This First Person column is written by Nadja Halilbegovich, a writer and child survivor of the Bosnian War who moved to Canada in 2002. For more information about CBC’s First Person stories, please see the FAQ.  

I sat on a chair in the middle of the living room as my husband cut off all my hair. If he was nervous, he didn’t let on. Maybe there was a part of him that hoped I might back out at the last moment. After all, he loved my long auburn hair and cutting all of it was quite drastic. 

But this was at the height of the pandemic and my need to reach out and connect with my fellow human beings had reached its peak. Perhaps it was an unusual way to connect, but I found a charitable organization that provides hairpieces for children who have suffered hair loss as a result of medical conditions such as alopecia and cancer and after some soul-searching, I decided to donate every last inch of my hair. 

Still, despite any reservations he might have had, my husband divided my hair into four long ponytails before cutting them off and buzzing me down to mere fuzz. We took turns running our palms over the soft bristles on top of my head, which made us both laugh with delight.

Perhaps it was seeing my hair laid out on the coffee table — such an intimate part of me suddenly turned into an inanimate object — or my reflection in the mirror, which startled me for the first few days, that made me consider how much of my identity is entangled in my hair.

Four strands of ponytails are laid out on a light pink towel.
Halilbegovich donated four ponytails, each around 35 centimetres long, to Locks of Love in 2020. (Submitted by Nadja Halilbegovich)

When I was 10, my mother started using henna on my hair. I’m not sure where she got the idea, but she believed it would help strengthen my hair and give it a beautiful coppery lustre. I loved the colour, but what I loved the most were my mother’s warm hands massaging my scalp as she applied the henna. Later, I’d sit in the bathtub as she gently rinsed it out, all the while oohing and aahing at the beautiful colour. 

At 16, the war in my country, Bosnia, broke my family apart. I escaped to the United States and found refuge with a host family in Ohio. In a new country and culture, learning a new language, my young identity flexed and stretched as I tried to fit in, but I remained my mother’s daughter. Thousands of miles away from her, I continued the tradition of applying henna as a way to preserve our bond. The ritual was never the same without her, but it also never failed to nourish me deeper than the roots of my hair. 

The war ended in 1996 and I started visiting Bosnia every few years to reunite with my family, but by then it was clear to me that I would never feel safe in my home country after living through almost four years of siege. Instead, I forged my own path and identity on another continent.

WATCH | What hair colour says about stress levels: 

Grey hair might be reversible — if you catch it in time

In a very small study, psychobiologist Martin Picard found that significant stress can cause hair to go grey, but that periods of relaxation can reverse it in some people. Watch Hairy Tales on CBC Gem.

I continued using henna throughout high school and university, and even after I moved to Canada in 2002. The process of applying henna brought on its own kind of hilarity, like the time my father-in-law walked into the kitchen just as I was stirring olive oil into the glossy henna mixture and excitedly proclaimed, “Oh good, we are having brownies.” 

A young woman with long auburn hair smiles while standing next to an older woman wearing a black hat.
Halilbegovich, left, continued to dye her hair with henna in Canada to preserve the ritual she and her mother, Jasmina Halilbegovich, started when she was 10 years old and living in Bosnia. (Submitted by Nadja Halilbegovich)

In 2012, my mother died unexpectedly at the age of 65. A few months after her death, I was stumbling from grief as if I were standing in the shallows of a raging ocean getting battered by wave after wave. I desperately needed some self-care, so I booked a facial. 

At the end of the treatment, as I lay on my back with the esthetician standing over me, she offered a relaxing scalp massage. I nodded with gratitude. As soon as her warm hands sank into the bundle of my long auburn hair, a tide of tears spilled onto my cheeks and into my hair.

“My mom died,” I said. 

For several minutes, she cooed words of comfort and cradled my head as I wept. Then she bent over me and kissed my forehead.

A woman with long auburn hair smiles at the camera.
Halilbegovich continued to dye her hair years later after she moved to Canada to honour her bond with her mother. (Submitted by Nadja Halilbegovich)

My hair still held my mother’s touch, but also my heartbreak. That hair had seen me through so many of my life’s stages: building a new life in Canada, getting married, publishing a book, grieving my mother and grappling with mental health. After reading about hair donation and learning what a difference hairpieces make for children struggling with hair loss, I felt that my hair could now serve someone beyond myself. This gave me a sense of peace and purpose.

A day after getting my buzz cut, as I went out for my usual morning walk, I wondered what kind of reception I would receive from neighbours and strangers on the street. We make such snap judgements about each other’s appearance and going from very long to a buzz cut was a drastic change.

However, as I laced up my running shoes, I felt no apprehension, only excitement. I loved the warmth I felt on my fuzzy scalp. I smiled at the curious glances and double takes from a few passersby who had seen me previously on my morning stroll. Some smiled back and said, “Cool look!” while others stopped to ask what prompted the change. 

A serene woman with a buzz cut looks directly at a camera.
Halilbegovich says she believes her mom would have supported her decision to get a buzz cut in 2020 and donate all of her hair. (Submitted by Nadja Halilbegovich)

I also quietly wondered what my mother would have thought of my bold new look. She had pretty short hair in her later years, although never quite so short. In her absence, and considering what a giving person she was, I decided she would have been supportive of my decision — proud even.

A few days later, I carefully packed up the ponytails and sent them off with a silent prayer that they might bring some comfort to a child in need. It turns out that giving away my hair empowered me and strengthened my resolve to be a person who values connection and kindness above all else. 

Now when I look in the mirror and see a blond pixie, I find comfort in noticing that the older I get, the more my mother’s face floats up to the surface. And when I look at a friend or a stranger — whether their hair is long or short, coloured or grey — I can see past the surface and recognize someone not too different from myself.

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