“I am not my hair, I am not this skin, I am not your expectations, I am the soul that lives within.” India Arie
“That’s my older brother John. He lives in D.C.” My friend Beth and I were in New Jersey, at Mat’s family home. I glanced at John’s photo, reflected that I thought he was attractive, but moved on. My mind was not on the photo, but instead, consumed by the experience minutes before. When we had decided to swing by Mat’s house, we had entered from the garage and passed through the “mud room,” with its coats and boots before reaching the kitchen.
The instant I walked through the mud room, I felt as if I was suffocating. Surrounding me on every inch of the walls were traced and decorated handprints of family and friends dating back to 1974. Not several, not many, but probably hundreds.
It was clear that this Hall of Hands had been a work in progress for many years. Mat had observed my fascination and commented, “Everyone that visits leaves their handprint on the wall. Do you want to?” He had made no assumptions about my hands, but still I replied, “No, thanks.”
In fact, I was light years from flaunting, and certainly not ready to leave my mark by tracing my one finger and small hand on the wall of someone’s family home to gawk at after I left. The mud room was the smallest room in the house, but it represented an important history to this family to which I could never relate. I was ready to leave that house. Despite my affection for Mat, I was readily judging his family based on the appearance of a single room! Regardless, I felt sure I didn’t belong there.
I have been writing a lot about my admiration for Oscar Pistorious, the “Blade Runner,” for all he accomplished even before entering his first Olympic race. This week, another Olympic athlete caught my attention. Joanna Rowsell, 23, who won a gold medal in cycling, along with her British teammates. There is no doubt I am in awe of anyone who is able to make an Olympic team, never mind win a gold medal. While Rowsell stood smiling with her team for an official photo, she physically stood out.
Rowsell has alopecia areata, in which her hair follicles attack themselves and cause baldness. I watched Rowsell stand before the world, just being herself, not disguising her difference, and I felt a little bit of understanding of what it must have taken her to get to that point. A few years ago, for a time, our friend’s daughter was diagnosed with alopecia as well, and I saw through her young eyes the significant emotional challenges the condition brought to a young teenage girl, as well as the considerable strength she developed as a result of it. It wasn’t easy, but she learned to stand proudly and accept how she appeared to others. She also learned to move beyond it. Rowsell also moved beyond it. She became an Olympic athlete. She doesn’t think of herself as alopecia-afflicted Olympic athlete. Rowsell looks in the mirror and sees the Olympian she is.
The thing I noticed about the Rowsell story was not so much the coverage of her performance, but the other ways several journalists wrote about her. Even in a complimentary article, she was described as “suffering from alopecia.” Roswell was lauded for her “bravery”, presumably for being a girl standing bald before the world.
It got me thinking. Why is it that when people that are not overtly different describe others who are, it is often assumed that we are “suffering” from our condition, our difference? If we don’t appear to be suffering in public, then are we putting on a “brave” face? To me, this feels counter-intuitive. From her own words, I think Rowsell might agree: “On one level it was a case of ‘this is just me.’ I get off my bike, take my helmet off and that’s who I am. I did know it would be making a statement—I just didn’t anticipate the size of the reaction.”
I don’t think Rowsell suffers from her condition. Rather, I think she lives with it and doesn’t think about it constantly. If Rowsell is valiant, to me it is not from taking off her helmet, but because she had the guts to follow her dream to the Olympics, and endure all the hard work that entails. Hair or no hair.
My dream? That people (including journalists) learn to skip over the superficial or irrelevant differences we all have and focus on what does matter. Can we imagine an article about a female Olympian with alopecia that doesn’t need to mention the reason for her baldness, but focuses on her athleticism? That’s not say that her back story or that of Oscar Pistorius are not interesting or meaningful, but only that at some point it would be cool for our society to move beyond its fascination with “oddities” and just start taking people for who they are. After all, it’s not about who has the most hair, but about who is the fastest on the track.
I wound up meeting Mat’s brother, from that photo on the wall, four years later. After John and I were dating about a year, I confided to his parents (with a smile) that I thought of the mud room as “the intimidating room.” One day soon after we were engaged we visited their house and Mat joined us. By this time, I already felt like a part of the Zucker family, and I knew I there was something that I needed to do. Grabbing a green marker, I whispered in John’s ear. “Sure, go ahead, he replied.” With his permission, I drew my name with a heart and the date on the mud room wall, inside the tracing of John’s hand from 1974. When Mat saw what I had done, he stood there completely shocked. “Oh my gosh! You just desecrated Johnny’s hand. Now you HAVE to marry him!”
Clearly, the room had its value. I had misjudged it and the family.