On Appearances: One Month Out

"You don't know what you've got, until it's gone."

“You don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone.”

Printed in pink, fading block letters on a white, ribbed tank top I have since misplaced from years ago, this saying has been etched in my mind for just as long. I suppose that having witnessed various losses in my life, it is a truth that I seem to keep forgetting—or, more generously, one that we all inevitably understand many times over.

While applicable to tangible things, it is the intangible connections we make that become difficult to bear once broken. The love for our grandparents, pets, friends, even celebrity idols—losing all that these relationships have had to offer in shaping our lives guarantees a seemingly sudden outpouring of appreciation for their value and importance.

Hair, while plainly tangible, contains a valuable connection to how we—often women—identify our relationship both to ourselves and to others. We think, she’s the girl with the fiery red, uncontrollably curly hair, while she’s the Asian with the blond hair in LA. She’s the ombréd brunette with a Japanese perm, while she’s the one with the long, beautiful mane that has never been cut. Some of us spend a ridiculous amount of money on maintaining how we present ourselves to the public. What results from such cultivation is a very personal attachment to our locks. Targeted marketing makes us believe that hair defines us and even requires as much care as our people-to-people (or people-to-pet) relationships. With hair treatments costing hundreds of dollars and retail stores and influencers alike pushing one expensive product after another, it’s no wonder that women can be so hopelessly attached to something as simple as hair.

To my parents’ and my surprise, when I sat in the salon chair in front of a sympathetic stranger prepared to buzz off my straightened, ombréd hair, I didn’t cry. What could have been a typical America’s Next Top Model makeover-meltdown ended up being an experience simply of relief, given that the days leading up to this apparently nondramatic moment consisted of laughable, substantial shedding. Bald spots were not a cute look.

Yet, in the months that followed, it became clear the lack of tears was not simply strength or resolve. I inevitably realized not only that the relief was short-lived, but also that I am no different from any other girl. I miss my hair. I felt much prettier with it. And no hat or wig can change that. A loss is a loss. Especially when it involves personal appearance, what should be private matter becomes subjected to the prying public, even when I do attempt to cover it with a hat. Society can be stubborn like that.

One month after my sixth and final chemotherapy treatment, my hair is making its painfully slow return into a more acceptable “peach fuzz,” as my sister called it.

My eyebrows had only thinned ever so slightly, but I have since gotten into the habit of darkening them up a bit with some Korean eyebrow powder. My eyelashes, thankfully, have remained nicely in tact and looking quite nice as usual with the help of some mascara.

They say chemo darkens the skin, which is honestly something I dreaded as someone who has spent enough time in “white skin reigns supreme” Asia, but with the help of some Vitamin C serum on the facial dark spots from my teen-tanning days, I can’t say I’ve noticed much of a difference.

I have lost a little bit of weight, but I chalk that up to the stress more than anything.

There are likely other physical differences that I haven’t noticed myself. Perhaps I have changed ever so subtly in my demeanor or how I carry myself. Perhaps I am no longer as uncontrollably giggly when in, well, most situations. Perhaps one could see it in my eyes—the look of having gone through something no one ever should. But most of the time, I know I look fine. I know I look like I am doing well. And I am.

Kata Noi Beach in Thailand

But folks, the hair struggle is real, and it will be interesting to see how I will style it over the next few years. For now, I masochistically look back at old photos and feel a little less “beautiful,” a little less “pretty.”

Even in my happiest bald moments, I can’t help but think about the BALDNESS.

I have gone to gyms, pools, and fitness classes bald, because what other choice do I have? But I am worried about when I start my internships and classes in Taiwan, where I once took three showers on one particularly hot summer day.

Will I give up the wig and hat altogether?

It’s easy to tell ourselves to not care about what other people think, and I truly do not want to, but when my own mother—who has been through it all with me—still laughs at me and at the idea that others will stare when I forget my hat, it makes going bald that much more difficult.

Ultimately, hat or no hat, wig or no wig, the decision is and has always been mine. People will ask, people will stare, and while I can’t see myself giving it a trial run just yet, I know I’ll get there eventually.