovely moment.
I came back and taught in the afternoon. I felt like I had to say something. Here I was with hair in the morning and no hair in the afternoon. So I said, “Some of you may have noticed I’m bald, I’m OK. I’m not ill.” And then moved on.
My husband was in Italy. And when he returned, he said, “Oh, it’s gone.” He understood.
It was different with my children. My son [then 16] later told me that he had a dream when he was 7 that I had lost my hair. He had never told me that. The decision was more meaningful for my daughter [then 22]. She has a real appreciation for aesthetics and the politics of what it means to have a body in this world. Being bi-racial and female, for her, there were a lot of questions.
Messages conveyed by hair, make-up
One morning, in Panera with my husband, I walked into the middle of several women. For some reason, I began to notice their hair in a way I’d never noticed before. A lot of effort had gone into styling, and lots of professional coloring and hairspray and that led me to notice different make-up. It seemed to be an intentional effort to convey something to everybody else and also to assure that everybody understood their socio-economic status and educational status. I don’t know that this is true, but this is how I experienced it: it was as if the make-up and hairstyling were for somebody else and not for themselves.
For a time after that, I had a grotesque feeling about hair and the way we make use of it, almost like a costume in a circus. When I had hair, I wore a little makeup, mascara, eyeliner, lipstick. But I couldn’t bring myself to do that after noticing the different ways we were speaking about ourselves through our hair and through our make-up. People make a lot of assumptions based how you look and what you wear and I wanted to step outside of that form of communication for a while.
I spent a lot of time thinking … Was I going to wear a wig to maintain some kind of social status or communicate to others about who I was or was not? Was I going to put make-up on?
These were big, complex questions. All of sudden, I was wondering who am I, what am I saying about myself and what is society wanting from me? And I realized that these choices are really privileges.
In what ways do I have the privilege of controlling how I convey that identity to others and in what ways do I not have that privilege now and who in our community – for example, people of color – has never had that privilege?
I teach about that and talk about privilege and identity, but suddenly I was in a position to experience a tiny measure of it for myself. This is how it feels to walk in the room and have an identity laid on you based on what you look like. It happens to us all every day, but for some people in our community that assigned identity is pejorative.
In the first months of my adventure as a bald woman, I was very aware of being stared at and had to understand that experience as a given if I was going to walk around with no hair. When we stare at others, we are essentially using visual information and getting caught up in what we see, thanks in part to the narrative we attach to it. I’m not immune from staring myself. Once, I was in the car and this woman was driving by and she had rollers in her hair, a cigarette hanging out of her mouth and a funny look on her face. I was staring at her and she turned her head and she was staring at me and I realized the absurdity of it: that I was a bald woman staring at a woman in curlers. “What I am doing,” I thought, “this is crazy.” That’s another reason why I wouldn’t trade this experience: It’s like a bell of awakening in that moment: “Be mindful, wake up, what are you doing?”
Inspiration for compassion
There is another layer to this, of the perception of illness. I have countless stories of people who have shown really lovely acts of compassion, even after I had been really clear that I was perfectly healthy.
On one trip, I was trying to get to the airport after a conference. A driver was trying to explain how to get there. Finally, he told me that it was really complicated set of transfers and he was about to go on break and would take me there. It took his entire 45-minute break to deliver me to the Silver Line. He sat next to me and he asked me about how I was, and I told him I was perfectly healthy and then we started to talk about his life and all of the things that were unfolding for him, the difficulties and the joys.
It was a moment that would not have happened if he hadn’t been worried about my ability to carry that heavy suitcase…it was this opportunity to see how compassionate and generous other human beings are. The baldness became a vessel for him to do that and experience that generosity in himself, but also for us to have contact that we wouldn’t have had before.
And there’s the converse of it. I’ve become an honorary member of a group of people who have had cancer and struggled through chemo or lost someone they love or nearly lost someone they love. At least once a week, someone comes up to ask me about my health, or talk to me about their own stories or sit by me uninvited to give me a blessing.
For me, it’s a reminder that people’s experiences of serious illness are a lasting trauma and that there’s a degree of isolation in it. They see someone else that they perceive to be in in the midst of chemo and still have that need for connection and to share their story, and sometimes to cry. It elicits a need in me for patience. Sometimes I just want to sit and have my coffee and I don’t want to hear that story, and then I have to remember the people who take their entire break to help me get to the Silver Line and to remember that these moments are meant to happen.
Change happens constantly
At first, the experience was about exploring my attachment to my hair. Now, it’s about my attachment to my baldness. In that way, the baldness is also about impermanence. When I look in the mirror, I am reminded of impermanence. There’s no way I can stop change. Change will happen. And it’s happening in ways that are visible and not.
This experience has helped me in my work. I see people as changing constantly, as being open and spacious and maybe in some ways less broken than I did when I first started my work. Being bald reminds me that people are constantly in a state of change, externally and internally, and different in one context and another, with one person and with another. I find that idea to be really beautiful and full of hope. It is also a bit ironic since one of the first thoughts I had after shaving my head was that nothing had changed about me. I didn’t realize how much I would be changed by the experience.
Maybe someday I will change my mind and not be so courageous. Right now, I choose not to wear make-up and not to wear earrings. I’ve gone through different periods in my life. I had a punker chick period. Now I feel like being plain and simple is a good experience for me.
By living and working without a wig, I’m just sort of saying, “Here I am and let’s see what happens,” while allowing space for that to shift. This has its own process for me and my family and community members.
My doctor recently told me about an immunosuppressant that could potentially bring my hair back. I remember thinking, “I’m not ready for that, I still have a lot to learn from this, there’s a great deal that I still have to gain from this experience.”
Article by Lauren Jefferson. Photo by Justin Roth.