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Solidarity, Wigs, and Pantene Beautiful Lengths

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Last week we announced that our very own staffer Liz would be shaving her head and donating her hair to help make wigs for women who are battling cancer. You guys rallied around her and, as a result, made her feel a whole lot braver about taking the plunge and going bald. But what we didn’t tell you was that thanks to a generous partnership with Pantene Beautiful Lengths (an organization dedicated to providing free real-hair wigs to women battling cancer, and who Liz donated her ponytail to), I (Maddie) got to fly to Philly to witness and document the whole thing.

My eight-year-old sister was diagnosed with terminal cancer almost fifteen years ago, and since then, hair donation has been one of my personal causes. And women who shave their heads to support people who are battling cancer hold a special place in my heart. My sister was a brave little woman, facing her diagnosis with a staunch resolve to remain hopeful and optimistic, even when things got really, really bad. But losing her hair was one of the few things that left her feeling vulnerable and insecure. When you’re battling cancer, and your body is being ravaged by drugs and therapies and the cancer itself, having your hair fall out can feel a little like the universe is kicking you when you’re down. Way down. The thought process is something like: As if the chemo and the radiation and the horrible, horrible steroids aren’t enough, now I get to look like a cancer patient instead of just feeling like one. Great. Thanks. Because there’s nothing more awesome than being confused for a boy in the airport on the way to my Make-A-Wish trip, right?

When you’re battling cancer, you’ll take any small victories you can get. So to help my sister feel more like herself again, my family did two things. First, we got my sister a real hair wig. (And let me tell you, real hair makes all the difference. No twenty-dollar wig from Ricky’s is going to restore anybody’s dignity.) And second, my mom decided to shave her head in solidarity, so that on the hot days when my sister didn’t feel like wearing said wig, she wouldn’t feel so alone. My mom also decided to let me do the honors. Because that’s what you do when you’re a mom helping your kids cope. So armed with three of my friends and a pair of buzz clippers, we took turns shaving my mom bald.

It’s funny how the things you don’t think much about as a kid follow you through to adulthood. Shaving my mom’s head fundamentally changed the way I perceive beauty, hair, and the power that we as women can have in making other women feel supported and whole. So much so that a little over a year later, after my sister had passed away, I found myself in the salon chair, chopping off thirteen inches of hair, and donating it so that it could be made into a wig for someone else.

Donating my hair was a tangible way for me to support my sister, and others like her. It was the ultimate nod to female solidarity, a way for me to say, “Oh, cancer took your hair away? Here, have mine.”

I’ve been a staunch advocate for hair donation ever since. But it wasn’t until I started working for APW that I realized I had the power to do something about it. You see, when I cut my hair off, I wasn’t just supporting my sister’s struggle (though that was certainly the motivation). Subconsciously I was also symbolically shedding all of the horrible stuff that went along with losing her. Essentially, I wanted to be someone new, and cutting my hair let me do that.

And you know where else I see that? Weddings. After I began working for APW, I noticed something. Readers that I followed on Twitter commenting about how they were going to cut and donate their hair after the wedding. Friends who were recently married suddenly showing up in my Facebook feed minus about twelve inches of tresses.

So when we had the opportunity to work with P&G Beauty and Grooming last year, I immediately began scheming ways to work with Pantene Beautiful Lengths. Actually, the truth is, I’ve been wanting to work with them since they were founded in 2006. Because unlike most other programs that turn hair donations into wigs, Pantene Beautiful Lengths is the only one I’ve found that focuses exclusively on supporting women who are battling cancer. Plus they always give away the wigs for free and they never ever sell your hair to raise money. In short, they champion the pure altruism of women supporting women (well some men donate too, but they are a class of awesome all their own). Like APW, they are about the sisterhood.

I know from watching and reading your stories that there are a ton of you out there who are growing long, beautiful locks right this minute with plans to cut it off after the wedding is over. (I know, I did the same thing.) If you do, we want you to tie your hair in a ponytail first, and donate your hair to Pantene Beautiful Lengths. That way, maybe someone else in this community who doesn’t have any hair right now, can have a chance at feeling a little more like themselves when they walk down the aisle. We’ll have more on exactly how to do that coming up next month, but for now, just hold on to your ponytails.

If seeing my bald mom and sister taught me anything, it’s that this cause isn’t just a way to support women who are battling cancer. It’s also a really powerful way to challenge our culture’s standard notions of beauty through sisterhood and solidarity. Because as much as I think wigs are a really important way to allow women to reclaim their beauty during their battles with cancer, I also think that seeing a woman voluntarily go bald or even just cut her hair short can be just as powerful. I know that getting rid of a lot of hair can be really scary. It’s why wigs are important to begin with. In fact, Liz will probably tell you next week that it was no small thing for her to do. But watching her get her head shaved, for no other reason than to support the cause, extended the, “Oh you’re losing your hair? Here have mine,” to include, “And let me throwdown in a big scary way so that you know how supported you are.” And to me, that’s been the most rewarding piece of this whole thing. I don’t know if she realizes it, but knowing what Liz is willing to do for someone in my sister’s position makes everything a little less horrible, in a way that few other gestures can.

If I learned anything as a kid, it’s that cancer sucks. Getting a terrible prognosis sucks. And when you’re faced with the most horrible thing you can imagine, something with no discernible way out, sometimes all you can do is try to make it a little better for someone else. And there’s nothing I’d love more than to watch APW make it better on a big, big scale for a whole lot of women.

So thank you to Pantene Beautiful Lengths for making this possible. And for allowing me to witness one of my dear friends do something very brave for the sake of making someone else’s life a little better. Next week you’ll hear her side of the story, followed by photos from the event (plus the big reveal of Liz’s new look!). And then coming up we’ll give you the scoop on how you can donate your hair and help APW leave its mark on National Donate Your Hair Day.

In the meantime, some of you might remember our Facebook poll on this a few months ago (back when this partnership was just a seedling of a dream), but now we want to know: How many of you are considering cutting your hair after your wedding? What would it take to make you brave enough to go short (let’s say…eight inches shorter, like the Pantene Beautiful Lengths donation requirement), if that meant helping another woman feel beautiful? Would you be willing to make the cut? What if we did it together?

Photo of Liz getting her ponytail cut, taken by me.

**This post was sponsored by Pantene Beautiful Lengths. Thank you Pantene helping make the APW mission possible!**

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