Picture it, it’s 1990 and a grey Pontiac STE is bending around incessant curves down country roads carrying me to high school. But country roads was not playing on the radio, I believe Paula Abdul was my jam that year and I remember my parents protests as I handed them the tape that every song had the same beat. I’m sure my socks were the exact same color as my shirt and my choice of jeans were probably pleated, high waisted with multiple fabric looped belts. I would catch a glimpse of my face in the rear view mirror and pull out my favorite beige hair brush and begin work on getting that perfect feathered look. Yes kids, I brought a hairbrush to school—most times it would stay in my right back pocket. I’d brush it to the left, and then swing it to the right. The manic brushing would last the entire duration of the ride to school, through most of that Forever Your Girl album until the car stopped half a block from the main entrance —so people wouldn’t see the folks drop me off.
I can’t remember really having any body issues as a kid or throughout my teenage years—those pressures didn’t hit me until my 30’s. I was not athletic at all (shocker) and always got a pass in gym class. Working out and having muscles was not my thing back then. I was into putting clothes and outfits together and never even considered what my body looked like or what anyone else thought about it. I do remember becoming obsessed with my hair somewhere around the 10th grade. A nice chestnut shade, but straight and flat like the yellow lines on a desert highway. I graduated from feathered locks into a body perm, slicked it back a little and finally settled into a coifed side part into senior year. Right after high school I let it grow out just to see where it would go. Bangs were covering my eyes so I was able to do the cool head flip and it was growing in these odd curves off the back of my neck. I was loving my hair. Flash forward to a summer in my early 20’s—I caught a glimpse of the crown of my head in a mirror and started to see skin. I also started to wake up in the mornings to see clumps of hair on my pillow and in the shower drain. Within a couple weeks most of those bangs were completely gone and I was devastated. Because my hair had been long it was very noticeable. I went to my cousin who was a hairdresser for help and for a short time I was able to pull off the spiked crew cut and no one really noticed. That however didn’t last long and I started hearing things like, “oh, someone is getting really thin on top”. You know, like it’s someone else’s responsibility and duty to let you know something is different about you. Of course I noticed what was going on, it was my head! This was the first major change I had experienced in my body, everything else stayed pretty static. I never had a growth spurt, my weight never fluctuated that much and aside from going blind in the 6th grade and needing glasses this was the toughest thing to deal with. I started wearing hats but realized I couldn’t wear one everywhere I went. This may seem very trivial compared to what other people may experience with their bodies and when you take a look around there’s a huge percent of the male population who have lost their hair. But alas, this was no comfort to me in the early stages. The prophecy hung over me all my life—all of my uncles had lost their hair, so I should have known my locks were doomed. I believe this was the first time that I saw my external self through someone else’s eyes.
Yes, this happens to a lot of people, more than you even think, but this was happening to me. When people begin to point out changes in you and expressing them to you, it plants this little seed that you’re less than. It’s the only thing you think about and becomes something you are always fixated on. When people felt that they had to say something about it it made me feel that there was something wrong with me. It is often the case that the thing you are most self conscious about is the thing that many people will feel compelled to bring up or throw in your face. Some people will mask it with humor, because you know, it will make you laugh too. But it doesn’t.
If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? At some point in your life you have most likely heard this philosophical thought posed, but did you ever really think it through? What is your observation? The main train of thought is of course it makes a sound-anything that massive is going to make a sound when it falls. We relate those types of questions with memory and experience, as we recall from our senses what things sound like, taste like, or feel like. Raise your hand if you remember the first time you tried bakers chocolate after you begged your mom for it and she promised you wouldn’t like it. What about entering the kitchen and still smelling the popcorn you burned 2 days ago? Or have you ever walked into a baby’s room first thing in the morning and heard the most lovely unintelligible sounds?
Some people think that the object of sense only exist when they are perceived. So does that mean if we are not in the forest, it doesn’t make a sound if we are not there to hear it? If flowers colored the same wooded area, would the lack of our presence make them no longer fragrant? Would everything even look the same? Consider this--if you existed all alone in that same forest and there were no one around to see you, how would you feel about your own body? Let’s say you still had a mirror so you could still see yourself, but there was no one else around to react to your physical image. There were no other bodies there to compare yours to. No advertising, no Instagram stars, no competition. There would also be no other voices to comment, describe or label what you looked like. It’s all on you—what would your impression be? What would you see? What would you sense? Remember, you’ve never seen anyone else—this is strictly your own feeling. Without any comparison, without trying to impress anyone, without shielding harmful words—how would you see yourself? How would carry yourself? How would you walk? In the presence of our own acceptance would we feel like we were enough? Would we feel complete? Whole? Distinct? Perfect? Without anyone else around, would we have the same anxiety over our bodies based on what we alone thought? If all alone would we know or think we were that thing we were obsessing over if no one were around to point it out? Of course we will never really know, just like we’ll never be sure of the sound a tree makes if we’re not there to hear it. I do not literally wish that you or I were abandoned in a forest to secure our place in a body positive environment, but it’s becoming very evident the effect other eyes and voices have over the body that we inhabit.
Ok, I take that back, I can now remember something I didn’t like about my body as a teenager. I can recall a trip to the mall, catching a glimpse of myself in the mirror while leaving my favorite store. There they were— my orangutan arms, knuckles dragging the carpet heading out of Chess King. I couldn’t believe what I saw! Was that what I really looked like? Like how was I allowed to live? Did I really have gigantic ape arms or was I beginning to believe what someone had told me just days before? For some reason someone had told me I had really long arms for someone my size. I had never, ever looked at the size or shape of my arms. They just did not stand out to me. But the moment someone fed me those words I began to see them through their eyes and their words. I was never self conscious about them, until someone pointed them out. To be honest, it’s still something I notice in the mirror.
It’s time to take you back to early 2000’s—many people were prepping for the imposing Y2K disaster that never happened, however I was saving up money for my own disaster—a hair transplant! I was convinced this was the route I had to go. I missed flipping my hair. I missed seeing the old me. There was a new me in the mirror and I was just not comfortable seeing him all the time. He unsettled me. I was staring at a stranger who knew everything about me and both of us were not happy with what we saw in each other. Once again I was in the backseat of my parents car equipped with a Sony walkman CD player, but this time there was no need to look in the rearview mirror—there was no hair to fix. I was going to be the 4th friend of Dorthy’s—traveling to see the man behind the curtain to get some new hair.
I’ll spare you the details on that whole process, mainly because it was very painful and embarrassing. I was so sure this was going to make me feel myself again. I was going to get back something that I lost. I disappeared. I looked sick—not because I was loosing hair, but because I was believing something new about myself. Negative things. Let’s get back to my parents for a bit—one of the reasons I may not have had a lot of negative body issues growing up was because I was affirmed at home. I was told I was enough. I was told I was handsome. I felt complete and whole and normal. Now of course I have gone through a lot of internal, identify, societal issues, but thats for another blog. Parents: affirm your children. Reassure them how golden and beautiful and perfect they are, just as they are. The world is not going to do it for you and your children will have a better chance out there when you speak positive things into them as they grow. Children: listen to your parents, believe them when they tell you how awesome they think you are, they aren’t being biased, they are telling you the truth, because it comes from the purest place of love. Having said that, no matter what kind of home you come from, harmful voices can and will make a home inside of your head and will often mesh with your own.
My parents came into the room after the procedure was done, I felt the familiar weight of hair on my head, I looked up into the mirror to see the old me again but was surprised who I saw. He looked ridiculous! He wasn’t the old me, and he wasn’t the new me. I’m not sure who this guy was—he looked like a game show host who was trying too hard. The lady told me it would take some getting used to. She then told me there was going to be a lot of work for a while to maintain it. I couldn’t stop looking at myself in the rearview on the way home, but it was worse than Brian 2.0—what did I do to myself? Part of me said I could pull it off, I would get used to it, I just had to play with it and see how to make it work. I bought product and a hair dryer and even found my old handy beige brush. Nope. Nothing I did would make it look normal. It just didn’t look natural or a part of me. And then I had to face something I didn’t really think about. One day people saw me very thin on top and the next day, poof—a head full of hair. Was I going to be honest? How would I explain it? Would people even notice? Oh of course they noticed. Most people just stared, swiveling their heads left to right sizing up my new/old look. And then you had those who said -“what did you do/did you do something?” How did you grow hair overnight? Is that a wig? Hair Club? What did you do? People wanted to touch it, demand that I talk about it, tried their best to figure me out. Ugh! Why hadn’t I thought this through?
Something happened that I never expected—I was more uncomfortable and self-conscious with all this fake new hair. I was trying to correct something. I thought I would feel better about myself, and that other people would accept the new/old look as if it were normal. None of this was normal, I just felt ridiculous—trying to cover up something that was inevitably just meant to be.
Brian with the good hair didn’t last very long. I went back to have everything removed. I was back to the guy with a little hair on the back and sides—the guy still holding on to what he had left. I was relieved to have that rats nest gone but still wasn’t satisfied with the man I saw in the mirror. Then I woke up one morning, turned the stereo up very loud, walked into the bathroom and took clippers to the back of my head. A few minutes into the buzzing, crunching sound I lathered my entire head in shaving cream and carefully took the blue bic razor and removed everything else that was left. Layer by layer a new man began to emerge in the mirror. I was liking what I saw. He didn’t look sick. He didn’t look weak. He didn’t look anxious or weird. He looked like me, like the old me,—except it was a new me. I mean, the reflection was certainly different—there was way more skin to see, but there was a familiar gleam in this mans eye. I felt bolder and more certain of myself and most importantly, I was free. I LIKED WHAT I SAW. This time it didn’t matter if I didn’t have any hair. I didn’t want to look fake or unnatural. I didn’t care if people didn’t like the bald version, I liked it. It wasn’t going to bother me if people cracked jokes this time—I was owning this look and that took the power and the sting from all the negative voices.
Heres a little advice for an area you may be self conscious about. Own it. Like it. Embrace it. Once you do, there is absolutely nothing that is said that can bother you about it. My hair was something I cared a lot about, so it was very difficult to embrace the fact that it went away. Having people sense my discomfort and commenting on it only compounded the issue. Now there was NO discomfort. I WASN’T INSECURE WITH MY NEW BALD HEAD—so anything that could be said about it didn’t bother me, because I accepted it as a part of myself. Your body is your home, it’s where you live. I wouldn’t let people come to my house and throw trash around. Don’t let anyone throw their words that belong in the garbage land on you. If there is an area or issue that you have with your body, you must deal with it internally. We are responsible to work on being the best version of ourself--it takes hard work, discipline, and commitment to do that. If it is something that you can change to make it better and do so in a healthy way with a positive, pleasing outcome for you, then do that for yourself. However, if it is not something that you can change then you must begin to work on accepting it and own that thing! Once you are completely and wholly on board with whatever it is, your outlook on yourself will change and you won’t be concerned with what anyone may think or say. If I had a dollar for every bald joke I have heard over the past 20 years. They don’t bother me. I own this look! It’s the real me. It’s natural. It’s what happened to me and I found ways to work with it.
I’ll never forget the first time I went out with a completely bald head—remember, just days before people saw me with a lot of stuff up there. I went from half hair, to full hair, to absolutely no hair. People probably thought I was undergoing some kind of strange science experiment. Unlike last time, I was not at all worried about what anyone else would think, I was finally comfortable in my own skin. The first person I saw was this guy who never had a lot to say. You would get a polite nod from this fella, but connection and conversation just wasn’t his thing. I was hosting a large function and held the door open, waiting for something, a reaction, a look. He came close and gave me a quick shoulder to head glance and simply said, “lookin good—I like it.” No questions, no ‘what did you do? I was already newly confident and wasn’t looking for any affirmation, but in hindsight his remark was life changing. A few years ago someone asked me why I sometimes run my hand behind my ear—and I realized I am still pulling hair back away from my ear—phantom wisps I guess. Old habits die hard . I do not need hair on the top of my hair. I don’t think about it or dwell on it any more. Since the day I looked down in my sink and saw the shaved remnants of my youthful glory days of hair I’ve never looked back. That first head shave set me free and instead of looking at all the guys who had the hair I wanted, I began to notice all the ones who now resembled me. Take a look around—the men in your life or the guys you see in the movies—one of the most common things in the world is for men to lose their hair. I’ve spoken to men that have really struggled with their hair loss and I’ve also heard from guys that were never fazed by it. Fortunately today for most men it's a non issue--being bald, either by choice or by nature is a very attractive look. Mr. Clean and Lex Luthor used to be the only role models we had. Now we have Michael Jordan, Bruce Willis, Jason Statham just to name a few. It's clean, it's sexy--put some sunglasses on and rock that bald head!
The ironic thing is, the guys who cracked the worst bald jokes in those early days, are losing strand after strand of hair now. I don’t think it’s a karma thing, I just think it’s a reminder that we should never, ever be vocal about a physical trait or change in another person. You have absolutely no idea how someone else will deal with your words and what chain of events that could follow from something you take so lightheartedly. Mine just involved hair. But some people deal with things than can lead them down a very dark path and there is no one around to fill that space with light.
The inspiration for this blog came from the people I photograph everyday. When you are recording an eternal image that can be seen by anyone and everyone you become very aware of the parts of people they are not comfortable with. The parts they want you to edit away. You can almost sense the lies they have been told and hear the negative words sung over them. I no longer wanted to just take someones picture, I wanted them to feel comfortable in their own skin. I wanted them to see themselves as beautiful, unique, acceptable, valued human beings. In the social media saturated world we live in where everyone else’s life seems perfect and unobtainable I want to send out a new message and create a space for everyone to feel like they are not alone, and no, everyone’s life is not perfect. All of the photos we see are little curated boxes of lives that are not exactly what you think they are. Stop following anyone or anything that makes you feel less then. Stop putting so much pressure on yourself. Instead, start finding someone people with similar experiences, looks, struggles, etc--not to emulate them, but to see that your not alone with whatever it is you're dealing with and you may find encouragement and direction from someone who has been there too. The fact is we are not alone in the forest, even though there are times we wish we could escape there. It would be amazing if we could, one by one, find ways to celebrate ourselves and each other. Make a list of things you like about yourself. Think about the people in your life that you can speak positive things into. Whenever a negative thought about someone comes to your mind remind yourself you do not have to express it, and then ask yourself why you feel that way. Why use words and energy to tear someone else down? The problem is not with them, it lies within you. There are so many people that we cone in to contact with throughout the day -- focus on something positive about them and let them know those things. Randomly message someone close to you and tell them all our favorite things about them.
I want to create a space where people can be honest about what they feel and what they struggle with. A place where you can read about people who have experienced something you are going through and where you can find inspiration to change your negative mindset. We are all human, and even though we don’t all go though the same experiences, they are all still human ones. Stay tuned to this space, you may hear from someone on a similar journey. We all have a story—maybe yours could set someone free someday.
*** Ironically, most of my negative body issues occurred within the second half of my life, starting in my late 30’s. In next week’s blog I will be sharing some of those experiences along with my thoughts on male body image in general. See you then!