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

The Un-accidental Accident

Written by Jennifer Kanaan

When I first decided to write this, I thought I would know exactly what I wanted to say, but it turned out, I didn’t. It has taken me a couple of trials to get it out on virtual paper but I kept trying because it is important for me that my message reaches the people who may need it most.

The story I would like to share with you started about two years ago when I had a terrible karting accident in the Netherlands.

Although the accident itself was minor and I was able to walk out of the car, I felt a pain in my ankle. I didn’t want to go to the hospital at first but friends and colleagues insisted to be on the safe side. I entered the ER and did not leave the hospital for the next 10 weeks.

Jennifer before the accident that would change her life.

Jennifer before the accident that would change her life.

The accident had resulted in a ruptured pancreas and a broken ankle. Although I was in indescribable pain, I had no idea (at the time) of the severity of the injuries I had encountered.

As I learned more about the impact of these injuries, I began falling deeper and deeper into an unwillingness to fight for my life.

I was really struggling to accept what was happening to me and kept asking myself: how did I end up here? what did I do to deserve this? This made me very angry – and mostly, at myself! It was so much harder for the doctors and everyone else around me to help me when I felt this way. After all, how could they help me if I was unwilling to help myself?

Accepting and getting over that anger was the first and most important step towards my recovery. The sooner you do that, the sooner you start allowing the treatment (any type of treatment) to work.

After two months of excruciating pain and many repeated medical procedures, I decided to return home (to Lebanon) with the idea that being surrounded by friends and family would help me want to get better. And that slowly worked out.

The next major step in the recovery process was accepting that I had to go through surgery. The type of injury I had was rare and the type of surgery that would help save me was even rarer. The surgery had to be performed by an experienced surgeon and under the most calculated conditions otherwise I could very easily end up with diabetes at the young age of 25.

Being home was helping me heal. I was getting much better than when I had been in the hospital in the Netherlands, to the point where I was told to start preparing for the surgery (mentally and otherwise).

And because I was not mentally-ready for this, I desperately wanted to find a non-surgical solution, which is why I sought out the best gastroenterologist in the country. However, by the time I got to his office, I was screaming of pain. I couldn’t even stand up anymore. After a few exams, we unfortunately discovered that my health status was back at square one. It was as if nothing had changed since I was being treated in the Netherlands. I had to be hospitalized, again.

I did not believe how strongly you could affect your own health until that moment.

For some reason, I did not want to get better and when they told me that I was finally medically ready for surgery, I subconsciously allowed my health to regress in order to simply avoid it.

Nothing happens by accident, not even accidents. They are there for you to learn what you need to from them and move on. They will keep on happening until you do.

I obviously needed to learn another lesson at this stage to be able to move on, and that lesson was that your mind can affect your body in ways you wouldn’t think possible. I generally fear change and believe it or not, I found a certain comfort in being sick and stuck in the hospital. My fear of getting back to a normal life made me realize that I was avoiding getting better because that would mean back to independence and responsibility – and that was scaring me.

The moment I was hospitalized this time, I had to stop eating food in order to allow my pancreas to rest. And this, under my doctor’s orders, was until further notice or until I was ready for surgery. Out of everything I had gone through up until then, that was the hardest thing I had to do. There I was: in pain gain, stuck in the hospital, and to top it off, not even allowed to eat!

At this point, you might be asking yourself: why is this article being posted on a cancer support blog?

Well, because besides the steps towards recovery being similar for anyone going through a traumatizing experience, a few of the experiences I went through actually helped me relate to some of the challenges cancer patients face.

The three months I had to spend without eating and taking nutrition from a bag took their toll on me. Needless to say, I was losing weight dramatically and my hair with it. Slowly, I started cutting my hair shorter and shorter until even the water drainage pipes at home got clogged. Just running my hand through my hair, I would wind up with a huge clump of hair within my fingers.

It was getting exhausting to do any kind of activity and I was starting to see my bones. At this point, I had nothing to lose and everything to gain so I decided to do what I never would have thought of doing: shaving my head.

Jenny03

The photograph Jennifer shared on Facebook after shaving her head.

For the first couple of days, I felt judgment in the eyes of others. Those who didn’t know me (or what I had gone through), thought I had cancer and were staring at me with pity. I would only leave the house to go to the hospital, but even there, people would look at you, making you feel empty of anything except the “disease” you were carrying.

I was feeling it, even though I did not have cancer.

At first, I opted to cover my shaved head until my friends convinced me that I actually looked good like that. To show my revolt against people’s judgement, I took a picture of myself and uploaded it onto Facebook.

The support I received from my friends was really heart-warming. From this point forward, I walked with pride – even along the corridors of the many hospitals I had to visit when I began looking for a surgeon qualified, decent and honest enough to operate on me. I was ready to go through with it.

I ended up getting the surgery done soon-after and I am now in much, much better health – even better than before the accident!

Jennifer boldly embracing her new look.

Jennifer boldly embracing her new look.

A very important part of the story, which I forgot to mention earlier, was what finally motivated me to get better and fight for my life: at the beginning of this experience, I saw the whole accident as a dark period in my life that was not going to get any better. I was convinced that everything in this world was evil and that there was no reason to put any hope in the goodness of mankind.. until I met a doctor who had faith in me and who also put up with my depression and mood changes. He was, and still is, one of the most humane, honest and dedicated persons I have ever met.

That was the moment I regained hope in humanity.

He prepared me for the surgery I was so-dreading, stood by me and walked all the way with me until he was sure I had the best possible surgery outcome.

Now, two years after the accident and one year after surgery, I thank god for making me go through this experience as it has changed me in so many ways and helped me know myself better. I am a much better person because of this and this is the only way you should see any negative experiences in your life.

Celebrating one year since surgery - she did it!

Celebrating one year since the surgery – she did it!

For someone who had no idea what she wanted to write, I think I have said enough and hope these messages stay with you. Let go of anger and fear, accept the pain as it is the only way for you to release it and, most importantly, forgive yourself because this is the only way to heal – both mentally and physically.

Jennifer now works as a Social Media Specialist in Beirut and blogs regularly about Nutrition and Holistic Health on New Trends in Nutrition. Follow her on Facebook too.

Hope Not Fear: Finding the Silver Lining

Most women dread losing their hair and having to wear a wig during their treatment. It’s really hard to accept losing such an integral part of your appearance and femininity – even if temporary. An added concern is how others will perceive that hair loss and treat you as a result of it. To add a fresh perspective to this important and sensitive subject, we conducted an interview with Cheri who we first met a few days.

What stood us for us immediately upon meeting Cheri is her refreshing attitude to wearing wigs, adding her own creative approach to making the experience more fun in light of a difficult situation. She shares all about her diagnosis, the daily ups and the downs, on her blog “Hope Not Fear“.

A strong woman worth getting to know a little further, here’s our interview with Cheri and we hope it inspires you as much as it inspired us:

  • Tell us a little a bit about yourself and your blog.

My name is Cheri Lewis. I am 38 years old and I live on Vancouver Island in British Columbia, Canada. I am happily married to an amazing, supportive man. We have no children, but we have 2 dogs (who are like my children).

In July 2012, I was diagnosed with breast cancer.

I created my blog “Hope Not Fear” to keep my friends and family updated on my journey. It’s been a way to share with the world all the good and the bad. It allows me to express how I’m feeling throughout my fight. I hope that by sharing my journey, I can help others fighting their own battles find hope, stay positive and realize they are not alone in this.

  • How did you react when you were first diagnosed with breast cancer?

When I was 20 years old, the University of British Columbia approached my family to do some genetic research on our blood line because my family has had a large number of breast and ovarian cancer cases (going back generations). They ended up finding a mutated gene in our blood line: the BRCA gene. This was an amazing discovery as now women all over the world can get tested for this gene to know how high a risk they have in getting breast and/or ovarian cancer.

I tested positive for both BRCA 1 & 2 –  which is breast and ovarian. I had the option of removing my breasts and ovaries at that time but as I was only 21 years old, I wasn’t ready to make that kind of decision. I was screened every 6 months through mammograms and MRIs after that.

Although I knew for several years that I had an increased likelihood of getting cancer, nothing could quite prepare me for the day my doctor informed me that I had breast cancer.

I stayed composed at first (perhaps it hadn’t really set in) and asked lots of questions: “What was our next step?” “How far had it progressed?” etc. It wasn’t until my sister hugged me that I broke down in tears.

The weeks and months that followed seemed unreal. I was mostly in a daze. The scariest part for me was when I had my first appointment with my chemotherapy oncologist. After discussing my options, he started explaining survival rates. The numbers and reality of the situation really hit home that day. This shocked and scared me because not once before did I think I wouldn’t survive this. But I will survive this.

Cheri meeting with surgeons following her diagnosis (Image Source: Hope Not Fear)

Cheri meeting with surgeons following her breast cancer diagnosis (Image Source: Hope Not Fear)

I choose to stay positive. I really believe that positivity and hope cures all. If your thoughts are negative, your body will not respond as well to treatment. I was given this life because I am strong enough to live it!

  • For many women, a big fear upon hearing that they have to do undergo chemotherapy is the impending hair loss. Was that of particular concern to you?

Yes – I think it is a HUGE concern for every woman.

It seems silly that hair would be the biggest concern. They inform you of the many other scary side-effects, like sores in the mouth, menopause, finger nails lifting-off (the list goes on and on), but the one that sucks the most is the hair loss.

Many people have said to me “It’s just hair, no big deal…” – I don’t see them shaving their heads. They also say “It’ll grow back” – yes, eventually it will but going through all the emotional turmoil that comes with being diagnosed with cancer and then having that somewhat-alien reflection in the mirror reminding you everyday [that you’re sick] is very challenging.

For men, it is also different. Many men live daily with a shaved or bald head. They wouldn’t really get looked twice, but when people see a bald woman, they instantly see a cancer patient and I don’t like the look of pity in their eyes.

Don’t pity me: I am a warrior and shaving my head was just a part of preparing for battle.

  • Have you been able to go bald in public since starting treatment?

Only my close friends and family have seen me bald. At home, I don’t wear a wig or scarf, but if someone I don’t know that well comes over, I will throw something on my head. It’s more for them not to feel awkward than for me.

A few days after I’d shaved my head and completed my second chemo treatment, I went out to lunch with my sister. I hadn’t purchased any wigs yet and was just wearing a toque. Then, we started talking about exposing my bald, pale, shiny head to the whole restaurant. We giggled about it but I got so nervous!

It was funny how I could be brave enough to battle cancer but too afraid to show my bald head to strangers in public.

After a few more silly, nervous giggles and a few deep breaths, my sister counted to three and I removed my toque. I sat through my entire lunch bald. I felt more empowered than ever that day because I had conquered a fear. I felt that I can really do anything!

  •  You recently shared photographs of yourself with the different wigs that you’re wearing during this period, each reflecting a different side of your personality (or so we presumed). How did you choose these wigs and how many do you currently own?

At first, I purchased two high-quality wigs from a local wig shop. I wanted some expert advice on fit, comfort and to have different options to choose from. “Ginger” is synthetic; what you see is what you get. She cannot be styled. I chose her because of the fun color.

All the other wig options in the shop were pretty “safe” styles, and in my perspective, boring (I have always had fun with my hair). “Mary-Anne” was my splurge – she wasn’t cheap. She is 100% real human hair. I can wash, curl, flat-iron, cut and color it – anything I could do if I still had my own hair.

I purchased four more wigs online from Hair Sisters. This was the only website I found with some fun, funky-styled wigs that were also very reasonably-priced. I wasn’t sure how “real” these wigs would look as they are synthetic and sometimes synthetic hair can be very shiny (plastic-looking). Even if they look a little more “fake” than my more expensive wigs, they are fun with wild colors so that’s fine.

I have many options now. If you could see my closet and my huge selection of shoes, you would understand my need for more than a few hair choices.

Source: Hope Not Fear

Some of Cheri’s wigs and their personas (Image Source: Hope Not Fear)

Anything that can bring excitement and fun to a scary situation is worth it.

Rather than be sad about facing my day in public, I get to have some fun deciding which “personality” I wish to wear that day. Each wig is a personality and a piece of my own personality.

  • Which one’s your favorite? And why?

Mmm… I’m not sure. I really like them all!

I would have to say it’s a tie between “Ginger” and “Mona”. My friends and family love “Ginger” the most. They request I wear her the most but sometimes she is a hassle as her hair is pretty long and tends to get tangled up. On the other hand, “Mona” is a super-short style so she’s very easy to wear and never gets in the way. I can wear big scarves around my neck without having it compete with the hair.

Image Source

Cheri, second from the left, is wearing “Ginger” here (Image Source: Hope Not Fear)

I have had random strangers compliment me on these two wigs, asking who my hairdresser is because they love the cut and color. I have them all fooled!

  • How do you decide which one you’ll wear each day?

Having so many choices is sometimes a bad thing. It makes it harder to decide.

Sometimes it depends on the weather conditions: wind and rain can reek havoc on certain wigs. It also depends on my outfit for the day, where I’m going and what I’m doing. For example, “Ginger” being the fun red color that she is, can clash with certain outfits. If I am hosting a dinner, I stick to my shorter styles as I don’t want to have a fire hazard attached to my head.

  • Has taking this approach helped you cope better with the physical side-effects of chemotherapy and the way you look? 

Yes, as I mentioned earlier, anything that makes you feel better when going through so much is definitely worth it. You can be seen in public and not get pitied just because you’re a cancer patient.

It’s also exciting to choose a style for each day.

Getting complimented on your “hair” is therapeutic in a strange way.

  • Would you encourage other women to do the same? And why?

Definitely if it helps them feel better but to each her own. Some women embrace “the bald” and feel powerful – like that day I went bald in the restaurant. I felt powerful too, but for me, that was more of a hurdle to cross. I may do it again one day.

In my case, feeling a little more “normal” on the outside makes me feel a little more “normal” on the inside too.

With my body going through so much because of the chemo, something as seemingly “trivial” or “vain” (to some) as hair, can be uplifting and fun, improving a crappy situation. When faced with a life-changing hurdle, try to make the best of it by finding a silver lining.

  • What advice would you give to a fellow breast cancer patient reading this?

My biggest advice is to choose hope, not fear.

Cheri's motto in her fight against breast cancer (Image Source: Hope Not Fear)

Cheri’s motto in her fight against breast cancer (Image Source: Hope Not Fear)

Being afraid is, of course, a natural first reaction. I have been there too, but fear is a cancer in and of itself. Being sad and afraid will not help you heal. At the same time, it is also o.k. to be angry sometimes and to have bad days but always remember that life is to short to wallow in sadness.

As horrible as cancer is, it has had a positive impact on my life. In the last few months, I have discovered more about myself than I ever thought I could. I don’t sweat the small things anymore. I now appreciate the little life experiences that I may have overlooked before. I am very thankful for myself, my strength and positivity.

My relationship with my husband has also grown much stronger than ever and I’m overwhelmed by the support of my friends and family. I have also made new friends (some I haven’t even met in person) with other warriors and survivors that have shared with me their battles. We’ve laughed about the coincidences and the humorous sides of chemo and reconstruction.

My final advice: Be strong. Stay strong. Lean on your loved ones. Be a warrior. Fight like a girl! Find the silver lining. Enjoy life. Don’t let this get you down. You were given this life because you are strong enough to live it.

If I can do it, so can you!

Follow Cheri’s journey on her blog “Hope Not Fear” and feel free to share with others who might benefit from her powerful message.

Hair Donation Guidelines

Long hair, short hair, curly hair, straight hair, thick hair, thin hair, colored hair, natural hair, hair that won’t behave, hair that makes others rave.. Oh hair, can you imagine life without it?

Next time you find yourself at the hairdresser’s about to do a new cut and change in style, take a second to consider what’ll happen to your unwanted hair. Rather than throwing it away in the rubbish bin, consider breast cancer patients who can benefit from your contribution.

Your hair can make a difference in someone else’s life and help them feel better about themselves during this difficult period, especially considering that human hair wigs which are the most natural and comfortable are quite costly.

Statistics via Squidoo.com

What do I need to know before I donate my hair?

Hair grows about half an inch a month so it will take some patience before you snip if your hair is short. Well, unless you’re bold enough for a transformation in style.

Before the cut, make sure your hair is:

  • Clean with shampoo and/or conditioner.
  • Not styled with hairspray or  any other hair products.
  • In healthy condition. Make sure there are no split ends or other damage to your hair.
  • Colored hair is accepted unless it has been colored over bleached hair (which we unfortunately cannot accept).
  • Only 5% gray.
  • Not bleached whatsoever.
  • 15 cm or more. Shorter hair lengths will be harder to work with in the stitching of the wig. Any type of hair will work – straight, curly or wavy. Measure it while it’s wet to make sure it fits the length requirements.
  • Ask your hairdresser to tie your hair in ponytail with an elastic band before making the cut so all the strands stay properly in place.

So, where can I donate my hair?

One of the questions we get asked the most at One Wig Stand is how someone can donate their hair to make wigs for cancer patients. So we teamed our efforts together and developed a campaign just for that!

From now until the end of Spring 2013, you can take part in our Make the Cut: Hair Donation campaign in collaboration with hair stylists across Lebanon making the donation process easier. More information coming soon!

MaketheCut-Logo

You can also donate your unwanted hair (freshly cleaned and in a ponytail please) directly at our office in Achrafieh.
All the hair donations we receive will be collected and transformed into wigs for needy breast cancer patients with the help of one of the top natural hair wig makers in Lebanon.
For more information about donating or taking part in the campaign, please contact us:

Phone 01-203112 Email makethecut@onewigstand.org Address Publi Freiha Building, Facing Mar Mitr in Achrafieh, Lebanon (Next to ABC Mall) 

Just think, for you those few centimeters may mean nothing more than a new look – but for someone else, they’ll mean everything!

My First Wig!

I put on my first wig in 2006. It was during the time the woman who bought me was going through her chemotherapy treatment. At first I was just a wig stand, but we soon became good friends. We took turns wearing the wig. I’d wear it at night while she wore it during the day. I wish I could have told her that she looked beautiful, with and without the wig.

No one was supposed to know she had breast cancer. Cancer is still taboo in Lebanon but I don’t understand why. It’s become a reality that we must accept rather than hide.

I’ll be traveling from one woman’s home to another’s to share their stories with you. What’s the next wig I’ll be wearing? Keep posted 🙂

PS: Brown hair with highlights really brings out the color of my eyes, doesn’t it?