From bible stories to children’s tales, to religion and long standing customs - Hair plays a vital role in our culture. Regardless of where you are from, whether you are a man or a woman, your hair is a big deal.
Big enough for me to write a blog about?
Hair gives us a sense of identity, sometimes even a unique point of difference.
We nurture it, care for it and style it; with endless amounts of shampoo, conditioners and hair products available for our use.
I started thinking seriously about the essence of hair in western culture after meeting Lolla in Brazil. We met at a children's facility in a favela outside of Rio, where she volunteered.
Lolla is a super energetic activist; you simply can't miss her. Not only because of her outstanding personality but also because Lolla had no hair.
And that stands out, especially for a woman, especially in our culture.
Lolla has Alopecia Areata - a term I had never heard before then.
| Alopecia Areata is an autoimmune condition that appears in different forms of partial or complete hair loss. Researchers still not precisely sure the exact cause of this condition.
Altough it is not contagious, and two percent of the population has it, many people with Alopecia continue to suffer from discrimination and stigma.
Lolla was confident and open about the condition, which made me feel comfortable asking more and more questions. Through our conversation, I began to imagine how challenging it must be for a child to suddenly lose their hair, living in our society with such judgmental gaze.
As an advocate for the cause, Lolla invited me to meet a small group of women with Alopecia. I immediately offered my camera for the cause, and we turned it into a photo-shoot.
We sat and talked for hours, and throughout the conversation, I was in constant awe of the openness and strength displayed by these brave women whilst sharing their daily struggles.
The way children on the street would point their fingers or when people would address them with pity because they thought they must have cancer... But they still would respond with brilliant, cynical humor.
"How can Baldness be a bad thing!? When I am bald, I do not need to buy shampoo...plus, I never have a bad hair day! Isn't that every woman's dream?''
We were enjoying our time together, but sitting with these women, the irony of the situation was not lost on me. Hair remained their struggle while I had my long hair, collected neatly into a ponytail.
At one point, I mentioned that it had become commonplace to donate hair for wigs - and asked if I should do the same. Their response was eye-opening:
''If you really want to make a little girl with no hair happy, go and remind her she's pretty as she is, instead of encouraging her to hide under a wig from a society which isn't open to accepting her beauty.''
I was wowed.
The response was straightforward, sharp and without any sugar - exactly as the truth should be.
Across cultural borders
On the opposite side of the world, one year after my trip to Brazil, I met Mariam and Kedogo. They were two beautiful Maasai women who had wandered hundreds of miles and found themselves in this random little village I happened to be photographing in Central Tanzania.
Far away from their land and people, they maintain their extraordinary and colorful culture. The Maasai shave their heads. It is a traditional ritual considered as the "rebirth of the spirit".
For them, being bald counts for beauty and power.
Both men and women from the Maasai tribe shave their head for a variety of different occasions. Facing an entire family of bald Maasai, I immediately thought of my time with Lolla and the friends in Brazil.
I found it ironic. In the space of a year, I had met two sets of women across the world from each other; similar hairstyles, separate reasons but vastly different experiences.
Many questions arise as I continue to draw comparisons between these experiences in rural Tanzania and the streets of Rio.
It reminded me how much beauty is not really a matter of a "personal taste" as it is a cultural and habitual influence.
Look up at our billboards, TV screens, magazines, ads... Do you see it?
There is still a fixed model for beauty and it is systematically smeared in front of our faces.
The modern idea of beauty is incredibly distorted and limited to the physical:
A shape that hides behind layers of brands, clothing, makeup, Hair and Photoshop is what we are designed to love and copy.
Ridiculous? I think so too.
We are ready for so much more,
ready to celebrate real beauty in all possible forms! Shape, Color, With or without Hair.
Happy International Alopecia Day.
International Alopecia Day takes place on the first Saturday of August.
Special thanks to Lolla, Daniele, Liana and Tais