It's hard to lose your hair any time, of course, but when you're eight years old, the resulting feelings of strangeness and isolation can be devastating.
I hope my hair will make somebody happy.
-- Note on donation to Locks of Love
"She had hair when she was born," says Amanda's mother. But she started losing it when she was about three and a half. By second grade, she had lost nearly all of hair due to an autoimmune disease called alopecia areata. It's hard to lose your hair any time, of course, but when you're eight years old, the resulting feelings of strangeness and isolation can be devastating. "She didn’t cry when it started falling out," recalls Amanda's mother. "It was when she saw her whole head, that's when it really, really hit her." Cut to a bald-headed Amanda headed upstairs to her bedroom, where she proceeds to cut off her Barbie's hair. "Doesn’t she look different?", she asks.
Amanda of Munhall, PA, is one of three girls at the center of Locks of Love: The Kindest Cut, a documentary airing on HBO Family during October. Bright, brave, and very young, the kids share the stories of their illnesses and hopes for recovery. They also talk candidly about how it feels to "look different." They understand that their bald heads are only side-effects of their conditions, whether disease or treatment, in the case of Norman, Oklahoma's Kandice, undergoing chemotherapy for leukemia. Amanda says as the camera shows her laughing at the dinner table, "I feel okay being bald because it's family. We do embarrassing stuff in front of each other all the time." But outside, it's harder to cope. "In public," she says, "It's embarrassing: people stare and point."
Kandice is similarly stymied by the loss of her hair. Photos show her recent past as a soccer player, her long hair streaming behind her as she runs up and down the field. Kandice's mother recalls that at first, the family didn't know what was ailing her: "She was slowing down," her mom says, listing the other symptoms (joint aches and fevers) that pointed toward the cancer diagnosis cancer. Still, when she learned she'd have to undergo years of debilitating chemo, Kandice had no doubt she'd be cured. Instead, "She was more worried about us worrying," her mother remembers. "She didn't care to keep any of the hair that fell out. I think she believed it was her sick hair."
By contrast, Alexa, growing up in Chatham, IL, admits early in this short, charming documentary her concerns about her leukemia, which was acute and came on quickly. "I was really depressed for a long time," she says, "I thought I was going to die." She was 13 when she started chemo and lost her hair, a time she identifies as difficult under normal circumstances. Even as she's incredibly poised and thinking through her low "confidence level," Alexa keeps a hat on at home as well as "in public." She says, "I still feel weird just around my family, to have my head just totally exposed." Her mom corroborates: she wants to tell Alexa not to worry, that "hair is, like so what? It's hair, but at the end of the day, it's hard to get past all of that when every time you look at yourself in the mirror there it is."
The point of these stories is their happy endings. Certainly all the girls are courageous and smart. They are also beneficiaries of Locks of Love, the non-profit organization founded by Madonna Coffman in 1997 ("I literally started in the garage with mail and hair," she remembers). Locks of Love collects cut-off ponytails from donors, then turns them into custom-made hairpieces for children who lose their hair.
While the organization has received donations from celebrities (including Portia de Rossi, Russell Crowe, and Ann Curry), it depends on hair sent in by regular people, often children. Coffman says, "We're really just the middle man. This is a gift from a child to another child. They give a physical part of themselves to someone they'll never meet." Many of these donations are self-documented, as kids post videos of their haircuts to YouTube. These stories are set alongside those of the recipients in Locks of Love, so that the full circle is presented in vivacious, energetic, completely disarming terms. "I've been growing my hair for seven years," announces one young donor. "I'm nervous and surprised that this is the happiest day of my life."