Wednesday, December 03, 2008

People will ask.

I saw a really beautiful bald woman today when I was coming out of an appointment at the alternative health center. Her head was perfectly shaped and just the right amount of shiny - she just glowed. (It occured to me later that she might have used some kind of make up on it to get it to look just right.)

My own scalp is less beautiful. I have weird bumps and lumps all over the back of my head, and the first time I saw them (because one doesn't see the back of one's head all that often, and my head *feels* smooth enough), I was shocked, and had to ask Mr. P. if he thought it looked normal. I've sort of decided that it's gross enough that it doesn't qualify for viewing - as in, I will continue to cover my head in public - but I plan to ask a panel of unbiased judges to weigh in.

I also still have random, stubbly hair, because while 99% of it has fallen out, there is 1% still scattered and still hanging on. I haven't been motivated to shave it, but after seeing this woman today, I'm thinking I should.

I'm thinking a lot about bald heads because yesterday I wore my pseudo-dominatrix cap. This is a cap that I've worn out to clubs sometimes, but mostly not worn as it always seems to change the tone of my outfit significantly. I love it, but I always worry that, on me, it sends the wrong message. (Yesterday, I wore it with a thick, wooly sweater and scarf, which muted the message considerably.)

But the cap, like all caps, sits on top of my head, making it clear that there's no hair there. And so I got a fair amount of stares and a couple of questions.

The questions that upset me came from the cashier when I went to buy my lunch. She's someone I've seen around enough to say "hi" to, but I don't know her name, and I'm sure that she hasn't heard that I have cancer. I saw her *notice*, and I knew that questions were coming, and the thing is, damn it, I just don't always want to have to explain things to people. I don't want to always talk about it, and I definitely do not want to reassure people or even deal with their shocked reaction. I sort of assumed that people would mostly not ask personal questions, and mostly they don't, but when it comes to me not having hair and interacting with a young group of people - well, they probably don't associate it with chemo. I expect they simply think, "oh, she shaved her head - I wonder why," and so they ask.

In this case, though, I stiffened immediately when she said, "wait - is your hair pulled back?" And she kept asking, though I kept deflecting, and she finally said, "oh, you just decided to shave it," and I thanked her for my food and left.

I know that in some ways, by wearing revealing headwear, I am asking for it. Of course, people will ask questions. How could I expect that they not? My colleagues, of course, know better (well, probably word has travelled to them, as well), so I see some of them looking but they don't ask me about my hair. But the students who think I've simply made a fashion decision will ask, and I will keep getting defensive and angry because I don't want to hide, but neither do I want to talk about it.

After I cut most people who ask some slack, though, I wonder about those who persist in asking personal questions. How is it possible to focus so much on one's own curiosity and need to know that the other person becomes invisible? You know what I mean:

"What happened to your (insert body part here)?"
"Did you have an accident?"
"What are you?"

And as if this weren't bad enough, the follow-up questions/comments:

"Did/does it hurt?"
"I can't imagine what I'd do if that happened to me."
"Don't you feel like you have to choose one (race, sexuality, gender)?"

America, some of you are not teaching your children that it is rude to ask personal questions. More frustrating: you are not teaching them that when someone doesn't answer their personal questions, they should stop asking.


CrackerLilo said...

*hug* That was something I had to learn when I was younger, that sometimes people would just like to live as normally as possible and would not like to keep rehashing something that hurt(s) them. They'd just like to get a sandwich or ride the bus with a minimum of hassle. There are people who need to see this.

bobvis said...

PF, sorry to hear about these experiences.

For my own benefit, could you suggest some guidelines for what things are safe to ask a person about and what is not?

The reason I ask is that there are things that are in fact intended to be conversation pieces. (I don't know: a scarf, a necklace, something else...) Is anything that is not a body part in bounds? Or is it that you should only comment if it is to say something good about it, whether it is a body part or not?

Plain(s)feminist said...

This is an excellent question. The problem is, I'm not sure there are clear answers - for example, if I *had* just decided to shave my head, it probably wouldn't occur to me that it might be a taboo question, so it's hard to know.

But I would say that certainly, questions about a person's body in general should be seen as personal. I think people should refrain from asking about injuries, disabilities, scars, tics, suspected pregnancy, weight gain/loss, ethnicity/race. If it's someone you know well, they might bring this up themselves if it's something they want to talk about with you, in which case gentle, respectful questions might be permissible (but limit yourself - you don't need to find out everything about the person in one conversation). If it's not someone you know well, all the more reason not to ask personal questions.

Maybe others can add to these guidelines?

Anonymous said...

I'm glad to be seeing posts from you. As for asking people questions, I don't do it at ALL. I simply ignore the issue. If the person talks about it, they talk about it. There was a junior volunteer at my job with a major tic problem, but I noticed that if you were just really nice to him, he stopped. The subject never came up. My aunt, however, had polio when she was little and any time she saw someone around her age that had any kind of altercation with their walking, she asked them if they had polio during the outbreak. My mom got on her case once about this. I was there, and Mom was right, it was really uncomfortable.

Green said...

No, I disagree with you. If you wear pants that say "Flirt" or "Sexy" across the ass, then yes, you are asking for comments. You could choose to wear pants that do not attract attention to your ass.

You did not CHOOSE for your hair to fall out. However you choose to deal with that having happened is NOT an open invitation for questions.

BTW, I have found staring at people like they are INSANE while shutting down an initial question with a one-word answer prevents further questions usually. When people have REALLY pushed, I have been known to call them out on it. "How are you? Wow, you're sure buying a lot today. Oh, don't you LOVE these?" I will respond with "I'd love it a lot more if I could just pay and get the hell out of here." When I say things like that people always shut up and go back into their role of doing whatever they should be doing.

Your bitchy blogging friend

Anonymous said...

I for one am very interested in the physical-social construction of treatment and disease. I think our experiences with how folks deal with our physical presentation to the world during/after treatment or surgery exposes just how rigid our social rules are for the public presentation of illness. In this scheme, there are things that are "ok" like scarves, hats, wigs, small bandages, wheelchairs, paleness. But we're also given boundaries and crossing those boundaries makes the presentation of our illness and its treatment "not ok" like going commando or not conforming to the rules of disease performativity that have been established by society. The public discussion of one's bodily events/actions on the body during illness and treatment can fit into these categories as well.

But I think it's also more complicated, because the social response to illness and its treatment is legitimized by the social recognition of particular types of physical-social performativity. So when you *don't* present with a bodily performance of illness/treatment (e.g. women who don't lose their hair after chemo, or in my case I just looked too good after brain surgery) you risk different kinds of social sanctions that erase the very profound experience of your illness & its treatment. And same goes for talking about it--people only want us to fulfill the script of the socially accepted knowledge, not necessarily our very real personal experiences. So we're damned if we do and damned if we don't! And there's no real social narrative to guide the responses of the people who encounter us. I'll be interested to hear your thoughts on this. . .

foo said...

I am just going through this. The degree of political awareness among this crowd is close to zero. This contrasts with me who rates my awareness as being rather high.

Plains Feminist you keep fighting that fight. We have so much to learn about this but they wont learn it from me. They are immune from learning.
Renee Culver