Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow: An ESSENCE Editor Shares Her Hair Journey
Christopher Kolk

“It’s cancer,” said a doctor to my mother and my own surprised face. That was ten years ago, the day after Christmas. The small knot in my groin was a swollen lymph node, diagnosed as Hodgkin’s lymphoma. I was supposed to be home for the holidays in Atlanta during my sophomore year at Howard University, but God had other plans. My parents and I headed to D.C. to clear my dorm room and I came back to begin treatment.

I was fortunate. I had one of the most treatable cancers and we caught it early, thanks to my grandmother’s push to see a doctor. My treatment plan included six months of chemo and three months of daily radiation. I started chemo in January and was told to expect to lose my hair within a month. I figured I’d say good-bye in style, so I headed to my longtime hairdresser/therapist, Ms. Sheila, for a sew-in. Afterward, I made my way to the mall to take glamour shots. I didn’t know what the future held, but I knew I wanted to capture myself before my body betrayed me. In the back of my mind, I also thought that if I was going to die, I’d like to have a fierce picture for my funeral program.

Two months later my weave was still holding strong. Only my edges had started to thin, or so I thought. I made another appointment with Ms. Sheila. I had trouble taking out my braids the night before but she realized the problem immediately: My hair had indeed been falling out and had matted within the tracks. I casually told her I was undergoing chemotherapy. She had to cut parts of the cornrows to untangle what hair was left. As I stared at myself in the bathroom mirror that night, it finally sunk in that I had cancer. I started to cut the little bits of hair that were scattered on my scalp. My brother walked by and took in the situation. He got his clippers and shaved my head.

The next day I went to the beauty store for a wig. I hated the idea of wearing one. They all felt heavy, hot and fake, but I finally settled on one I could tolerate, barely. As the Atlanta -summer arrived, my daddy’s sweat gene kicked in and the wig was like a scalp sauna. Chemo ended and daily radiation began. On the day of my last radiation treatment my family and I climbed in a van packed with my stuff and drove back to school. My life started right back where it left off–except for my hair. I didn’t realize I was attached to my tresses until they were gone. As soon as my hair started growing back, I ditched the wigs and got microbraids. Once it was long enough for cornrows, I quit the micros for a weave. A year after undergoing treatment, India.Arie released her megahit “I Am Not My Hair” and it felt like it was just for me. Most times I would jam and smile when it played, but on some days it cut too close and I’d quickly change the station.

I didn’t spend a lot of money or energy on my hair. I washed and conditioned it regularly, out of necessity, not love. After moving to New York City, I discovered half wigs, which were not nearly as hot as regular wigs. Every once in a while I¹d blow-dry my hair and wear it out, but for the most part I kept it braided up with a wig or weave. Even with the natural hair explosion, I didn’t experiment much with my own hair. My relationship with wigs was evolving, however: I looked at them as accessories that allowed me to live out my diva dreams. I treated my own hair like an acquaintance. We were no longer intimate because she¹d left me, and I wasn’t getting attached again.

As I approach a decade of being cancer-free, I’ve come to the realization that it’s time to fall back in love with my God-given hair. When the ESSENCE beauty team asked me to participate in this staff makeover, it dawned on me how damaged my relationship was with my own hair. I’m the editor who enjoys wigs and may rock three different looks in one week. Most of our staff was unaware of my cancer past. The makeover was an incredible experience, having my own hair loved on (trimmed and styled by Derrick Scurry) and wearing new gorgeous wigs! Stylist Hadiiyah Barbel “crowned” me with her human hair wigs. Her creations channel my inner Beyoncé. It feels great to let go of fake hair–but don’t be surprised if you see me showing off my natural curls every once in a while. I’m grateful that I faced my past to reclaim a part of myself I didn’t realize was lost. My hair is no longer something I am disconnected from. My hair is not all I am, but I am my hair.