Doing Something Real: The #ICHairRaiser

I tweet-captioned this photo “At #IllinoisCollege we just might give you the hair off our heads!”

This week, faculty, staff, and students where I work are donating hair to Beautiful Lengths, Pantene’s partnership with the American Cancer Society to make real-hair wigs for women battling cancer.  Three of us went under the scissors together yesterday, and at least three others have also done so (we’re still gathering all the pics).

It’s the kind of service that makes sense to me.  It’s real, tangible, and direct.  It’s not the nonsense that too often comes with “pinktober” and “pinkwashing.”  Over at The Huffington Post blog, Leisha Davison-Yahol writes that “the commercialism has gotten out of hand.”  She continues:

And while I do think we need more awareness and education (about metastatic disease, about how young women can develop breast cancer, about how women (young and old) DO die from this disease, about the importance of research, etc.), I don’t think we need the kind of awareness that buying a jar of salsa with a pink ribbon on it brings. While I hardly ever see “awareness” products addressing the topics above, I can’t go anywhere without seeing pink products. Heck, I just have to look out of my front window to see giant pink garbage totes. The stores are filled with pink as companies try to make a buck off breast cancer. If you look carefully at these products, you’ll find that some of them don’t even donate a cent to breast cancer awareness, support, research, etc. And oftentimes those that do make a very minimal donation-and not always to organizations/programs where the money is well spent.

Our project originated last spring, when my colleague Betsy Hall and I were planning our first year learning community with the college’s 2013 theme of Service in mind.  In fact, Betsy was just sitting behind me in a meeting and said, “Hey, your hair is getting long.  Are you interested in donating it in the fall?”  She’d done something like that before, and I hadn’t.  I immediately said I would and we started talking about how we could involve our students, and even get others on campus to participate.

When I was sitting in the stylists chair yesterday, I thought of how it was like giving blood.  That’s something I have done many many many times over the decades, in part because I can and I know that not everyone is able to donate.  Hair that’s too thin or too chemically treated or too damaged isn’t easily given up.  I was talking with a friend recently who said that her curly hair grows really slowly and so she’d never be able to have (and replace!) the requisite minimum 8 inches for a donation like this.  She also told me the story of a dear friend of hers who died of cancer a few years ago.  She said that they day her friend got her wig, she had a new spirit and pride in her deteriorating body.

That’s why I did this.

I got my first mammogram a few years ago, probably sooner than I had to, after my friend Deanna Thompson was diagnosed with stage IV breast cancer in her early 40s.  Deanna has written an amazing memoir about living with cancer called Hoping For More that I truly hope you will read.  Her theological reflections on things like lament and church and even the Caring Bridge website as spiritual community are remarkable.

That’s why I did this.

There were other things that came along with this little project.  As I said, Betsy and I are teaching in a first year learning community, which for us means that her English writing class is linked with my Religion first year seminar.  The same fifteen students are in each of our classes, and we have four joint class meetings and two joint assignments.  Our overall thematic connection is food (not hair, though both are tangible and meaningful parts of human life … hmmm…), with our students reading five religious autobiographies variously focused on food, faith, and justice in my seminar, and their writing class with her centered around food rhetoric and the writing process.  In one of her sessions with our students, as a way of having them practice important skills like analysis and evaluation, she had them conduct rhetorical analysis of several hair-donation organizations, and evaluate them within the rhetorical context of Illinois College.

The students selected Beautiful Lengths, which Betsy and I also liked in part because of their partnership with the American Cancer Society, and their focus on supporting women living with cancer.  We decided that the tacit support of a corporate entity and its capitalist mission was just going to come with the territory.  In the end, we hope that the students learned something about evaluation and analysis in the process.

Then, the promotion was up to us.  The owner of Inner Harmony, a local salon, offered discounted haircuts for anyone coming in as part of this project, and we decided to do it during the week of Halloween and call it a HairRaiser … “service that’s scary good!”  The fact that Betsy brought along her collection of Edgar Allan Poe short stories to read as she waited wasn’t entirely intentional … or was it?!

It’s doing something real.  We grew this hair, and we are able to grow more.  Some women aren’t in that position right now.  Until we’re able to treat cancer without destroying the rest of the body, the best we can do is give them the hair off our heads.

UPDATE:  Here’s a picture of Illinois College student Morgan with her donation and her fab new haircut!

ANOTHER UPDATE:

Here’s a picture of Illinois College student Jasmine bagging up her donation to Beautiful Lengths!

About Caryn Riswold

Caryn D. Riswold is a feminist theologian in the Lutheran tradition. She is Professor of Religion and Chair of Gender and Women’s Studies at Illinois College in Jacksonville, Illinois, where she has worked for over a decade teaching undergraduates to think critically and creatively about religion. She earned her Ph.D. and Th.M. from the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, holds a master’s degree from the Claremont School of Theology, and received her B.A. from Augustana College in her childhood hometown of Sioux Falls, South Dakota.


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