“Is my HAIR falling out?” I was trying to quell the panic in my voice and my head as my husband and I stood in the bathroom mirror. I think he muttered some niceties, you know, the way husbands do in an effort to keep the dust down. But I didn’t need him to confirm what was clearly evident as I peered at the wisps of broken hair in the porcelain sink. Yep. I was losing my hair.
It was the culmination of one of the bleakest periods in my life. At the end of 2006, I’d been fired from my job as one of the anchors of The CBS Early Show. Two weeks later I was in the surgical suite at Memorial Sloan Kettering having my breasts removed (I had a mother and father with breast cancer and had been diagnosed with my own breast disease a few years earlier). My book, Good Enough Mother, The Perfectly Imperfect Book of Parenting came out in March and that, coupled with the drastic surgery, secured me a spot on Oprah’s couch where she touched my new breasts on national television. But while traveling the country on my book tour, I came down with a horrible case of asthmatic bronchitis that landed me in the hospital for three days. Tethered to an IV pole and being pumped full of antibiotics, I couldn’t even vote in a historic election that resulted in the first Black man in the White house.
Like a lot of African American women, I always had a love-hate relationship with my hair, sadly more hate than love. It rarely looked the way I wanted, I spent far too much time and money on it, and it was always top of mind. Of course, looking back on it now, I wasn’t good to it either, beating the hell out of it with chemicals, color and heat. It’s a wonder I had any hair left at all.
There I was in the winter of 2009, just out of the hospital with hair breaking and falling out and not a clue about it or where to turn. So I did what any reasonable person in that situation would do; I went to YouTube! There I found countless women, just like me, who, for one reason or another were eschewing chemicals in favor of their natural hair. I joined several hair care websites and sought out natural friends online. And you know how when you’re pregnant that’s all you see, other pregnant women? It was the same way with natural women; all of a sudden they were everywhere, rockin’ hair that was fierce and fly. In true reporter fashion, I stopped every one of them and asked for their secret. I picked up some of theirs and added a few of my own (one of mine: I never, EVER use shampoo!) and an amazing thing happened; my always thin, chin-length hair began to grow, faster, longer and stronger than it ever had before. It had been set free and so had I.
My hair journey was really a metaphor for what had been happening in my life. I had gone through some horrible stuff, losing the job, losing my breasts, losing the friends that dropped off when the big gig went away. But what was left was the essence of Rene and I was ready for the rebuild. Like my hair, I started from scratch, immersing myself in my new life as a writer and just like the hair, I asked questions and learned from whomever was willing to teach. When I had the TV news job, every hair was in place; now most days, every hair is out of place but in the place it is supposed to be, as am I.
My story is a personal one and I realize the intense debate surrounding this issue. But here, like I do on my own site, I urge women to do what works for them. For me, that’s no more relaxers even if it means never being on camera again.