I Am Living As Free As My Hair

Someone asked if I color my hair. I said, “No I don’t, I pay someone else to do it.”

Once my hair grew back after chemotherapy my attitude toward it was changed. Before treatment for breast cancer, the color, length, and style of my hair was linked to my identity. Enough people share this link with their hair that “having a bad hair day” is common parlance. When it fell out (alopecia) in fistfuls as I shampooed in the shower, fourteen days after my first chemo treatment, I cried, “Fuck, fuck, fuck,” like a demented chicken, even though I knew it would happen.

Nowadays, I experience my hair as an accessory; its color and length mercurially changes, like a hat, within the boundaries of our hospital’s dress code, which outlaws hair colors not found in nature. Contrary to Lady Gaga’s song As Free as My Hair, a nurse’s hair lacks total freedom. Here’s an example: a classmate in nursing school came to clinical rotation one morning with a new, short haircut. Her abundant, thick hair was spiked in a then-new punk hairstyle. It was cool, and I admired her for doing it. The school’s dress code demanded that hair be kept above the collar of a student nurse’s uniform at all times, but didn’t specify anything about how short it could be. Our clinical instructor became unglued over the unprecedented hairstyle, calling out the student in front of the class, and telling her she looked like she’d “combed her hair standing in front of a fan this morning,” before making her flatten down the spikes with a comb. Without a doubt, the hair of a nurse lacks freedom.

Anyway, the other day I was sitting in a salon, my hair wet and matted with a new color. It’s fall, and time to color over summer’s golden highlights with chocolaty, cherry red. It’s beautiful, and popular in the fashion magazines I thumbed through while the color set. Sorry, I don’t carry nursing journals with me to read during spare moments. At the salon, I read brain candy. It’s fun, which is good for my soul.

At the sink across from me, a young woman had her hair washed by a stylist, and was telling the stylist that she enrolled in nursing prerequisite courses this fall and hopes to get accepted into a nursing program next year. Nursing will be her second career: she is a recently laid off teacher. I’m not sure why it struck me as odd that a teacher would decide to become a nurse, because I know nurses who became teachers. I wonder if she has a better chance of finding a nursing job than a new teaching position without moving? Through social media, I hear finding a nursing job as a new grad or a returning nurse is pretty tough everywhere, not only in Portland. Does she know that many nursing departments are laying off through attrition, if not by actual termination? Who is telling these students that nursing will solve unemployment woes? In today’s economy, nursing job security is not what it was only a few years ago.

I also wondered how nursing and teaching compare as careers, so I searched the Internet to find out. The best information I found comes from blog posts and comments on the subject. AllNurses.com (Nursing versus Teaching Major, Feb 1, 2010) and College Confidential (Teaching Versus Nursing, April 26, 2010) had the most compelling conversations, in my opinion. In summary, both careers are described as challenging, overworked, and highly respected. As in other industries, neither guarantees job security in the present economic crisis.

Losing your hair, or losing your job alters your identity.

Inside the salon a woman gets a new haircut, and in time, perhaps a new career.

After a rinse and blowout, I left the salon with a glossy new hair color, still a nurse. I am living just as free as my hair.