In a society that values (and mass-markets) standards of beauty that are nearly impossible to attain, the shame associated with physical imperfection can be intense. It’s especially difficult for women, who often feel the need to apologize — for getting old, for gaining weight, for no longer being considered “attractive.” Imagine, then, what it’s like for a woman to lose her hair, whether a byproduct of chemotherapy or a kink in the genetic code (40 percent of all alopecia patients are female). While men experience grief in hair loss, too, their shaved heads are a solution that’s more socially acceptable.
Abby Greenawalt disagrees. In a new photography exhibit in the Crystal City Underground called “Well Rounded,” Greenawalt, a native of Northern Virginia, has lifted the lid off what’s considered beautiful, photographing the bald heads — of men, women and girls — for more than decade. Of the 49 images on display, 17 feature women.
“I started noticing hairstyles in nature,” Greenawalt recalled, describing how ornamental grasses cut short for winter looked to her like a flattop. When she noticed an acorn on the ground, she had her “aha” moment. “I thought, ‘Oh, my gosh, that’s a bald head!’ I knew that there was something there.”
Greenawalt’s mother was a hairdresser. “I grew up believing in the value of ‘good hair’ and that hair tells a story about who we are and where we fit in. But it is only that — a story: a constructed standard of beauty,” Greenawalt said. “When I later began photographing bald heads, I realized that baldness transcends these beauty standards — stripping the head of any prior associations or identities — and redefines them.”
There is a common theme running through all Greenawalt’s photographs: The bald head offers a freedom that hair cannot. In memorializing her subjects’ beauty, Greenwalt seeks to give them something much more everlasting. As she put it: “It’s not just about my art; it’s about their stories.”
The Lily spoke with six of the women and girls photographed for the exhibit about just that — their stories. Read them below.
41, luxury sales specialist for a global alcohol supplier
The very first of Greenawalt’s models, Stephanie Mills-Sudan came by her baldness through choice. As a brand ambassador, Mills-Sudan said she traveled constantly and couldn’t get to her New York City-based stylist as often as she needed to keep her Halle Berry pixie in order. “I was in between trips, and asked my hairdresser to just shave it off,” she said. That was in 2008, and Mills-Sudan said she hasn’t had a full head of hair since.
“I feel more beautiful bald,” she said. “I cut it myself every week, and I feel like I have a fresh start, like a weight is lifted off of my shoulders.” It is, she said, “a very spiritual experience.” Being bald allowed her to reflect on how much power people give their hair. She said that at first, she was worried how people at work would perceive her, that “as an African American, hair holds so much weight in corporate America.”
She also worried — needlessly, as it turned out — that she would lose her professional edge. Instead, Mills-Sudan said, she reclaimed part of herself. “This is my hairstyle. This is the hairstyle for many African women, especially tribal women,” she explained. “I feel that [in going bald], I was just going back to my roots.”
17, high school student
Hannah Frey was 11 when she sat for her portrait in 2014. Jessica Gilbert, a neuroscientist at the National Institutes of Health, remembers that her daughter was cranky that day and in no mood to have her picture taken. “She looks defiant in her photo,” Gilbert said. “It’s like she’s saying, ‘This is me; take me as I am.’ ”
Diagnosed with alopecia universalis when she was 2½, Frey is completely hairless. “I don’t remember when I had hair,” Frey said. “I didn’t notice I was different until I was in kindergarten.” She began wearing head wraps to school, and in her sophomore year switched to wigs. Frey’s current collection consists of five human hair wigs and eight synthetic ones, she said.
Now a senior at Oakdale High School in New Market, Md., Frey is thinking about applying to colleges up north and just finished one of her college essays. “It’s about the effects of hair loss,” she said. “It’s one of the toughest things. You feel stripped by the loss of femininity.”
Seeing herself among her clan in the exhibit — larger than life at 40 inches by 40 inches — helped her realize something important. “There’s this simplicity in realizing that there’s a multitude of people who are just like you,” she said. In the aggregate, Frey continued, “it feels like a redefined view of femininity and of a beauty which does not demand a standard.”
35, associate program director of Atlantic Fellows for Health Equity at George Washington University
Selam Bedada had wrapped up 16 sessions of chemotherapy the month before sitting for her 2018 portrait. “When that photo was taken, it was one of the lowest points in my life,” Bedada remembered. “I never thought I was going to come out of it.”
Just 31 when she was diagnosed with Stage 3 breast cancer, Bedada had not only survived multiple surgeries, but she had also suffered the indignity of doctors not believing the lump she had found was cancer. She credits a young physician assistant for ordering a mammogram, referring her to a breast surgeon and saving her life.
Bedada also credits Greenawalt for being a significant part of her recovery. “At the time, I struggled a lot with being bald,” she said. As soon as she walked into Greenawalt’s studio and removed her wig, everything changed, she said. “Abby opened my mind,” she added. “After my photo session, I walked out bald.”
Bedada’s hair has since grown back into tight, bouncy curls. Upon seeing her portrait, she stood in front of it and cried for 20 minutes, she estimated. “I was just so proud of myself. I felt like a supermodel on a billboard.”
“We don’t need to fit in to be beautiful,” said Bedada, reflecting on that moment. “My kindness, my love — it’s still me. The only thing missing from that portrait is my hair.”
44, stylist and vintage clothing retailer
These days, Tara Papanicolas has a full head of lush hair that falls down her back like a heavy theater curtain. But when, at 36, she was diagnosed with a rare form of Stage 2 uterine cancer, Papanicolas sat in her hairstylist’s friend’s bathroom after a brief stint with a pixie cut and told him to shave her head.
“Losing my hair,” Papanicolas said, “I was okay with it. I really didn’t shed a tear. Not one.”
After first trying something called a Penguin Cold Cap, used during chemo to try to stave hair loss, Papanicolas gave up. “I thought, ‘Why am I worried about saving my hair?’ I’m going to shave it and rock it.”
When she posed for Greenawalt on Valentine’s Day in 2014, Papanicolas felt empowered by her baldness. “It became part of me. It didn’t change how I felt about myself,” she said. She recalled meeting a woman at her local grocery store whose head was similarly gleaming. “I said, ‘I like your hair,’ and she said, ‘I like yours, too.’ ” They are friends to this day.
Papanicolas and her photographer girlfriend are thinking about shepherding other women through hair loss, with Papanicolas styling them and her partner memorializing them on film. “It’s all about making people feel better about themselves,” she said.
48, flight attendant
Wykeita “Kiki” Patrick began losing her hair in 1995, when she was 22, but didn’t shave her head until July of 2020, when too many bald patches made it impossible to wear a weave. She was still getting used to being out in public when Greenawalt spotted her coming out of a 7-Eleven and convinced her to sit for a portrait. As Patrick remembers it, “When she approached me, Abby said, ‘Please don’t think I’m a freak for asking you.’ Then we both started laughing.”
Patrick said she was up for anything. Then Greenawalt suggested gluing the rings that came off one of Greenawalt’s old necklaces down the back of her head like tribal armor. Patrick gave her the greenlight. “I think it came out gorgeous,” Patrick said of the portrait.
Patrick also found the process of shaving her head to be a freeing experience, but it was a process that was gradual and is still sometimes fraught. “I still have a hard time accepting compliments,” she said. “There’s a voice in my head that says, ‘You’re beautiful.’ And there’s another voice that says, ‘You have no hair, and no one will ever want you.’ ”
Any time Patrick feels tempted to wear a wig, she said, she reminds herself to stay the course: “If I start covering up, I’ll feel like I’m reverting back to hiding myself.”
Orli Wildman Halpern was the last of Greenawalt’s subjects to be photographed, early this summer. Diagnosed just before the pandemic with a rare form of liver cancer, Orli and her parents, Ian Halpern, a tech consultant and co-founder of Larkspur Energy Group, and Sarah Wildman, an editor with the New York Times, still couldn’t risk meeting Greenawalt indoors. So Greenawalt set up a makeshift studio in their backyard. Greenawalt brought along a coleus plant and draped it around Orli’s neck like an Elizabethan collar.
“When Abby came to do her photo shoot, we immediately grasped that she had an extraordinary talent for connection and authenticity,” Halpern said. “And the gift of this project for Orli, I think, was in no small part was that Orli was able to present herself on her own terms. She was the subject of the shoot but not the object. And there’s power and agency in that.”
Their daughter, who has begun advocating for childhood cancer research and creating tween and teen peer support groups, said being unique is an honor. “Even if you’re different, difference should empower you and not make you feel the odd one out,” she said. “And being put with other people who look the same as me, somewhat, shows that even if you feel like you are alone you are not.”