Two weeks after writing about Tatum Brewer, I can’t get her out of my mind. Tatum, who’s an absolutely beautiful 10-year-old girl, has a rare hair-loss condition called alopecia that has left her with little patches of hair all over her scalp. Desperate to look like all the other girls, or at least passably “normal,” Tatum would wear caps year-round until she got her hair piece from Locks of Love in 2010. Today, she sports a mane of long auburn hair, and her family can barely get her to wear a hat in winter now. While she still has struggles – the hairpiece gets itchy, and she has to take it off every night, which means sleepover parties can be challenging – she feels like a regular kid now. People don’t assume she has cancer, or ask her a million questions about why she is wearing a cap on a sweltering indoor playground in July. “Having hair changed my life,” she told me.
Writing the article was tough in some ways. I wanted to capture Tatum’s emotional struggles with hair loss and feeling “normal,” while not sending the message that people without hair are abnormal, or our external beauty is in any way tied to our hair. Yet for Tatum, it wasn’t about feeling beautiful as much as feeling not so different. While it is common and attractive for men to go bald, most females do have hair. Phrases like “her crowning glory” and “bad hair day,” or hair dyes that pressure women to “wash that gray right out of your hair,” often give the impression we need to have a mass of youthful vibrant tresses instead of embracing our own natural beauty. At 10, Tatum didn’t seen to be as concerned with hair=beauty as much as hair=normal. But she loved being able to look like the other girls, braid her hair like the other girls, wear ponytails and pigtails like the other girls. The patchy-haired beauty might look like an angel to me, but for girls who put hair-fabulous teen stars like Selena Gomez or Taylor Swift on a pedestal and cite “fitting in” as king, being the only bald girl in the room has to be difficult.
One of the women who donated hair to Locks of Love in honor of Tatum, a former nurse named Yvonne Lautzenheiser, told me that with women who lose their hair through chemotherapy, there’s a psychological benefit to being able to go out in public without people asking, “What’s wrong with you?” Tatum’s grandmother, Sherilyn, who is a special needs teacher in the school system, said girls self-identify with their hair. “Especially with females, your hair is you,” she confided. “It’s so much a part of you, and it’s just not fair for this to happen, especially to a girl.”
But it does happen. And thanks to organization like Locks of Love, girls like Tatum can have a shot at feeling “normal” – whatever normal means to them.