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The Fabulous Adventures of Astera: Writer/Actress for Hire

Meet Astera (aka: me), a star in her own mind. Our plucky little heroine has embarked on not one but two difficult, low-paying career paths: writing and acting. Witness the menial jobs! The unreasonable demands! The quirky friends and family! And the glimmer of success just ahead! Through it all, Astera maintains her core beliefs: 1) She is destined to be fabulous 2) Everything is more fun with a cocktail.

Friday, December 03, 2004

Hair Issues

Yesterday, I cut my hair off. I can almost hear the collective gasp: "What? Shorter than it is in your fabulous headshot?" Indeed, it is true. I have embraced short, short hair. And it's all because of one thing: cancer.

I used to have "regular" hair. Boring, but dependable. I did the bi-level curling iron bangs in middle school, the perm thing in the early 1990s. But from college until the time I was 26, my hair rarely changed. It was basic brown, enhanced by a few highlights. It hovered around chin-length, and every day I put mousse in it, blew it dry, and set it on Velcro rollers while I did my makeup. Only my intimates were allowed to see me in this state--my parents and close friends. If I had been dating the same guy for a while, I would sometimes be comfortable enough to let him see me looking like a woman out of a 1950s beauty parlor, but usually I kept the bathroom door firmly shut. I knew my hair wasn't great, but it was okay. There just wasn't much I could do with it. It was fine and thin and began to look strangely stringy and straw-like if I tried to grow it any longer. And I'd never cut it shorter. It just wasn't something I considered. Yes, my hairstyling routine added about 20 minutes to my estimated time of departure every morning, but that's just the way it was. Even my stylist knew better than to try and talk me in to going shorter. What a boring client I was!

All that changed quite rapidly in September of 2002. Facing the prospect of several rounds of chemotherapy, I knew my hair was not long for this world. So I decided to cut it. Nothing too radical--I didn't buzz it all off or Bic my scalp. But I did get a nice, tasteful pixie cut. People who hadn't seen me in a while thought I'd finally broken out of my hairstyling rut. They must have been confused when they saw me a few weeks later sporting much longer locks--my wig had been specially designed to match my "classic" hairstyle.

The short cut was definitely more manageable, but I didn't feel like myself, no matter how many times my boyfriend told me that he loved it. What was he gonna say..."I hate it, grow it back"? If there's one thing I've learned, it's that no one--no one--will tell you the truth about your appearance when you're a cancer patient. Everyone always tells you that you look great, even when your skin is pasty and your face is puffy from all the prednisone. It's like a rule--they have a mandate to lie. I had close, personal friends who insisted that my wig looked totally natural. I have very few pictures of myself from that period of time, but that is an absolute falsehood. My wig looked like a wig, and not a particularly flattering one at that. But I am grateful for their lies. I would have been devastated if I thought I had looked terrible.

Anyway. Back to the short hair. It just didn't seem like me. But losing your hair is a messy business, so it was easier to deal with shedding short hair. It's odd, but I actually felt a lot more normal when I was wearing my wig than I did with the short hair. I don't know why it didn't occur to me that I was going to have no hair, and then really, really short hair, for a very long time. Maybe I just thought I'd keep wearing my wig until my hair grew back.

That's not what happened, of course. At first, the wig was fine. But I quickly grew tired of fake hair. I wanted my own hair back, if only to cover up my ghostly white, bumpy scalp. (I had always had a horror of going bald because I knew that my skull was oddly formed. I could feel the whorls and bumps beneath my hair. And sure enough, when I lost my hair, my bare head looked just as bad as I had feared.) So, when some peach fuzz started coming in around New Year's, I was very excited. A few weeks later, I bought some clippers and let my boyfriend tidy up the stray wisps. And at the end of January, I went for my first real haircut in four months. I wore my wig into my regular salon, fully expecting to wear it back out. But once my stylist had given shape to the fuzz, another woman in the salon went on and on about how great my hair was. Admittedly, she was a punk rock type and probably thought I was trying to make some avant-garde statement. As I stared in the mirror, though, suddenly it didn't seem quite so bad. It was short. Very, very short. G.I. Jane short. Sinead O'Connor short. But it was my hair, not some awful synthetic that got stored on a wig stand every night. So I tucked the wig into my purse and drove home to see how it felt.

It felt cold. I'd been used to wearing either my wig or a little hat at all times, because I didn't want to disturb anyone with the sight of my skull. I finally realized that it was true, that you really do lose about half your body heat through your head. My boyfriend was delighted, though. He hated the wig. And so, with a few positive endorsements, I decided to try out my shorn head in public. I went to a college basketball game with a bunch of friends that afternoon, and apart from squealing, "You have hair!", no one really batted an eye. Well, except for Chip, who wanted to stroke my buzz cut and called my Sinead. But that's just Chip.

Here's what happened while my hair was approximately a quarter of an inch long: I finally got comfortable with my face. I had no choice. There was so much of it! And I gained a lot of confidence, partly because I didn't have any hair to hide behind, and partly just because of everything I had gone through. I also got a lot of compliments. Perfect strangers came up to me to tell me how much they loved my hairstyle. Eventually, my boyfriend even got me to just smile and say thanks, instead of regaling them with the tale of how my hair was only so short because I had recently lost it all to cancer. I still never thought the short hair would be permanent, though. I planned to return to my same old style. But gradually, I realized I liked having short hair. It was simple and it was different. So when it grew back into a stylish pixie, I threw away the Velcro rollers for good.

I still have a little bit of anxiety when I get my hair cut. Is it too short? Is it too boyish? Maybe this time I should grow it out a little more, I think. And then four weeks later, it's driving me crazy because it's too long, so off I go to the salon, happy to have it cut again.


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