A Close Shave With Persona

In this blog Mel, supported by Kim discuss how drastic changes in one’s appearance impact wellbeing and personal growth.

I (Mel) have always had long curly hair and recently shaved my head for the second time, aged 44. The first time was my 40th, I thought then: “I have never had short hair, now’s the time to try it” (midlife crisis anyone?).

I thought it may be helpful in this blog to explore the reasons we may choose or have to make radical changes, how our appearance and changes to it are connected to our persona (the aspect of ourselves that we present to the outside world) and how these changes may impact us.

Just to clarify – in no way am I comparing shaving one’s head to being disabled in this blog. There are so many ways we all, disabled and nondisabled alike, can experience personal growth by engaging with our bodies and difference. We can be more conscious about what we (are able to) choose to express through our bodies. The story I share here today is just one of the many experiences in my life which lead to personal growth.

Practical reasons

Initially, there were practical reasons behind me shaving my hair. I have always struggled with dry itchy skin, allergies, and dry eyes, general body hypersensitivity. I am now able to oil my shaved head as I have done daily on the rest of my body (you can’t oil long hair daily!), which is a soothing delight.

I can also shower and get my hair wet whenever I choose…and not have to unblock the drains which were often full of my thick curly hair is wonderful. And I’m saving water and energy in these cash-strapped times with no longer needing to wash my hair.

For those of you who are therapists who have or are training in neurofeedback, I tried training myself a few years ago and couldn’t get on with getting the electrodes onto mine or my trainee subjects heads. Now I have a buzz cut, I’m excited to try this again!

Yet beyond the physical reasons, there is so much more…

The impact on others when how we look changes

But as well as feeling the physical benefits, there is anxiety there too…feeling outside my comfort zone, when all my life I have looked a certain way. The change from long curly hair to a buzz cut is so different that I am now worrying about what others will say when they see me for the first time: should I pre-warn them to ward off any strange or horrible comments? What answer will I give when they ask ‘Why?’ There are so many reasons, how can I condense that into a short one sentence answer?

Will people think I have cancer or am a lesbian: several comments were made about this especially when I also bought a rainbow cardigan this week!.. I don’t mind challenging stereotypes.

When Kim lost all her hair due to alopecia, she did choose to warn people. She says:

“Mine wasn’t a choice, and I was too nervous about going out and having to explain to everyone. I didn’t know what to say, so I just put a photo on Facebook of my completely bald head explaining what had happened to avoid having to have the conversation repeatedly. It’s one of the scariest things I’ve ever posted!

One of my biggest concerns was people thinking I had cancer. It’s one of the reasons I chose to post on Facebook, to stop people worrying. Given I was also very underweight and had a feeding tube, I’d find people on the street would just walk up to me and say “How’s the chemo going?” and then I’d have no idea what to say given I wasn’t on chemo! Some people would get really aggressive and weird when they found out I didn’t have cancer, almost like I was ‘faking’ by having no hair. That made me even more self-conscious about it and nervous of how people would react. I never really understood such a strong reaction to someone else’s hair (or lack of!), especially as even if I didn’t have cancer, it was still due to a genuine (and visible) illness. However, it made me uncomfortable enough that I’d mostly hide it under a scarf or hat.”

The energy thinking about others takes up

These internal thoughts and worries For example, Kim has also found that being underweight due to her condition has meant people often assume she has an eating disorder.

Dealing with people’s concerns can be exhausting. These worries can also be true when invisibly disabled: because any impairments you have may not be obvious, you may feel you have to explain why you require adjustments as others don’t understand why you need them. An example is worrying about having to explain why you need a seat on public transport when it is not obvious to those looking at you.

Unstripping the persona

Part of shaving my hair is a long journey of ‘unstripping’ from the persona that developed as the result of being raised by a vain, narcissistic mother – I automatically fell into the same vein (vein not vain 😊) of not loving my body, and wearing makeup, jewellery and using clothes and hairstyling to give me confidence and cover up insecurity. I grew up believing the female body must be beautified to attract a mate, and that looking one’s ‘perfect’ best was a kind of trophy for my Mum: showing us off to those around her.

Due to African and Chinese ancestry all our family have extremely thick hair; mine is long and curly too. My hair has been a ‘signature’ piece for so long, something that people say to distinguish me from others, e.g. “Do you know Mel, the one with the long brown curly hair?”. To cut away a major part of my ‘persona’ and identity is interesting, a bit scary (“Who am I without my hair?”), empowering and freeing, and plain lovely in this heat we’ve had recently.

We all have a dissonance (a gap) between the person we ‘are’ and the person we ‘portray’ to the outside world. When we sit still for a while and are quiet, we can hear the person we really are. We all go to varying length to maintain our persona through the accessories we adorn our body with, some more, some less. Growth can come from exploring why we do this and whether what we do is still helpful and healthy for us.

Certainly, there was a gap in my own life between the ‘real’ and ‘ideal’ me. During my counselling training and personal therapy about my childhood, I decided to choose to be more real in my own life, find healthier ways to heal from my own trauma and reduce the ‘hiding’ of my real self.

Opportunities for growth disability and difference offers us

In hindsight, this ‘unstripping’ of my persona was accelerated by my experience of disability through my family and work – an opportunity disability offers that most people overlook because they are so taken up with the disadvantages and negatives.

Many disabled people cannot ‘hide’ aspects of themselves from others: it is on show whether they like it or not. They may also lack the ability or assistance to show their ‘ideal’ selves or express their identity in the same way as nondisabled people.

It is also completely understandable that because of how you are treated in our society as a disabled person, that the draw to pass as ‘normal’ and so as a result get treated ‘normally’ in society is great and we may use external ways to hide aspects of our bodies.

If we receive negative feedback from those around us and society about an aspect of who we are, we all as humans, will naturally try and hide it to fit in and maintain relationships and connections with others, even though on the inside we will still be aware of the difference.

What changes have you made to your external appearance as a result of this pressure to fit in?

Therapists and disabled clients

I wonder about a) the power differential between a therapist who is able to put on more of a ‘persona’ than the client and the many ways we may maintain power over our clients and b) the opportunity that delving into our own fears around difference and disability offers us as nondisabled, disabled therapists and human beings generally.

Disability has a way of holding up a mirror and forcing you to examine your beliefs and denials.

If you are a therapist reading this and have completed Module 1 in our training hub, you may remember the balloon exercise to try and engage with that part of ourselves that has been shamed about something and tries to hide it. It may be that you can use your physical appearance to hide some of the things you don’t like about yourself.

Confidence and celebrating difference

One of the most important lessons living with disability in our family has given all of us is more confidence in ourselves, confidence to be ‘different’. Although I developed these skills in childhood through being from a cultural, religious and financial minority, I was able to build on this further through my experiences with disability. Having a shaved head is just another level of ‘difference’ to add to being whole food and plant based, eco hippies and home schooling.

I think after a while you hit a ceiling and no matter what you do, many people see you as different, or ‘weird’. In our family we have turned the word ‘weird’ around so it is something to celebrate, in the same way the LGBTQIA+ community took ownership back of the word ‘queer’. Some of us, disabled or not, use that experience and decide to go the whole hog and experiment with the edges of our comfort zone, with how it feels to change your body or use bodily expression to explore our identities.

Due to both mine and Steve’s experiences in the past, we’ve been instilling body confidence in our 8-year-old daughter. She cried when I said I wanted to shave my hair again and the day I plucked up the courage to do so was hard: she was crying and Steve also didn’t want me to do it.

My daughter said I looked like a boy, and this led onto a discussion of the joys of home schooling where there are so many people, parents and children, with ‘alternative’ haircuts, boys with long hair, girls with short or shaved hair, boys with long, etc.

Yet I did feel uncomfortable this first week, and put some small earrings in and rouge (normally I don’t wear any make up or earrings, only for special occasions). Yesterday she noticed and said: “I love you as you are Mummy and I don’t want you to wear any earrings or make up”. So, I guess the message is sinking in with her too that we are OK as we are.

Yes, in an ideal world I wish we could have instant long hair for a night out etc. (remember the dolls with hair that grew?) and I don’t know how long I will keep it this way, but for now it feels good to be here.

Reducing the gap between our ‘ideal’ and ‘real’ selves

I’m not encouraging everyone to shave their hair LOL, not at all. I just want to encourage everyone to look at how we use our bodies and how our bodies are adorned, how much of it is about showing our ‘ideal’ selves to the world, how much is to hide our real selves and whether the way we express our identities and selves through our bodies is healthy. A good question Kim asks to help answer this is: “Are you happy and confident without these things?”

Looking at the gap between our real and ideal selves is more than skin deep of course, it’s not just about how we look. There are many ways we hide our ‘shadow’ selves from the world. Partly we become more OK with these parts of ourselves as we mature.

Thankfully, there are many routes to reducing this gap, for example therapy, trauma and body work, meditation, prayer, faith, and neurofeedback (check out Joe Dipenza as one example). When we process our trauma, we reduce the habitual ways our brain is trained, the habit of our persona, and we can journey towards a smaller gap between the ‘real’ us and the ‘ideal’ one.

And just so we’re clear, I’m not ‘there’ yet by any means, wherever ‘there’ may be. Internally I have much work to do dismantling some habits and core beliefs that developed in my own childhood and impact on me and my relationships now. And physically, though I am more confident in my ageing post-child body, I have yet to embrace one of the last taboos for women: body hair!

Engaging with disability for both the nondisabled and disabled person alike offers us all a great opportunity for personal growth.

We can all choose to use life’s challenges to work towards being more authentic with ourselves. As a result of being more authentic, we are more able to form closer, more powerful and ultimately more human connection with others.

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