A woman leans into my colleague, Karen. "Does she have cancer?" she whispers, pointing at me across the room, as if saying the words might put her at risk.
Karen shakes her head no.
"Then why does she wear her hair that way?" she asks, referring to my nearly naked head.
"Because she likes it," Karen replies, smiling unapologetically.
She's right. I do.
I like it better than any other style I have worn in the last 45 years; better than the red Amelie inverted bob with short Claudette Colbert bangs, better than the pixie with chunky blonde highlights, better than my flirtations with long-ish hair, ponytails, and Farrah Fawcett layers. Certainly better than the bad Dorothy Hamill 'do in third grade.
I've never liked my hair. I call it "half breed" — named for my biological parents, one Jewish, one not. It is neither pin-straight nor curly, and not quite wavy either. It is, in a word, difficult. So much so that I wore a hat on my wedding day, knowing I wouldn't want to do battle with it.
But shaved, it has no opportunity to misbehave — mostly. And as it grows in, so does the silver that tells my years on the planet. I like it.
Having worn my hair some length of "shaved" for so long, it doesn't occur to me that my almost-baldness can be shocking to some. In the six-plus years since I first sheared down, my lack of hair has become my signature, my fingerprint. It is how I am most often described. It is how I learned to see my physical self.
Looking in the mirror after Scotty shaved my head for the first time, I look a little bit like an alien, I think. My scalp is so white. It reminds me of the time I shaved off all of my pubic hair, years before landing strips and Brazilians were de rigueur. I look strangely naked.
My eyes appear larger. My brows — tinted and coiffed — take on new significance. I feel shiny, sparkly, and alive, like the light within me radiates out.
There is no hiding.
"Ohhhh, THAT'S what I look like," I say, as if seeing myself for the very first time. I giggle. I feel radical. I feel like I am breaking the rules. In some ways, I am.
I have secretly dreamed of this moment since I was 12 years old, lying on my belly on the multi-hued blue shag carpeting, thumbing through Seventeen magazine. I spy a black-and-white photograph of "punk rockers" sporting tall mohawks and shaved heads waiting in line at Astor Place Barber in New York. I linger, longingly.
Again when I see Annie Lenox for the first time on MTV — her short red crop in the "Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)" video.
And again nearly 20 years later when I move to Chicago, seeing hipster boys in Wicker Park who ride fixed-gear bikes and wear skinny jeans and stubbly scalps.
They look sexy, beautiful, powerful — all of them.
I tell my then-husband I would shave my head if it weren't for a couple of angry-looking cysts on my scalp.
A few months later, when I have them removed, he asks, "When are you going to do it?"
And he nods approvingly when I arrive home from Scotty's a few days later sporting a "two" — referring to the guard number on the clippers — one-quarter inch in length all around. I ask him to take a photograph which I immediately upload to Facebook. My boss at Weight Watchers is among the first to comment.
"You ROCK that bald head," she writes.
I am relieved. My only hesitation has been how it might be perceived at work — standing in front of groups, facilitating conversations about health and weight loss, representing a publicly-traded company.
Since then, I have worn my hair a variety of shaved lengths, from no guard on the clippers to my current "longer" 'do — a two on the sides fading into a four on top, with a mini faux-hawk down the center.
No matter what the length, I've found my private decision to be ripe for public discussion. Complete strangers will ask why I shave my head. And while I doubt they would inquire about the decision to wear braids or bangs, I do not mind. I enjoy talking to people I might not otherwise meet. I find that men dig it, women want to understand it.
A few summers ago, I visited Rwanda, where most all young girls wear their hair shaved until they are old enough to take care of it — about 15 or 16. I marveled, surrounded by what a friend called "little Lesleys." The same way I marveled when I visited Israel for the first time and was surrounded by so many other Jews. I wasn't unusual.
From time to time, I think about growing my hair, especially after my husband and I divorced, as he had become my barber. (One of the first gestures of my newly single status was to pay a professional to shave my head.) But I never make it past four weeks. My head gets itchy. I get itchy — for the smooth baby-seal feeling of my scalp after a fresh shearing, for the freedom of taking off my winter hat or bike helmet without concern for my appearance, for the opportunity to see myself clearly, as if for the very first time. Naked. Unencumbered. As I am.