I cut my hair off for Lent this year. Well, that’s not exactly the sequence of events.
But it’s Lent, and my hair is nearly all gone. This is yet another humiliation brought to you by poly-cystic ovary syndrome.
This is the culmination of a long battle. I’ve struggled with my hair and my appearance since I was very young. I was not a beautiful girl in my teens. I was just developing many of the odd chronic illness symptoms that would dog me for the rest of my life, and they showed. I was fatigued, anxious and very unattractive. I was pudgy. My skin was shiny and bumpy with pimples. My mother was embarrassed by me. She kept putting me on Weight Watchers and berating me when I ate too much. She took me to dermatologists to try to fix my skin, but the treatments just irritated it further so it was flushed red as well as greasy and bumpy. The only aspect of my body I liked was my hair. I had thick, long, wavy ash-blond hair, and I loved it that way. I wanted mermaid hair, princess hair, hair like a heroine in a fantasy novel, hair that I could plait and hide under my helmet while I rode into battle to kill the the Witch-king of Angmar. I made the mistake of mentioning this to my mother, who decided my hair was another thing that needed to be fixed. She kept saying I needed a haircut to “frame your face.” I kept resisting, but of course she got her own way in the end.
One day she got me into a chair with no convenient mirror nearby, promising she was just going to give my hair a trim. The “trim” she gave took half an hour. Every time my brothers walked by, they would laugh at me and tell me I was going to be bald, but they always laughed at me, so I didn’t pay attention. Finally, Mom took me to the bathroom mirror. I discovered she’d given me a short feathered bob haircut that might have looked nice if she’d been a trained stylist and I’d been Gillian Anderson. As it was, I looked like Ursula. If you’ve never been a fat girl despised by her mother, staring at a nightmare haircut you were tricked into getting, I can’t describe that humiliation for you. No words will do it justice.
It’s somehow a more traumatic memory than some of the far worse things that have happened to me. What followed was years of botched haircuts, botched peroxide jobs to give me trendy highlights, chiding me to stop whining when I complained I was allergic to peroxide and the treatments were making me sick, rushing me to a real hair salon to fix the mess again and again. One 90s Soccer Mom haircut after another. One set of bad early-2000s bleach stripes more hideous than the next. When I grew up and went no-contact with my family, I grew my hair out long and thick and dyed it red with henna, and that was that.
I finally got diagnosed with poly-cystic ovary syndrome just last Christmas, in addition to the chronic fatigue and fibromyalgia I already knew about. Suddenly, everything made sense. That was why Rosie was conceived at such an odd, unlikely time on my NFP chart. That was why I never had another baby despite all my prayers. It wasn’t a curse from God, it was a hormonal condition. That was why my monthly cycles were torture and sometimes lasted two months. That was why I had been fat since I began to get puberty hormones, no matter how many diets I went on. That was why my skin was still greasy in my thirties and why I have embarrassing facial hair. It wasn’t a vice or just being a slob, it was a sickness. Starting in the fall of 2020, the disease had taken a turn for the worse and given me even more weight gain, plus bald spots. I’d been combing my thinning scalp hair over with great embarrassment every day, without knowing why this was happening. In a way, the bald spots were a blessing: when I went to the doctor for something else, the doctor saw my scalp and started asking questions, and that’s what finally solved the mystery. There’s no cure for PCOS, but there are treatments. I’m on progesterone, metformin and a ketogenic diet. That’s supposed to make my cycles more normal and give me some hope of giving Rosie a sibling before it’s hopelessly too late. I’m losing some of the fatigue and the pudginess, though I’ll never be thin. But I know of nothing they can do about the hair.
I had been piling my thinning hair in a messy bun under caps and wraps for weeks. It was paper-thin on top and increasingly limp in the ponytail. Handfuls of it kept coming out in the shower. Last night, the second night of Lent, I decided I’d had enough. I asked Rosie, who is talented at giving herself pixie cuts, to give me a haircut like hers. She always gets compliments for her pixie cuts. Nobody believes she cuts her own hair; it looks professional. I thought perhaps I’d come out looking like Judi Dench. Rosie was happy to oblige.
As the scissors ground against my scalp and piles of greasy half-auburn, half-ash-brown hair fell into the bathroom trash, I had plenty of time to contemplate. Plenty of time to flash back to my mother hacking my hair off. Plenty of time to pray. I wish I felt closer to more female saints, but I don’t. A history of spiritual abuse means I’m always afraid they’re disgusted by me. At the moment, I wished I had a woman saint to talk to.
I thought of my friend Saint Francis hacking off Saint Clare’s hair to help her start an order of nuns. I thought about that line that I’m not even sure he actually said, the one that was in a bad comic book about Saint Francis we had growing up– something about her being less beautiful to the world now, but much more beautiful to God. I wanted to hear him say that to me, but I felt ashamed. I wasn’t cutting my hair off for some glorious spiritual purpose. I was cutting it off because I was sick.
When Rosie finished, she gently told me, “It has character.”
I did indeed look like a character.
Specifically, I looked like Jack Nicholson as the Joker.
I went to bed, my scalp feeling oddly cold, finding it strange to not have to pull out my ponytail hair tie to keep from lying on a bump. An image came to mind: Saint Francis sitting beside the bed, holding my hand in the dark.
God became Man so that man might become God. That’s not just a pretty poetic thing to say, or some kind of generalization. God took flesh in the womb of the Virgin Mary and became a specific human, a human in a certain time and a certain place with a certain Body, so that all of our times and places and bodies might be drawn up into the Holy Trinity. My time and your time. My place and your place. My body and your body. This. Not some other, prettier, more romantic life, but this. What we’re suffering, right now, no matter how pointless or un-poetic or humiliating it is, is drawn up into the life of the Trinity. What we are suffering right now is sacred, not because suffering is good, but because God is suffering in us. He doesn’t wish us to be sick. He doesn’t wish us to be bullied. He hates our sickness and our having been bullied so much that He came down from Heaven and was incarnate, to enter into our lives, to be sick and bullied and ugly and lonely and misunderstood in us. You may not have cut off your hair so you could start a religious order, but you cut off your hair in the course of being Mary Pezzulo, and being Mary Pezzulo is your vocation, just as founding an order was Saint Clare’s. You may not have meant to cut your hair off for a Lenten penance, but now you have no hair in Lent, so having no hair is something you can offer up during Lent. And you are very beautiful to God.
Maybe Saint Francis said that, and maybe it was just something I thought of by myself. But it’s true.
Image via Pixabay
Mary Pezzulo is the author of Meditations on the Way of the Cross and Stumbling into Grace: How We Meet God in Tiny Works of Mercy. Steel Magnificat operates almost entirely on tips. To tip the author, visit our donate page.