Wanna See My New Tattoo?

When you lose all your hairs, including brows and lashes, to chemotherapy, your complete hairlessness becomes a visual cue to others that you are ill. It’s possible to pass off a bald head as an intentional style statement, though rarer for a woman than a man, and of course you can cover baldness with wigs and hats and scarves. But once the rest of those hairs go, especially the brows, something about your face looks off. You’d think in an age of mask-wearing the absence wouldn’t be so obvious, but it’s the precisely the swath of face exposed between headscarf and mask where something is missing. Minus eyebrows, you tend to look sick, even on days you feel good.

Something’s just missing…

It is, I imagine, a little like being pregnant, in the sense that you’re undergoing an immensely intimate corporeal experience that displays in profound outward bodily changes. Others–even strangers– often take those changes as permission to make comments or ask deeply personal questions. Thankfully no one seems inspired to reach out and touch my head the way they do an expectant mother’s belly, but it’s still disconcerting when someone stares a little too long, or starts offering me reassurances, or sharing their own cancer story.

So it was with much joy and not a little relief that on Tuesday, I had my first eyebrow tattoo session.

My tattoo artist, Jordan Kantor, was recently featured in an article in The Roanoker magazine

I am lucky to live literally around the corner from an amazing cosmetic tattoo artist, Jordan Kantor, of Skin Care Consulting. Kantor works in two sessions, six weeks apart. Her work is detailed and dimensional, the results amazingly realistic. The process was a bit uncomfortable, a feeling somewhere between having your brows plucked over and over again and repeated bee stings. But it was bearable, and worth it. I’m still in the early stages of the healing process–like any tattoo, there will be some flaking and settling of color, and of course, there’s a second session planned specifically because we may decide there needs to be some tweaking. So far, though, I’m thrilled. In fact, it’s hard to describe just how different I feel when I pop into the bathroom or walk past my dresser and catch sight of my face in a mirror–and I have eyebrows again! My face looks almost…normal! Each time, the sight feels like a small miracle.

Perhaps that sounds like an overstatement, but something that creates a sense of normalcy in a body that often no longer feels like my own, functions as I expect it to, or looks like the “me” imprinted in my mind, is a real gift. My face no longer immediately telegraphs–to me or others–“this woman is ill.” It’s a profound shift in my headspace, for which I am deeply grateful.

I won’t say I missed my brows more than my natural breasts, but I will say that it’s easier to fake natural boobs with implants than it was to fake eyebrows with any of the various products I tried. And brows play such a key role in how we read emotions and identify faces. An artist friend of mine told me that whenever he paints a portrait, he starts with the eyebrows, because they are so expressive. Steve was talking to me a couple days ago and said, “Your face is so much more expressive with your new brows!” The tattoos really are a game changer.

So this week, I’m celebrating art. Jordan is an artist, and I am happy to be one of her canvases. My only regret is that I didn’t get my eyebrows tattooed a couple of years ago when I first considered doing it to boost my natural brows. If I had, I wouldn’t have had to spend the last ten months without. I look forward to seeing how my new tattoos develop over time, and doing lots of raising and furrowing and flexing in the meantime.

Have Yourself a Hairy Little Christmas

I’ve uttered several things in 2020 I never thought I’d say. “Wait, do you have your mask?” “What time do you want to Zoom?” The most surprising, though, is this: “I really miss my nose hair.”

I’ve written previously about how hair becomes a signifier of health (or lack thereof) for cancer patients, and during my first round of chemo-induced hair loss, I explained why I missed my pubic hair the most (something else I never thought I’d declare, much less publicly, but there you go). One of the main points of the latter piece was that, as much time, energy, and money as many of us spend trying to remove them, the hairs on our human bodies do indeed serve a purpose–beyond creating and supporting an entire hair-removal industry.

Most of the time, if you hear anyone mention nose hair, it’s in the context of getting rid of the excess by trimming it. You can even buy instruments dedicated expressly to that purpose. Before you get too zealous in said pursuit, however, you might want to read on.

One of many options to tame your nose hair

Remember the “sudden snot”? At a recent appointment, both my regular doctor and nurse practitioner were unavailable for my scheduled pre-treatment consult, so I saw another NP in the office. As I was filling her in on my history, I mentioned the “sudden snot” problem I’d developed, and told her that despite taking a regular antihistamine, it hadn’t abated.

She nodded. “Some of that is probably just your body’s normal production of mucous,” she said. “But you’ve likely lost all your nose hair, so there’s nothing there to hold it back or slow it down.”

My mouth gaped inside my mask. “Oh my god, of course!” I said. “Of course!” I’d never thought about the fact that we have hairs in our nose, that that hair is functional, and–given that my body has emptied every other known follicle since I’ve been on Sasquatch–that my alopecia would extend there as well. It was a revelation. If light-bulbs really did appear above your head when the light dawns, I would have had a full-on Rockefeller Christmas tree over mine.

As it stands, I have a full-on faucet on my face. So. I really miss my nose hair.

Sigh.

I really miss my eyelashes, too, and not just out of vanity. Eyelashes are also functional. You don’t realize how effective an early warning/blocking-foreign-object system they are until you don’t have them to signal, for example, that the edge of your mask is about to creep up and scrape your eyeball, or the edge of your headscarf about to droop into it. Then there’s the act of trying to put on eyeliner without an eyelash line to stop you from jabbing the pencil right in. If a particle of something does get into your eye, you have no lashes to grab and pull your lid out to try to help blink it away. Don’t think you do that very often? Betcha do it more often than you realize.

I also miss my eyebrows. Profoundly. That was true the first time I had chemo, too, and it’s related more to appearance than function. I’ve referred before to the research that shows eyebrows are a key feature in making us recognizable. Losing my eyebrows–far more than losing the hair on my head–makes me feel like I’ve lost something fundamental in what makes me look like me. It feels like losing my face.

No one manufactures replacement nose hairs, but in terms of brows and lashes, there are almost as many products on the market to replace them as there are to remove those hairs less desired. (We probably need to have a longer conversation with ourselves as a species about our strange pre-occupation with good hairs versus bad hairs….) Since my face is currently a blank canvas, well, why not test out a few?

First up: eyelashes. When I was modeling, I occasionally wore fake eyelashes, the basic kind that use eyelash glue. I never found them difficult to use, and I liked how they bulked up my natural lashes, especially in photographs. Now there are magnetic lashes with tiny magnets along the lash line; you swipe on a magnetized eyeliner to which the lashes stick. Even more recently, the company Moxielash has debuted lashes that use silicone as the sticking agent.

I tried both. The liner that came with the magnetic lashes is black, liquid liner. If you think drawing straight, even lines with liquid liner is tough when you have your own eyelashes to guide you, you can imagine how many times I drew on my eyeball. And it’s nigh impossible to draw the liner or place the lashes right up against the eye (your natural lash-line is usually the guide, and fills that space). So even if I manage not to poke myself, I end up with a thin skin-colored gap that’s further highlighted by the dark liner and lashes. The clear liner that comes with the silicone lashes tones down the contrast, but the gap remains and makes fake lashes, even styles labelled “natural,” look extreme. It’s a lot of drama for a visit to the doctor’s office.

I’ve had more luck, after considerable trial and error, with eyebrows, at least if I subscribe to (and I do) the adage that brows should look like sisters, not twins. Twins are not happening. I started with a “Tattbrow” pencil, which mimics the look of micro-blading, but it’s a bit too dark. I ordered some stencil stickers but found them unwieldy. For a while I used a reusable plastic stencil and brow powder in “dark blonde” by Senna. It doesn’t really give the look of individual hairs and wears off more easily than I’d like. But it’s easy to wipe off and try again on those days when my first attempt results not in sisters but in fourth-cousins thrice removed.

Most recently, and a bit by accident, I found and purchased the somewhat inauspiciously named “Eyebrow Tattoo Stickers.” Temporary tattoos that stay in place for a couple days, they’re going to take a little trimming and some practice, but they’re promising. I also got myself some sparkly bling to play with. Might as well put the canvas to good use.

I was reassured a couple weeks ago when Steve and I watched a live-stream concert of Scottish folk musicians, and one of the women, Inge Thomson, had a face and head like mine. I don’t know the cause of her alopecia, but she is bald and sans eyebrows and lashes, and she looks fine–not alien, not weird. Lovely, in fact. So I’m trying to find ways to stop with the before/after comparisons of my own face–which is what gets me into trouble–and embrace and enhance my new look with minimal prosthetic additions.

Still, vanity is one thing, functionality another. I do miss my nose hair. This holiday season, be kind to your hairs. They are a gift, and they are doing more for you than you might imagine.

Now, please excuse me while I go find another box of tissues.

Of All The Hair I Lost…

Of all the hair I lost, I missed my pubic hair the most.

I know a lot of people go to great effort and endure significant discomfort to remove the hair in their nethers. I briefly tried shaving once a few years ago, and I didn’t get the appeal. When after chemo my pubic hair shed alongside all the other hairs on my body (exception: seven eyelashes), I’ve never felt more profoundly naked.

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Minimal eyebrows, maximum cheeks
Losing my eyebrows was a close second. When I was first diagnosed, I knew I’d lose my head of hair; I knew, eventually, I’d lose my breasts. No one warned me that, for a while at least, I’d also lose my face.

As a born blonde, my brows have always been light, especially in summer when they’re bleached by sun exposure. I usually fill them in a bit with a light brown pencil, lest it appear I have no brows. For the month or so that I did, in fact, have no eyebrows, I almost couldn’t recognize the pale, perpetually startled face in the mirror (an effect enhanced by my having the cheeks of a puffer-fish, courtesy of steroids). Eyebrows are a key factor in facial recognition, according to a 2003 study conducted by behavioral neuroscientist Javid Sadr: study subjects asked to identify fifty famous faces in digitally altered photos could ID the celebrity only 46 percent of the time when the eyebrows were absent. Small wonder my browless visage looked unfamiliar, even to me.

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The borrowed wig
Losing the hair on my head bothered me least, which is probably why I never opted for a wig. I tried them on twice. The first time, I borrowed a short wig from another survivor so I wouldn’t have to take my new driver’s license photo bald. It was a very nice wig, but the weave was thick, and I’ve never had that much hair in my life. I felt like a fake.

Later, a friend of mine invited me along to visit her hairdresser’s wig shop in Lynchburg while she got a haircut. I found a few wigs there that I felt more comfortable in; they were constructed differently and better mimicked my naturally fine hair. I couldn’t decide if I should be comforted or alarmed that the one we all liked best was an angled bob—especially in gray.

My chemo had already concluded at that point, though, and I was hoping my own hair would soon return. Plus, it was hard to imagine asking my doctor for a prescription for a “cranial prosthesis” with a straight face—the term most insurance companies require for coverage.

Thankfully, my various hairs have begun to grow back, though the universe has had a great sense of humor about the order of things. The first place I detected stubble was on my legs, specifically my calves. Seriously? I thought. The first hair to come back is the hair I deliberately shave off several times a week?

img_0829Hair also began to grow “back” in places I didn’t remember having hair before. Like the front of my neck. Large downy patches on my cheeks. As a fine fuzz began to cover my scalp, tiny hairs also outlined the helix of each ear in a soft halo. I know most humans, women included, have a layer of fine facial hair, but I don’t recall mine previously having been quite so thick.

The verdict is still out on the color of my incoming head hair. My mother thought the initial peach fuzz looked light, “like the white-blond hair you had when you were a little girl,” she said. I wish. Steve thinks it’s brown. I definitely see some lighter highlights, but I’m guessing they’re gray. If I’m lucky, they’ll be that pretty, glinty, silvery gray some folks get. And texture is a real toss-up post-chemo: hair that was once straight often comes in curly; curly hair grows in straight. Since mine is maybe yet a quarter-inch long, the only texture it has at present is soft and fuzzy, like a velour jacket. My head seems to invite a lot of rubbing.

img_0837As my eyebrows have returned, I’ve stopped having to draw them on from memory (tricky to get even, easily smeared). They’re coming in the same light-brown, taupe-ish color they’ve been since college. It’s nice to see a glimpse of the familiar when I glance in the mirror, instead of a surprised alien.

And yes, it’s a relief to be less bare “down there.” I’m told there are wigs, called merkins, available for one’s nethers; movie stars sometimes wear them in nude scenes for a little extra coverage. But though I felt unduly exposed, I can no more fathom going to the trouble of attaching extra hair to my crotch than I can fathom enduring the pain of waxing it bare. Besides, according to an article by Ian Lecklitner on the Dollar Shave Club website (oh, the irony), all of our naturally-occurring human hairs have an evolutionary purpose: eyebrows, in addition to identification, are “ergonomically engineered” to protect the eyes from moisture and debris; pubic hair helps to foil bacteria; head hair serves as insulation. So I’m glad, for the most part, that my follicles are up and at ‘em again.

Though I do wish someone could explain just what evolutionary advantage I’ve gained by having fuzzy ears.