Hair is often considered one of women’s most important physical attributes, its length and texture being the subject of countless magazine articles and an entire industry’s worth of products. But the relationship between beauty and hair also offers cultural insights that are often overlooked in common discourse. The following essays tease apart some of those cultural threads, showing how hair (or lack thereof) affects how women see themselves. Edited by Irene Huhulea & Rachel Hurn

This Is Me: How Chronic Illness Taught Me to Stop Hiding

By Whitney Curry Wimbish

After a year in the hospital, after blood transfusions and surgeries and chemotherapy not for cancer but to halt my immune system’s war against me, the appearance of my 15-year-old body had drastically changed. Gone were my chubby cheeks and belly. I’d grown a lot in that year, despite being sick, so gone was my stubby height. Gone, too, were muscle mass and strength and stamina and, as a result, my ability to stand up straight for long.

All this would take time to heal. I could, though, immediately get rid of my sparse and weirdly textured hair, once so thick and wavy and shiny auburn that hairdressers called it “quality hair.” Hair I would rise early enough to wash and dry and coax into perfect curls or flatten straight every single day. Hair I had thought would help me fit in at my new high school, help me look as if nothing was wrong, to deflect questions about my diminishing energy and rapid weight loss. Or, for that matter, about anything else I feared my new peers would ridicule: My parents, who are lesbians, or my sister, who uses a wheelchair. For I knew then what many women come to learn: To look polished is a good way to deflect suspicion that anything is out of the ordinary.

Only when I was in the emergency room would I learn my condition’s name: Acute ulcerative colitis, a disease that can lead to colon cancer, but treatable—if caught in time. Because mine was not, a surgeon removed my entire large intestine—it was dead and looked like several pounds of ground meat, he said, a comment I will never forget—leaving a temporary colostomy bag I would wear for many months and a scar that runs the length of my torso. More surgeries followed, and as my stay lengthened, my hair lost its luster and thinned, heralding “illness” to anyone who saw me.

Within a week of returning home I made an appointment to cut it all off. Short, I said, I want it short-short. Off it came. And oh, what lightness! What freedom and ease! What relief to not take what was on my head so seriously or care what attention it might draw! The following year I cut it shorter still, shaved the back, spiked it upward and dyed it any color that caught my interest–Manic Panic red and black and dark brown and bright blonde.

I don’t know if this activity was distinguishable from that of any other high school girl experimenting with her appearance and asking: Who am I? Mine, though, was not a question but a statement: This is me. There was no hiding with such hair, no avoiding questions or comments or sidelong glances or outright stares, all of which evoked a sort of gratitude that although part of me had preceded me to the grave, I was still here, among the living.