Cunningham is an author, filmmaker, photographer and speaker who became interested in the relationship between humans and their hair when she herself underwent a major haircut. Her latest project, “I Am More Than My Hair,” aims to destigmatize and celebrate baldness.
Cunningham held a fashion show in April featuring men, women and children who are bald either as a result of a medical condition or to support a loved one. The show’s aim was to raise funds for a documentary about her project.
HuffPost chatted with her about how the idea came about and what inspires her to keep the movement going.
What inspired you to launch this project?
I had long locs for many years, past my waistline. People always connected me with my hair. Around the time I was getting ready to publish my first book, I started swimming. I started getting head colds because my hair wasn’t fully drying and I was having neck and back pain, I think because it was so heavy. At the same time, someone connected me with a woman who was part of an organization that raises money for women of color to get cancer treatments. She asked if I knew anyone who would be willing to get their hair cut and donated to the organization, and I did it. I was surprised how negative the response was.
From everyone. They were so concerned about my hair and how I would look without it. People would send me emails saying it’s not the right time, with branding for the book [Feminine Transitions: A Photographic Celebration of Natural Beauty], that my hair is beautiful. I asked one of the women who said that to me ― what would you tell your daughter if she involuntarily lost her hair? Would you tell her she is no longer beautiful? That was kind of a spark for me to start the project.
What do you want to achieve by putting a spotlight on bald women?
I want people to be aware that when they see a bald woman, it doesn’t mean she has an illness. She might, but that isn’t what it is, necessarily. Many people in the documentary talked about the feeling of being stared at or laughed at. I just want people to treat a bald woman or girl as normal. I know people in the media, for example, think they need to cover up with a wig, and I’m not against doing whatever you want to do, but if there was more awareness surrounding alopecia, I don’t think it would be as taboo.
Why do you think that taboo exists?
Because it’s associated with illness, it’s become, in a way, shameful if a woman is bald. It makes me feel like my beauty is in my hair, and it isn’t. There are so many things going on and so much more of what the person is. It’s like the India Arie song “I Am Not My Hair.” See me. Don’t see my outer appearance.
Many of the women in the documentary told me this was the first time they took a photo without their wig on. It was a blessing to me that they trusted me to tell their stories and also unveil themselves.
Where did the idea for the fashion show come from?
One of the women in my book had the idea to make it a fundraiser with the proceeds going toward the film. I thought ’OK, it will be an awareness thing. It was way beyond what I imagined it to be once I actually saw it.
There was one specific moment where a little girl was crying; she didn’t want to go out without her scarf. A few other participants hugged her and spoke to her about their experience and when she went out, it was a huge difference on the runway. It was just, on multiple levels, so much more beneficial than I thought it was going to be.
Check out more images from the fashion show, along with more information about “I Am More Than My Hair,” on Cunningham’s website.