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Becoming part of a different normal

I ordered a wig in anticipation of my hair falling out; I won't be wearing it during chemotherapy

“It will take about two to two-and-a-half weeks before you lose your hair,” the nurse said at the preparatory meeting, before I began treatment. “There are three weeks between treatments, so you will lose your hair and might see new hair begin to grow again before the next treatment.”

I was 21 years old when I first cut my long brown hair very short. It was a deliberate provocation against the norm at the time when young hippie women should have long fluttering hair. Now I am 61 years old; this time, I was not the one to choose to step outside the norm.

It was sometime during the early 1970s on a family trip to the Gambia that it occurred to me for the first time that the norm is not constant. I was unprepared for the feeling that struck me the first day I paraded my chalk-white skin on the streets and markets of Gambia among thousands of black Africans. I felt so wrong. The Africans were normal. I, my mom, dad, and brother with our luminous white skin were completely different – and wrong.

No one was offending us. Nevertheless, I remember a teenager’s shock of having a lifelong concept of “normal” turned upside down. The shock mixed with desperation of not being able to change anything and an intense desire to run away and stay away.

The second time I realized how strong the desire to belong and be part of the norm was years later on board the ferry crossing Storebælt (Denmark). It was summer vacation, and my daughter was 3 years old, long before the culture of iPads and iPhones invaded the children’s world.

On board the ferry, there was a video room where children could watch Disney movies. I happily sent my little girl to watch the videos with all the other summer vacation kids. Only a few minutes passed before she came out, and despite my persistent urges, refused to go back in.

“It is not for me, because all the other children have white hair,” my little black-haired, brown-eyed loveliness explained. Her ability to observe was excellent, but to me, her mother, her conclusion was devastating.

Years later, I told a friend, an Israeli psychologist of Yemenite descent, about the experience. She told me that at 5, she had tried to scrub her skin with bleach. She wanted to get rid of her dark olive color to look like the majority of the other kids in school. That too was devastating.

Recently, the feeling of being outside the norm, outside the community, hit me in a completely different context.

I arrived for my first chemotherapy treatment at Tel Hashomer Hospital just outside Tel Aviv. By its very nature, a gynecologic oncology department is exclusively for women. I looked around, puzzled by the faces.

It took a split second before I realized that I just had not imagined women in chemotherapy being bald. My brain demanded time to process and understand the concept of “women without hair.”

Little by little, I turned my prejudices against myself. It felt completely wrong to walk into an oncology department with a full head of my own natural hair, even though I did notice the small soft downs mentioned by the nurse on some of the bald ladies’ heads.

I have now ordered a wig. It will look exactly like my own hair. Short, salt and pepper-gray. I do not know yet where and when I will want to wear it.

A friend currently traveling around in Laos among devout Buddhists just wrote me that she sees so many beautiful women with shaved heads that I might consider going without a wig at all.

One thing is for sure: next time I go for chemotherapy, I will not wear the wig. I want to be part of the community.

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