Friday, 26 August 2011

The Post-Chemo Cut

Okay, let's talk about hair. Namely my own (tee-hee). One of the beauties of having your own blog is that it can unashamedly be all about you - no sub-editors to slash your over-indulgent sentences and no critics lurking in the background telling you to get over yourself. So, the last time I mentioned my hair on this blog, I was about to pay a visit to a non-black hairdresser to get my wavy-straight post-chemo hair cut into shape. Well, this took place exactly three weeks ago and while the experience was interesting while it lasted, my hair now looks entirely different. My waves are fast curling over; the blacks are now fighting for space amongst the post-chemo silver-greys. My hair, while still straightish, is growing outwards and I am beginning to resemble my old pre-chemo self once more. The look is less cutting-edge, more college professor. In other words, there ain't no real style to play with. I know that if I get it cut again, it will look better. But if I try to grow it longer, there's a chance that I might get my old Afro back sooner rather than later. What to do? Who really knows? But while I'm still deciding, let's take a trip down memory lane...

So my post-chemo haircut was such an eventful day for me that I decided to invite the whole family. Not only did baby A and my partner accompany me on this historic day, but my mother who had been installed in the house on and off ever since I first had my first chemo hit, was dragged along for the ride too. My partner had phoned ahead to explain my predicament and so when I walked into the empty salon and met the two male Thai hairdressers whose own hair textures had absolutely no resemblance to my own, they didn't stop dead in their tracks or point me in the direction of the local Afro-Caribbean barbershop. As soon as I walked in, I explained my story. I told them about the chemo, my hair loss and the change in texture that had occurred since the regrowth. One of the hairdressers, a petite-looking Thai man with a shaved head looked at my hair in wonder. 'So it's come back straight now?' he asked. 

‘Not really straight’, I explained. ‘There are curls breaking through.’ 

'Well, it's not really curls,’ he explained, on closer examination. ‘It's more wavy. It looks more like mixed-race hair.’ 

He beckoned me to sit down and put a gown around me. I stared into the mirror and saw someone unrecognisable staring back at me. My hair was truly wavier and greyer than it had ever been. Even though I had not set foot into a salon for the last five years, I remembered the feeling of tension that I often felt when I sat in the hairdresser's chair and tried to explain to the stylist want I wanted. I was so used to styling my own hair, it was often hard to let go. I was always convinced that no one else would give my hair the tender loving care that I did - and I was often right in thinking so. 

The Thai hairdresser continued to look at my hair in wonder. 

'Yes, I can cut this', he said to me after a while. ‘Anyway, short hair suits you. You have a good head shape' - he pointed to the rounded shape at the back of my head. 'My head shape is flat at the back - see?' 

I noticed that the back of his head was much less curved than mine, and that he was bald on top - hence the shaved head. 'It's not so good for me'

He took a fine comb and a pair of petite looking scissors from a stand to the right of me. I asked him whether he had ever cut Afro hair before.

‘No!' he said emphatically. 'I can't cut Afro hair. Afro hair is special hair. You need experience and a different technique. Lots of black people come into this salon and ask me to cut their hair but I tell them I can’t. I don’t have the skills. Even when you use clippers on Afro hair, you have to hold them in a different way.'

I nodded. It made sense to me and at least he was honest. Although I was always taught that the only real difference between Afro hair and Caucasian hair is the amount of curl or ‘kink’ in the hair. Afro hair follicles are shaped differently, that is true – but this only affects the texture of the hair, which in turn affects its porosity (how much moisture each strand can absorb – afro hair tends to be much more porous than Caucasian hair and more fragile to breakage because of its irregular curl pattern.

‘You know once’ he confided in me, 'someone asked me to wash Afro hair. I tried but the water just ran off the hair, I couldn't believe it !’ 
I smiled. His remark reminded me of some of the questions that my white school friends used to ask me about my hair, ‘How do you wash it? How do you dry it? Is it true that it shrinks? I always found these questions strange. To me, my hair was as normal as they come. It was everyone else’s hair that was weird to me.

‘Anyway’, he said smiling as he began to comb and clip the ends of my hair. ‘Why don’t you keep your hair like this? Now you have hair that everyone can cut!’

This time I laughed. I explained that my current hair was only temporary. I was expecting to welcome my Afro back some time soon in the future. In the meantime I was just trying to get to grips with my new hair.

He continued talking and cutting, combing and cutting, often pausing to check the length and evenness on each side. We chatted away about living in London, life in Thailand, current trends in hair in Asia – (apparently Japanese youth love ‘distressed’ hair) and post-chemo hair. I was surprised that my hair wasn’t shampooed and blow-dried beforehand, as it is always done in an Afro hair salon. He warned me that post-chemo hair is very delicate. I shouldn’t do anything drastic to it for a long while. When I mentioned the fact that I was thinking of dyeing it soon, he looked at me in horror. 

‘No! It’s too fragile! Anyway, why? Grey hair suits you. There are lots of people who would pay good money to get this type of shade’.

Ok. So now I was flattered, now I would tip and now I would almost definitely come back for another cut. What a great hairdresser I’d found! But that’s cynical me talking. I’m sure he was for real. By the time he’d finished, I was back to my post-chemo pixie self. I looked tidy again. He’d given me a damn good cut. Even my mum (who is often my biggest critic – in the way only mothers can be) was impressed. We took a few pictures for good measure and left the salon. I realized that this was the first time that I’d had my hair cut dry and with a pair of scissors and without the use of clippers, gels, sprays or oils. It had been a brand new experience and one that I’ll probably never experience again.

Who says that life doesn’t begin at 40?

p.s. just in case you're wondering about the link between the girls in the picture and this post ? - well, there isn't one. I just really like the painting. And the girl's hair on the right reminds me of my last wig. The painting's a finalist in the National Portrait Gallery's current competition. Think I'll check it out the exhibition next week... 

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