By Jane Claire Hervey
When visitors step through the doors of a hospital ward and see a room of bald heads, they immediately assume one thing — people are sick. In an age of hair extensions, hair transplants and Rogaine, a head of hair means something. It symbolizes anything from beauty and health to sexuality and youth.
However, some people have used their hair to change these norms. Some people have used their hair, or rather their lack of hair, to make a bold statement about beauty and community service.
Second-year nursing major Kristen Garner chopped her locks after her freshman year at the University of Texas. After seeing a friend’s photo on Facebook, which depicted her friend smiling with handfuls of hair, Kristen decided to go to her own salon and do something she had never done before — donate her hair. “It was a that-day decision.’” Garner says. “For me, my hair is a big part of my identity, but why not give something that I have and can readily produce?”
Garner donated her hair through Pantene Beautiful Lengths, a partnership between Pantene and the American Cancer Society that accepts mailed-in hair donations to create wigs for cancer patients. They only take hair donations at least eight inches long that have not been permanently dyed or bleached. Also, the donations must not be comprised of more than five percent gray hair.
To donate the hair, the hair stylist secured Garner’s hair in a braid and then cut above the elastic. Garner’s braid measured around 10 inches long. “I’ve had long hair forever,” Garner says. “People didn’t recognize me anymore, and it was really weird for a little while, but it’s something that can help them [cancer patients] have a stronger sense of self.”
Garner sent off her freshly-cut hair herself in a padded envelope. Other organizations, like Locks of Love, also use this method of donation. They specifically collect donations to make hairpieces for children with hair loss who could not afford a wig otherwise. The organization designates salons for donors’ haircuts, like Austin’s Avant Salon and Spa on Capital Texas Highway, which has partnered with Locks of Love as a designated salon for eight years.“Even if we don’t cut your hair, you can give it to us and we will send it off for you,” says Jackie Rumsey, Avant Salon and Spa Gateway Manager. “We’ve had as many as four boxes of hair go out before.”
Following the Locks of Love hair donation guidelines, Avant salon only accepts a minimum of 10 inches. Like Pantene Beautiful Lengths’, the hair must not be bleached and must be secured in a braid or a ponytail. However, Locks of Love accepts dyed and gray hair, as long as the dyed hair has not been previously bleached (bleached hair interferes with the wig creation process). Like other salons, Avant Salon and Spa sends off the hair donations in individual Ziploc bags, which each contain a hair donation form, in cardboard boxes.
Unlike other salons, however, Avant Salon offers discounted hair donation cuts every January to promote community service.“You know how you feel when you have a bad hair day? Imagine how you feel when you have no hair,” Rumsey says. “They’re kids. That’s why we do it. We need to give back to our community to say thanks.”
Donors whose hair does not meet donation requirements have other means to make a statement against cancer and hair loss, as well. The St. Baldrick’s Foundation encourages people to shave their heads to raise money for cancer research. Although, “shavees” with lengthy hair can donate their hair during the process, short-hair donors can rally sponsors and shave their heads to signal their support for those battling cancer.
Second-year speech pathology major Kendra Kwoka, nicknamed “Buzz” for her bald head, shaved her head last spring during St. Baldrick’s Shave for a Cure event through the University’s S.M.I.L.E. (Students Making Impacts Through Love and Empathy) to raise money and commemorate her grandparents who had struggled with cancer. “It wasn’t because I wanted to change my hair style. It is a personal thing,” Kwoka says. “I feel strongly about cancer. If there’s something I could have done for my grandparents, I would have done it, but I couldn’t. At least, I can help people now.”
On March 31, 2012, Kwoka gathered with her family, friends and other S.M.I.L.E. members on the steps of the UT Tower. Passersby and participants watched as others shaved their heads, and the event raised over $56,000 dollars. “It was very emotional. Everyone was so happy during the event, and everyone was just beautiful. I’ve never seen a more happy group of people in my life,” Kwoka says. “Shaving your head was more essential than raising the money.”
Third-year youth and community studies major Kalie Kubes also participated in last year’s Shave for a Cure as a shavee and a cancer survivor. After having survived cancer three times throughout her childhood and young adult life, Kubes says going bald meant more than just shaving her head. “It’s the deepest message I’ve ever received and been able to share,” Kubes says. “For me, you can be a powerful impact on somebody no matter what you’ve gone through, no matter who you are.”
Kubes’ many radiation and chemotherapy treatments resulted in a hearing loss and other bodily differences at a young age. Knowing what it feels like to look different and feel different, Kubes says that head-shaving and hair donations send a meaningful message about identity and self-confidence. “It’s important for everyone to remind themselves that they are beautiful, no matter how different they are or think they are,” Kubes says. “You should walk with your head high knowing that everything that you’ve gone through will shape who you are.”