Interview: “I Am More Than My Hair: Bald and Beautiful Me”

Alyscia Cunningham is a US-based portrait and editorial photographer who recently launched a crowd-funding campaign for “I Am More than My Hair: Bald and Beautiful Me”.

“I Am More than My Hair” is an awareness/social-change photography project that focuses on the beauty of being bald and follows Alyscia’s first book “Feminine Transitions” featuring a series of portraits that reveal the natural beauty of women of diverse ages and backgrounds without make-up on. Alyscia’s work celebrates natural beauty while also inviting us to challenge what beauty – real beauty – means to us, even when hair is lost.

Amy

Amy – Photograph from Alyscia Cunningham’s photography book “I Am More Than My Hair: Bald and Beautiful Me”

We reached out to Alyscia to find out more about her project and share her insight throughout this experience below:

1. In October 2013, you decided to make the cut and donate your hair to a cancer organization. This move, as well as the reactions of those around you, raised many questions for you about beauty standards. What were some of the notable reactions you received after cutting your hair so short and how did this inspire your latest project “I am More than My Hair: Bald and Beautiful Me”?

I’ve often heard, “A woman’s hair is her beauty” and “Your hair is your strength” from two different communities. I completely disagree with both statements.

It got to a point where I would tell myself “I am not my hair”. That single thought gave birth the the idea of my project I Am More Than My Hair, which is a response to that fact that I wasn’t my hair.

On that day, 16” [approx. 41 cm] of my locks were cut by Johnny Wright, Michelle Obama’s hair stylist, and donated for cancer patients. I’ve always had long hair and this was the first time I had ever cut my hair into a short style. I’ve wanted to cut it off once I realized my consistent head colds after swimming were related to the heavy weight of my locks not drying in time. Two years later, I was informed about the “Big Chop” and I gladly volunteered my hair to be donated.

2. You’ve been interested in beauty and addressing our relationship with it for a while now. Your previously published “Feminine Transitions” book features women without make-up and highlights the struggle of being vulnerable behind a lens. How are your two projects linked and how are they different in your perspective?

Both “Feminine Transitions” and “I Am More Than My Hair” relate to each other because they deal mostly with vulnerability. The participants were required to shed a layer to be photographed, whether it was make-up or a wig. The immediate difference that comes to mind is the subject matter.

However, there are more similarities than there are differences.

3. Tell us about your journey driving throughout Washington D.C. photographing girls and women for “Bald and Beautiful Me”. What stories came out of this experience and did you face any obstacles taking the photographs?

It has been a wonderful experience visiting new places within the DC metro area and meeting women I may not have bumped into otherwise. All the photos were taken outdoors or in a natural lighting environment: a favorite park, the backyard, by their bedroom window..

I wanted everyone to choose a location they connected with most.

I Am More Than My Hair: Bald and Beautiful Me

Tamela – Photograph from Alyscia Cunningham’s photography book “I Am More Than My Hair: Bald and Beautiful Me”

Most women opened up, telling me their personal stories about their experience with hair loss. Some shed tears. Others simply accepted it for what it was. Either way, it is a blessing to connect with women from all walks of life.

4. You have photographed more than 35 women of different backgrounds, ages and ethnicities for your project so far. What were common themes you encountered and how did your definition of beauty change as a result of those interactions?

My first reaction was noticing so much more than the hair of bald women and girls. I really got a chance to see the beauty in their features, their smile.

Hair not being there was less of a distraction. They had a natural radiance. It was raw beauty in all colors, shapes and forms.

Sala

Sala – Photograph from Alyscia Cunningham’s photography book “I Am More Than My Hair: Bald and Beautiful Me”

5. What message would you like to get across to women struggling with insecurities about their beauty? What would you tell your younger self today?

I always tell women that we are all uniquely beautiful. Don’t look to the media for an answer to beauty. The media bombards us with Photoshopped images and Photoshop is a lie.

I would tell my younger self to look for my worth within myself, and not from what others say to or about me.

6. In Lebanon (and much of the Middle East), beauty standards are quite high and this add lots of pressure on women to constantly keep up appearances. As such, when a woman loses her hair as a result of cancer treatment, it is even more difficult for her to cope and the majority will avoid being seen or opt to wear wigs during this period. This is also related to the taboo linked to cancer still being witnessed in our society, but the issue of beauty and social perception remains. What insight can you shed for women living in our part of the world on this issue and what kind of awareness do you think is needed to help overcome it?

In no way do I tell a woman going through cancer treatment how to feel. What I can offer is encouragement. I will do my best to let her know that she is beautiful despite her temporary (or permanent) hair loss. I can also offer a connection with another women on this side of the world going through the same experience, who can also encourage her.

I also make it a point to speak about the media’s view of beauty as compared to reality. Showing non-Photoshopped and Photoshopped has a huge impact on our self-perception.

From my experience, real pictures of well-known people in the media make the idea of beauty less threatening. The media sells insecurity. I use that outlet as a tool to sell positive self-imagery, showing individuals as everyday ordinary people.

Erika - Photograph from Alyscia Cunningham's photography book "I Am More Than My Hair: Bald and Beautiful Me"

Erika – Photograph from Alyscia Cunningham’s photography book “I Am More Than My Hair: Bald and Beautiful Me”

7. You recently launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for a documentary you’d like to develop based on “Bald and Beautiful Me” How was the experience for you and do you plan to relaunch the campaign in the future?

Unfortunately, there were complications with Kickstarter so I decided to launch my crowdfunding campaign on YouCaring.com. My goal is to raise $25,228 in order to be able to produce 1,000 copies of the book and 500 copies of the DVD documentary. Many people don’t understand that this small number of production still takes a great deal of work and dedication, which in turn takes money.

The money raised will also go towards the marking cost of producing both the book and DVD. At first, I was recording the stories of the participants for my crowd-funding campaign but decided to actually compile them into a documentary.

There stories are so personal and heartfelt that I had to share them along with the book.

8. In closing, please continue the statement in your own words: “I am more than my hair and/because …”

… my hair does not determine my strength or ability.

Jameelah

Jameelah – Photograph from Alyscia Cunningham’s photography book “I Am More Than My Hair: Bald and Beautiful Me”

Keep posted for more on “I Am More than My Hair: Bald and Beautiful Me” here.

We’d like to turn to you now: How would you continue the statement “I am more than my hair and/because …”Please share in the comments section below.

Advertisements

Get on Letterman? Done!

After hearing about stand-up comedian’s, Steve Mazan’s, story of full-filling his lifetime dream of getting on The Late Show with David Letterman after being diagnosed with cancer, we seized the chance to talk to him more. Whoever said there are no positives about cancer was obviously not dreaming large enough!

1. Tell us a bit about you. What was life like before cancer?

My name is Steve Mazan and I’m a full time stand-up comedian. I travel the country and the world making strangers laugh. I was born in Chicago, started comedy in San Francisco, and live in Los Angeles. I was doing comedy for 6 years when i got diagnosed with cancer in 2006. I had cancer in my intestines that was removed through surgery. Unfortunately the cancer had already spread tumors to my liver. There is no cure or treatment for those tumors at this time, and upon diagnosis I was given a worst-case scenario of five years to live. That was 6 years ago.

2. What was your first reaction upon hearing you were diagnosed with cancer?

I felt like I was living a dream. I can’t even say nightmare, because it didn’t feel awful at first. Just not real. It felt surreal.

The reality crept up on me, and my wife after a bit of time. We’d just have moments where the weight of it all hit us. Then there was a lot of crying and being scared. But surprisingly soon, maybe a couple weeks later, the magic of life happened: It kept going on. Everything around me kept going forward. As bad as I felt, life went on.

That allowed me to move on too. I started to look at what I wanted to make sure happened if that that 5 year worst case scenario was true. For me it was making sure my life long goal of performing on David Letterman’s show came true.

3. What was that push that led you to pursue your dream of performing comedy on the Late Show with David Letterman?

David Letterman had been a hero of mine since I was kid and was introduced to his old NBC show. He had the best comics on his show. He made me want to be a comic and perform on his show.

When Dave moved to CBS and an earlier timeslot, his show replaced Johnny Carson as the pinnacle of stand-up comedy on TV. Only the best of the best get to be on his show.

4. How did it feel when you finally made it on the show?

Undescribable. Most of the time life does not measure up to your dreams. And when dreams come true, they are seldom as good as you imagined them. Getting on Letterman blew every expectation I had out of the water. It was even better than I had dreamed.

5. How have the public, and other cancer patients, reacted to your documentary film “Dying to do Letterman“?

It’s strange when someone learns you have cancer. A lot of people don’t know how to act. i don’t think there is any right way. It’s natural to feel sorry for someone and at the same time most patients don’t want pity. Both are natural feelings.

Plus, being in the entertainment industry I was actually told not to share my diagnosis because people might not want to invest money and time on someone who might not be around long-term. Again, all understandable at some level, but definitely fear based.

But the project of “Dying to Do Letetrman” has been received by cancer patients and non-patients just as well. We first screened the movie for a cancer group and got an incredible response. But we were even more surprised that that reaction was replicated from a general audience soon after.

6. Do you use cancer as a subject in your routines? If so, how do you approach it and what are the no-nos for joking about cancer?

I actually don’t joke too much about cancer in my act. Most people coming to see me don’t know about my diagnosis. Sharing that with them onstage would change their natural reaction to my act. I’d be worried that I’d be getting sympathy laughs.

However if I’m doing a show for people who have seen my movie or know my diagnosis (like a cancer group or benefit) I do some relatively dark material about it. Cancer groups love it because they have learned to survive by laughing at everything. It’s usually people who aren’t affected by cancer personally that take any offense.

7. Share with us one of your most popular cancer jokes:

Me and my wife’s favorite is “I used to think I never wanted to get married. I could never imagine spending my whole life with just one person…but if that’s only a couple more years…”

8. Have you completed all the items on your list? Are there other dreams you’re currently pursuing that you’d like to share?

I completed my biggest goal.Letterman. I still want to have kids. And now I want a billion people to see our documentary “Dying To Do Letterman.” Every person who has seen it has said they’ve been inspired to chase their own dreams harder. I think the world would be better if more people did that. So I’d like to help.

9. What do you recommend for others coping with cancer?

It’s not how much time you have, it’s what you do with it.

10. And finally, would you consider perfoming in Lebanon, or somewhere in the Middle East?

YES!!! I’ve been to Iraq and Afghanistan and would love to add Lebanon to the resume!

Thank you Steve for taking the time to chat with us. Keep fulfilling your dreams and inspiring others as you have us. We really hope you get a chance to perform in Lebanon too. I think you’ll have some new fans here very soon 🙂

++

Show your support for Steve and what he’s doing by signing up for his newsletter here. If you need more convincing, watch this video.

PS: We absolutely love this album of “Dying to..” tags inspired by the film.