by Audrey Ratzlaff Audrey Ratzlaff lives near Peabody, Kansas, with her husband, Aaron, and daughter, Nadia. She graduated from Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary in 2007 with a Master of Divinity degree; served as pastor in Donnellson, Iowa for three years; then returned to her home state of Kansas. She is an active member of the leadership circle at New Creation Fellowship Church in Newton, Kansas. Audrey can be reached here: email@example.com
Once, I led a Children’s Time during worship, asking the youngsters to share everything they knew about me: what they’d been told and what they could gather with their own senses. These were the most polite children—none wanted to mention my baldness. Finally I asked directly, “What color is my hair?” The hesitant and uncertain response: “Clear?”
At other times and places, I have appreciated the approach of young children: “What happened to your hair?” they ask with no assumptions or prejudices. I tell them that my hair was sick and fell out and got into everything (like my clothes, my food, my mouth).
I have alopecia areata. This means my immune system attacks my hair follicles and damages the growing hairs; the cause is unknown. The condition can be limited to the scalp, but sometimes spreads to other parts of the body in an unpredictable cycle of loss and regrowth. In my case, most of the hair on my head has fallen out in patches over the past 14 years, and I have lost most of my eyebrows and some of my eyelashes. Some patches have regrown in varying colors and textures, but if I would allow it to grow, there would still be damaged hair falling out, and the patchwork of color and texture is, to me, not manageable or attractive, so I have chosen to shave my head. Yes, I tried wigs and found them physically uncomfortable. I also felt that I would be more self-consciousness worrying that people could tell it was fake.
Sometimes, however, my bold baldness leads to awkward conversations with strangers in public places. Only once has someone approached me and asked, “Do you have alopecia?” Innumerable times, I have been asked, “How is the treatment going?” or “How long have you had cancer?” Often these well-wishers share a bit of their own chemo story, or that of a family member or friend. I recognize their desire for connection…but I also feel some strange sense of guilt—as though I’m an imposter playing on their emotions or fraudulently receiving sympathy and “God bless you’s.” (Once a man bought a stuffed bear for my daughter when we were shopping in a thrift store.) Usually—unless I’m running short on time or just in a bad mood—I set the record straight, gently (and, I’ve been told, graciously) explaining my real condition and expressing my sympathy for their struggles.
What response would I hope for? What’s helpful? It’s hard to say. It’s not that I want to be ignored…but then again, my focus is rarely on my lack of hair while I’m, say, grocery shopping or dining at a restaurant. And, I don’t really like explaining my medical history to strangers—but I haven’t thought of an honest alternative response. I wonder why people feel free to question me about a cancer diagnosis, when they wouldn’t ask someone about a missing limb or a disfiguring scar.
Throughout my youth, I never quite knew what to do with my hair.
I didn’t invest much time or energy in it, but still, I had a series of hair mishaps (bangs too short and spiky, over-the-counter coloration, friends experimenting with a new cut) as I tried to find a style I liked for my thick wavy locks.
My mother usually cut my (and my siblings’) hair when I was growing up, but in the fourth grade, I wanted a “feathered cut” like my older cousin. (In my memory, Rachel had a long, soft, flowing style like Farah Fawcett.) Mom took me to the beauty shop, but I ended up hugely disappointed and looking, to my own young eyes, “like a boy.”
As a junior in high school, I intentionally chose a short-cropped style, which I loved…but decided I wanted a little more texture and body. Unfortunately, my hair really accepted the permanent treatment! When I walked into my home after the stylist was finished, my youngest brother greeted me: “Hey, it’s Bob Ross!”
Even the worst of those moments, however, gave no hint of the trauma to come.
On my wedding day, my friend curled and tucked and pinned my hair. The style looked fairly simple and soft, back from my face and under my veil. I felt beautiful.
Within months, my new husband would discover a “thin place” on the back left side of my head. He later memorialized this moment in the children’s book he wrote and illustrated as a gift to me: “Her friend Giraffe came by and bent down to the floor. ‘Is that a balding spot?’ he asked. ‘That wasn’t there before.’” Quills, published by Herald Press in 2011, is the story of a Porcupine who loses her quills but is accepted by her friends; it reflects the emotional struggle of accepting my diagnosis and coming to terms with my new physical identity. Like Porcupine, I suffered from embarrassment and extreme self-consciousness, depression, hopelessness, anger, frustration, and confusion. I visited hair stylists who tried different styles and colors, offered shampoos and lotions. The doctor (like Springhare in the book) told me “not to worry” because the condition might be caused by stress, and, besides (just as Old Goat tells Porcupine), there’s no cure.
For some months, I wore hats almost constantly, sure that everyone could see the spot (which in reality was well-hidden at that stage). As summer approached, hats became hot and bothersome; I decided to cut my hair much shorter and tried not to worry so much about the obvious bald patches.
In the meantime, I became a seminary student and began to explore a calling to pastoral ministry. Two communities—the students, faculty, and staff of Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary and the congregation where I served as a ministry intern—embraced me—not just accepting who I am, but naming and affirming gifts that I was barely able to recognize within myself. I served others and was affirmed as a ministering person. I claimed and proclaimed the truth that we are each beloved children of God, “fearfully and wonderfully made,” given strength in the midst of our frailty. With growing self-confidence, I shaved my head for the first time.
As a pastoral candidate at Zion Mennonite Church in Donnellson, Iowa, I wanted to be honest and up-front about my condition, open to questions. Leaders from the congregation said: “If you’re comfortable, others will be, too.” Some months after I became their pastor, a female member said I had inspired her to “go natural” and she pulled off her wig. Members of the congregation were surprised to learn she’d been wearing one!
Honesty and vulnerability have become essential values of my faith.
My own desire to be honest and vulnerable and my choice to move boldly baldly through the world has allowed others to be comfortable in their own situations and at times, open up to me or to others about their own pain. I have found this to be a great gift, and I continue to long for our communities to be safe places in which we can be open about our struggles and limitations: places where we can wrestle with our questions, find the courage to accept ourselves, and still be loved with God’s unconditional love.
So, life with alopecia goes on. Last August, I forgot to put on my hat when picnicking and exploring the zoo for a couple hours. OUCH! A sunburned scalp is no fun. But, this July, my husband and I camped overnight in a tent near a lake, enduring the high humidity and complete lack of breeze. I awoke sticky from sweat and smelly from campfire smoke—but I didn’t worry at all whether my hair was frizzy or flat! I am constantly cold in the winter. And I have to remember a hat anytime I step outside on a sunny day. But, all in all, I’ve stopped worrying about my hair. I am used to the routine of shaving, to the clean feeling of my scalp, to no hair blowing in my face with the Kansas wind.
The past couple winters, in order to prevent dry, itchy scalp, I stopped shaving for a few months. When I
see photos from those periods, I shudder and realize that I feel much happier and more confident with my bald appearance than during those patchy times.
For so long, I struggled with the desire to hide, with fears of how I was different from others, different and unlovable. Then I discovered myself not only acceptable and lovable, but loved and affirmed.
I still wonder about the deep-down cause of my immune system attack. I don’t believe God intended me to lose my hair, in order to purpose that as a tool for ministry. But, I can embrace a relationship with God expressed in this biblical truth: “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to God’s purpose” (Romans 8:28).