A Yahoo Beauty exclusive. Photos by David Cicconi. Produced by Nadeen Nakib.
When I shaved my head as an expression of fierceness back in my 20s, my mom freaked out. “I can’t look at you,” she admitted. “It reminds me of cancer — or the Holocaust.” But to me it looked and felt freeing and powerful, and hair seemed, at least for a time, like a ridiculous, burdensome construct.
While I eventually grew it back, my perspective has remained forever altered — as has my awareness that, when it comes to bald women, our culture has serious issues.
It has particularly hit home for me in very recent years, as I’ve seen women I love go through chemo, all dealing with their hair loss in different ways — yet still having to figure out how to deal, if only slightly, with something so completely immaterial, even in the face of their own mortality.
It’s that struggle that inspired Yahoo Beauty to invite seven amazing, beautiful women who have hairless heads — a few by choice, others as a result of a medical issue — to come into our New York City studios and give some gorgeous, bald realness. The result is a joyous celebration — and a wonderful reminder that, as several of our models noted, “It’s just hair.”
Samantha Berlin, 23, account manager
Why no hair? Alopecia.
Berlin was diagnosed at age 5 with alopecia areata — an autoimmune disease causing partial hair loss — and then, when she lost all her hair at 19, diagnosed with alopecia universalis, meaning hair loss over her entire body.
How complete hair loss affected her: “When I look at pictures of myself from [that time], I don’t even recognize myself because there was such sadness in my face,” she recalled. “It took me time to realize that losing my hair was an actual loss. I had to mourn it. Then I went through stages of feeling bad about feeling bad. My therapist said, ‘You have to mourn this like a loss, and understand the gravity of the situation.’ … I went through all the phases [of grief] really fast, pushing myself forward. Sometimes I forget that what I went through was really life-changing. My life is completely different because I don’t have hair — the way I interact with the world is so different, the way I identify myself is so different. At 20 years old, I had to completely re-identify myself as a woman.”
Why she wore a wig at first — then stopped: “I remember putting it on and feeling like I could breathe, like I had a choice again, and there was so much about the alopecia that wasn’t my choice. It looked just like my hair — long, brown, same cut,” Berlin says. But then something shifted. “The day before [my senior year of] classes started, I decided I wasn’t going to wear my wig anymore. I woke up and it was like when you love someone — you just know it. I started wearing my wig because it made me feel confident and beautiful and like I had a choice. But then it made me feel like I was only wearing it for other people. And that’s when I decided I’m done with it. … First I had to love me as a human being. There was nothing else I had. So I have an appreciation and truly do love myself, and, as sad as it is, I think it’s rare for a woman my age to feel that.”
Thoughts on beauty: “My best friend is amazing at makeup, and she made me feel alive again, teaching me how to really do it. Makeup just made me feel so beautiful again, and so confident in myself, and it tapped into the artistic side of me. … But being beautiful is a fluid thing, and just because you don’t look a certain way doesn’t mean you can’t feel beautiful. That’s something that takes time, but it’s the most valuable thing you can learn.”
Desiree Walker, 54, breast-cancer patient advocate
Why no hair? Chemo-inspired choice.
After first losing her hair during chemo treatments for a breast cancer recurrence seven years ago, Walker decided to maintain her baldness as a “lifestyle,” as maintaining her hair required more energy than she felt she had to give. “Chemo introduced the concept,” she says, “but I’ve chosen to embrace it.”
What her hair was like before: “I had locs, so my hair was down my back. But I realized once I had the second diagnosis that chemo was going to be a factor, and I’d have to shave my head. I had a girlfriend who had a prior experience and spoke about how she woke up with her hair on the pillow, and I didn’t really want to experience that trauma. So I cut it early in the process as opposed to waiting for it to fall out.” A random encounter gave her some needed inspiration. “Shortly after cutting my hair,” she recalls, “I was walking down the street, and this woman who clearly had some [mental issues] was coming down the street and passed me. I heard her say, ‘Miss! Miss!’ and I was like, ‘Oh, I don’t have money, what does she want?’ But I stopped and turned around. She said, ‘I don’t mean to bother you, but I just want to tell you that you look really beautiful with your hair like that.’ I was just floored, because with all that was clearly going on with her, she noticed me. We don’t always notice the people around us.”
Dana Blair, 34, on-air personality
Why no hair? Personal choice.
Why she shaves her head: “In 2012 I was in Brazil for Carnival, I was coming out of a bad breakup, and I said to my friend, ‘I need to cut off my hair.’ So we found a barber. I had a little pixie cut. [The next morning] I saw myself in the mirror and started crying,” she recalls. Back home in Brooklyn, Blair shaved it even lower and was tortured with the result. “I hated looking at myself. I was like, ‘You’re ugly, your nose is too big, your skin is too bad, your eyes are too far apart.’ And then they were too close together at one point. I picked myself apart. I picked every piece of my face apart … my acne …and said, ‘Now I have to lose weight because I need a slender face.’ And then I got mad at myself because I didn’t like myself — because I never saw myself as one of those chicks with a self-esteem issue. Then I realized I was one,” she says. “I was like, no — you’re going to keep this and deal with this until you like looking at yourself in the mirror and everything else becomes extra. And that’s why I kept it. Then after a couple of months, I couldn’t imagine myself any other way.”
Reactions from others: “I’m from a small town in Louisiana. When I first went home and my dad saw me — and he’s used to me doing crazy highlights and stuff — my father’s first question was, ‘Are you sick? Is everything OK?’ I said yes. He just wanted to make sure I was OK mentally and emotionally and that I didn’t have my Britney Spears moment. My town would say, ‘Dana’s a lesbian and she’s on chemo, and all hell’s broken loose! [Laughs] It’s a two-for-one.’”
What she’s learned: “You know when you’re younger you hear clichés like beauty is in the eye of the beholder? You’re like, ‘That’s bullshit.’ But it genuinely is true. I think I’m comfortable with who I am, and that radiates out. I just think beauty is you defining it for yourself — owning what your beauty is. Because, let’s face it: There are people who rip Beyoncé apart on a daily basis. There’s always going to be someone to pick you apart.”
Erica Woda, 33, high school athletic director
Why no hair? Chemo.
After receiving a breast cancer diagnosis in May, Woda started chemotherapy in July and is now past her halfway point. Her hair began to fall out just 17 days after her first treatment.
Her initial hair-loss experience: “The nurses told me exactly when I would lose it, so the week prior, I did a Mohawk look — I shaved the sides, I rocked the look for a week, and then [a friend] buzzed it all for me,” she says. “The day I did it, I remember going out to dinner and feeling so empowered. The next day I started to notice people staring at me and it was really tough. I thought, Do they think I look beautiful? Are they worried? Are they scared of me? But after my initial breakdown, I got over it, and within two weeks of cutting it off, I was just so into the bald look.”
How it feels for her now: “I’m definitely not embarrassed at this point to be out bald. People stop me and say, ‘It looks good,’ so I feel like a lot of people think I did it just to do it, which is really cool,” Woda says, adding that she wanted to do the photo shoot to make a point. “The more women can rock this look, the better, because a lot of women don’t own it, and anything I can do to raise awareness that bald is beautiful, the better. It’s a look that isn’t standard in our society. But the last thing women going through this treatment need is negativity around the look.”
Angelina Quezada, 19, New York University student
Why no hair? Alopecia.
Quezada was diagnosed with alopecia universalis — complete hair loss — at just 8 months old.
On never having had hair: “My hair just never grew. I was fortunate to be in environments [in the Bay Area] where I could be myself and it wasn’t a big deal. I went to independent schools, I never wore a wig, I never wanted to wear a wig. I had a patch of hair in first grade; I asked my mom to shave it off, and it never grew back,” she recalls. Quezada has found her safe place now too. “I go to this conference every year; it’s the National Alopecia Areata Foundation, and it’s the most amazing place and most amazing people. You meet people that look like you — and I feel like people take that for granted, like being able to walk down the street and have anonymity. At this conference, you are this anonymous human being, and it’s cool.”
Thoughts on beauty: “Obviously there’s a lot of harshness in the media about what it means to be beautiful. It’s hard reading stuff in Cosmo. Some of the articles I’ve read [about alopecia] are very one-sided — how to deal with it — and this is something that’s really brought me down. That’s not my story.” She eventually got really into fashion and makeup. “My mom said, ‘I know it must be hard that your friends are getting to do all this fun expression with their hair,’ and let me start doing my makeup in middle school. It looked horrible! But it was my choice, and I got to do it.”
On some people assuming she chose baldness: “Having it be a choice, to me, makes it seem like it takes the strength away from it. This is something I didn’t ask for, and I had to figure out how to deal with it, my family had to figure out how to deal with it. … So if I’m walking down the street and you’re assuming it’s a choice or you’re assuming that I’m sick, you’re taking away this aspect of, well, no — there’s something else that exists in the world, and if you’re too ignorant to know what’s happening, then that’s on you.”
Sharon Quinn, 55, model, cable TV host
Why no hair? Alopecia-inspired choice.
After losing a patch of hair on the top of her head in her 40s because of alopecia, Quinn made the decision to keep her head shaved rather than struggle to conceal the patch with hairstyles and weaves.
On her initial hair loss: “I signed with Wilhelmina [in the late ’90s]. My hair started thinning shortly after. I had female pattern baldness. It grows everyplace else except right in the middle. It’s genetics. My mother’s hair is gone in the same place. When I was 14 and met my paternal aunt, she had a head of hair and a hole in the middle, and I remember thinking, I hope that doesn’t happen to me.” Eventually it did. She explains, “I wore wigs for a while so I could keep working, but then I stopped, because I was only wearing them so people wouldn’t be uncomfortable with me losing my hair — which is ridiculous. Then I cut it into a short natural when I realized I couldn’t cover the loss anymore. I colored it blond so it sort of blended in and I got the biggest campaign of my life. But then people come in with their stuff and made me spray it black. It didn’t make me happy. … I just got tired of it. Christmas Eve 2004 I decided I didn’t want to do it anymore and walked into the barbershop: ‘Just shave it off.’ He tried to talk me into getting a weave, but I said, ‘I just want to be done with it.’ My husband said, ‘This is the bravest thing I’ve ever seen anybody do.’”
On looking different: “It didn’t take me long [to get used to] because when I arrived on this earth I was much bigger than everyone in my community. And my mother never told me I was anything other than beautiful. It was hard because when you stand out from the pack, you tend to get picked on. I got bullied. But how I feel or how I react to what you say to me is up to me, and I will never give someone power to make me not feel beautiful. That’s a power I have to give to you.”
Shoshana Dornhelm, 30, marketing account rep
Why no hair? Chemo.
Dornhelm, who was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma in April, is more than halfway through her regimen of chemo treatments.
On accepting the loss: “Hair loss was the first thing I thought of at my diagnosis, and I think that kind of helped me accept it because I knew it was going to happen and I didn’t dwell on it that much,” she says. “I did cry when I shaved it off for the first time. But after that, it was just kind of part of life. It had been long and brown and I played with it a lot; I got highlights at some point. I guess I took it for granted. But as soon as I found out, I made it short and blue and shaved half of it.”
On how it’s changed her beauty outlook: “When I cut my hair, I just saw so much face. So when I go out I’ll do, like, a bolder lip or earrings. I know it’s a little shocking to people, and I know it’s not the standard of beauty, but it is what it is. I’m comfortable with it,” Dornhelm says. But she has it in perspective. “Even with my health, it’s like, some people have it a lot worse than me, some have it a lot better. I’ve met so many people through this new cancer network. I don’t even have a prognosis, that’s how good it is; they said you just have to go through this chemo and then you’re home free. I’m excited to have a little bit of hair back, but it’s just hair. I’d do it again — maybe not on a whim — but it’s just hair.”