Shaving lives: students go bald to fight cancer

Freshman Bonnie Margolis’ light brown, pin-straight hair falls to the middle of her back. She beams and giggles as her stylist blankets her in a black smock and runs a brush through her long hair. It’s almost like any routine haircut, except when the stylist pulls Margolis’ hair back into a long ponytail and, in 10 snips, severs it from Margolis’ head.

Margolis’ friends, seated in the lines of chairs facing the hairdressers, serving as a sort of audience section in the North Foyer of Ithaca College’s Campus Center, whoop excitedly as the hairdresser holds up the disembodied ponytail like a trophy.

The hairdresser leans down to speak into Margolis’ ear, her voice barely audible over the shouts and cheers coming from the bystanders.

 “Do you want to go bald-bald?” the stylist asks. Margolis nods an emphatic yes. The hairdresser picks up the fat black hair clippers and begins to shave the back of Margolis’ head. The buzz of the clippers can’t be heard as Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now” plays from laptop speakers in the back of the foyer, the subdued volume a poor match for the energy of the music and cheering and clapping spectators.

 As her hair falls to the floor, Margolis’ wide smile doesn’t falter. She doesn’t doubt for even a second that her decision to shave her head to support Goin’ Bald for Bucks is a good idea.

 Goin’ Bald for Bucks is a New York–based cancer fundraising group brought to the college by freshman Bryn Mugnolo. On April 19, 10 students cut their hair, with seven of those shaving their heads entirely and four women, including Margolis, donating their strands to Locks for Love, which will turn the hair into wigs for cancer patients. The team surpassed its $1,500 goal, successfully raising $4,000.

 Mugnolo, a survivor of stage-four Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, decided to organize the Goin’ Bald for Bucks fundraiser after hearing of the organization through Teens Living with Cancer, a support group for teenagers who are either currently battling with or in remission from cancer.

All of the money raised will be split between Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo, N.Y., Wilmot Cancer Center in Rochester, N.Y., and Teens Living with Cancer.

Senior Megan Strouse heard of the event when her friend Mugnolo made an announcement about it during an IC Swing Dance Club meeting, an organization both girls are involved in. It wasn’t until a few days later that Strouse decided she would actually go through with completely shaving her curly, shoulder-length, chocolate-brown hair for Goin’ Bald for Bucks.

“It just kind of popped into my head, that I could do this, for real,” Strouse said.

Strouse said she immediately told her friends about her intentions, and after gaining their support, went to her parents. Their reaction was not quite what she had been hoping for. She said her mother immediately expressed concern that Strouse, who as a senior applying for jobs, would look unprofessional.

“She equated it to getting a tattoo on my cheek, which I think is silly,” Strouse said. “Hair grows back, and tattoos are hard to remove. She was like, ‘You’re graduating. I don’t think it’s a good idea.’ I was like, ‘Well, whatever.’ I like to tell my parents things, but they don’t rule my life.”

Her father had a similar reaction and even went as far as to bribe her with a $250 donation if she didn’t go through with it.

“I was like, ‘That’s not the point,’” she said.

As Strouse is soon graduating and facing the job market, her parents’ concerns — namely that a completely shaved head on a woman is a sign of rebellion and appears unprofessional — makes sense to Strouse. She sees where they’re coming from and said she knows they have her best interest at heart, but she finds their claims to be a bit exaggerated.

“I’m an anthropology major and a film major,” she said. “In this industry, you don’t have to look like a business major. I wouldn’t want to work for an organization that judged someone based off of what they looked like.”

 While she is disappointed that Strouse has received this reaction, Mugnolo said she isn’t surprised. She was diagnosed with stage-four Hodgkin’s Lymphoma at age 12 and lost her hair because of chemotherapy treatments. Her classmates made fun of her bald head, which was when she first realized the attitude against women with short or no hair.

“Throughout our society, there’s just this stigma against women with short hair and shaved heads,” Mugnolo said. “I think that needs to be broken down immediately. It’s a stigma that doesn’t need to be there, especially for women with cancer. It’s just one more obstacle that we don’t need.”

Strouse sits in the chair and removes her glasses and dangling earrings, handing them to a friend in the flock of people gathered. Her mother, Corey Strouse, who traveled to the college from Connecticut to support her daughter, stands at the front of the seated crowd, iPhone poised at the ready to capture the moment her daughter will say goodbye to her hair. Though her father couldn’t be in attendance, he also eventually supported Strouse’s decision and donated money. Corey Strouse smiles and laughs as Strouse’s friends yell encouragements. No one would suspect that a few weeks ago, she tried to talk her daughter out of it.

“Now that she has done it, it’s fine,” Corey Strouse said. “It’s good, it’s exciting. She’s excited.”

She’s also less worried than before about her daughter breaking into the job market with such a haircut. She said Strouse went to the Career Services Center to ask for their advice, and they contradicted her parents’ concerns.

“They said that it makes you memorable,” Corey Strouse said. “You have something to talk about other than your school background, why you did it and stuff like that. And it shows dedication and loyalty to a cause. So I was like, ‘OK, I could see that side of it too.’”

A pile of curly dark brown hair rests at Strouse’s feet. It’s done. She grabs her glasses from a friend and springs to her feet, looking for a mirror. But before she finds one, people stop Strouse to pull her into hugs and rub her now fuzzy head. She finally reaches a display case with a mirror and shrieks excitedly at the bald-headed woman reflected back at her.

“You look like G.I. Jane!” her friend yells, pulling her into a tight embrace.

With her parents’ criticisms behind her, Strouse is most nervous about how she might be perceived in her everyday life. She said she has never cared much about looking feminine, usually avoiding putting on makeup and favoring her square, black-rimmed glasses instead of contacts. Now that she has a shaved head, she anticipates that she may be more conscious of her looks, as she went to Sephora to buy makeup for the first time in her life over winter break.

“I’m worried about overcompensating for the lack of femininity,” she said. “I’ll be more aware of the ways in which I am and am not feminine.”

As for Mugnolo, she’s not nervous about going bald for the second time in her life. Other people’s judgments and stares, Mugnolo said, she can handle. She’s more concerned for her friends, Strouse and Margolis, who also shaved their heads April 19.

“I don’t want them to feel the way a cancer patient would feel,” she said. “While part of this is to identify with them, parts of the experience are obviously very difficult, and I don’t want to put that on people I care about.”

Mugnolo wanted to go last. After watching her friends shed their locks, it is finally her turn. Clad in a light green shirt and flowing dark green maxi-skirt, Mugnolo addresses the crowd, thanking them all for coming and supporting the cause. It’s her 19th birthday, and a sparkly pink button that reads “Birthday Princess” sits on her chest next to one that says “stupid cancer.”

A friend tampered with the writing on the birthday button, adding marks in black Sharpie, changing the words to “Birthday Prince(ss)?” apparently referencing the androgynous haircut she’s about to receive.

Her speech concluded with a loud rendition of “Happy Birthday to You,” which she sheepishly grins through. Finally, Mugnolo sits in the chair and is covered in a black smock. Her dark brown hair, which as a grown-out pixie cut is too short to donate, gently flutters to the ground as the clippers glide over her head.

Shouts of “You go girl!” and “What a beauty!” echo through the otherwise oddly quiet room.

“I think everyone should do this at some point in their life, either for cancer or just because,” Mugnolo says, her head tilted down so the stylist can get the back of her neck. “It’s a cool feeling.”

When all of her hair has fallen to the ground and her head is completely bare, she stands and is immediately embraced by her friends, many of them now sporting matching haircuts.

They rub their heads against each other, smiling and laughing, the baldness being celebrated in a way it likely was not the first time Mugnolo lost her hair. She said when she got sick, so many years ago, her family offered to shave their heads in solidarity, but she asked them not to, not wanting to be reminded of her illness every time she saw them. Now, years into remission, Mugnolo is glad so many of her friends have sacrificed their hair alongside her. The goal is to raise a dialogue about why they shaved their heads, rather than attract stares and dirty looks. Mugnolo thinks that it will be easier to de-stigmatize being bald with a larger group.

“Now, it’s going to be reminding me that these are people that care about what I’ve gone through and care enough to support me through fundraisers like this,” she said. “It’s a hard feeling to know that people look at you like you’re unnatural. I’m hoping that once people see a multitude of baldheaded people walking through campus, they’ll stop and think about what it really is about.”

Evin Billington can be reached at or via Twitter: @EvinBillington