Women with cancer face many challenges: the physical effects of cancer and its treatment; the emotional devastation of learning that life is about to change in many unknowable ways; the fear of pain; and the possibility of premature death. They worry about caring for their families, their financial stability; their ability to continue to work. And, just like their male counterparts, they somehow have to come to terms with the enormity of what’s happening and the impact that a cancer diagnosis will have on their lives.
But women with cancer also face a unique emotional challenge that rarely affects men in the same way — the change in body image represented by the loss of their hair. For men, the prospect of baldness may be difficult to accept, but it’s not totally unexpected. After all, a good many men lose most of their hair by the time they reach middle age. But for women, hair loss is an enormous blow to their self image and their self esteem.
But now, some women are turning that perceived negative into an opportunity to make a bold statement about what it means to be a woman with cancer in the modern world. Shunning the tradition of wigs and hats to cover their baldness, they’ve chosen to celebrate their naked heads by turning them into gorgeous pieces of hand-painted art. Working with artists from the Henna Lounge in Oakland, California and the (now defunct) Henna Heals, they turn their hairless heads into glorious statements of femininity and grace with intricate, one of a kind, henna crowns. Crafted from 100 percent henna paste, the South-Asian inspired designs stay in place — first as a black paste and later as rust colored longer-lasting “tattoo” — for about three weeks.
“For cancer patients, the henna crowns really are a healing experience,” said Frances Darwin, the founder of Henna Heals, in 2013. “This is all about them reclaiming a part of themselves that would normally be perceived as ill or damaged or not nice to look at and making it more feminine and beautiful.”
And, indeed, women who have lost their hair to cancer therapy are very often looked upon by our society as objects of curiosity. “What happened to her?” we wonder. “Is she sick? Is she dying?” We have a morbid fascination with people we encounter who appear damaged in some way –as if by understanding their story we might somehow protect ourselves from the same fate. Instead of human beings –people deserving of our empathy and compassion — we see symbols — people as metaphors for what we fear most.
When we look at a bald women we see illness, loss, and our own fear of death. But what these cancer survivors want us to see are human beings who just happen to have cancer — women who are every bit as vibrant and beautiful and alive as they were before cancer happened to them.
And the wonderful thing is that they succeed. By turning baldness into art, these brave women have, without a doubt, taken their humanity back.
“Let me tell you, being a bald woman can feel wobbly at times…everyone looks at you and wonders if you have cancer, what your story is. With Darcy’s art on my head, I get stopped every 15 minutes or so with praise and ‘wow! Darcy’s work has been mind blowing…it’s been the most tremendous blessing.” ~ A Henna Lounge Customer