On January 3, as a historic number of women were sworn into Congress, the vision of what congresswomen can look like drastically shifted. There were women who wore their hair in Marilyn Monroe-esque platinum ringlets, protective twists, or covered with a hijab. There were others who chose to rock hoop earrings, bright red lipstick, and long, jet-black nails. And then there was Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman of New Jersey, who was sworn in with no hair at all.
Normally sporting a silver-gray pixie, her new look is something she's admittedly still getting used to. "I’ve accepted that I don’t have hair," Watson Coleman tells Refinery29. "It’s not necessarily something that I am comfortable with. It is something that I am living with."
Watson Coleman, who has been a U.S. Representative since 2015, began losing her hair late last year after her oncologist found a cancerous tumor on one of her lungs. Now cancer-free after a series of chemotherapy treatments, she originally planned to wear wigs on the H0use Floor.
"I went into the second treatment and after that I started pulling out clumps," she says. "I actually called my son, who is a barber, and asked him to shave my head. Then immediately after shaving, I proceeded to find a wig, thinking that I could put a wig on and no one would really know."
But as she shopped around for wigs and scarves, and even worked with stylists to find just the right one, she remained entirely displeased. "I still looked like Rocky from Rocky and Bullwinkle with a helmet on my head," she says. "It just didn’t work for me."
That's when the reality of her baldness set in. "I thought, God, I guess you really want me to find more humility in my life and less vanity," she says. "Our standards of beauty should not be whether or not we have hair; our standard of beauty needs to come from the inside. I know that intellectually, but that still doesn’t mean I don't wish I had some hair on my head."
Even though this is a very divided legislature, I have had Republicans come up and tell me they are praying for me.
Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman
In October, Watson Coleman went to her very first public event with her bald head on display. It was, rather fittingly, an event in her New Jersey district that focused on the importance of people's access to health care. Because of her appearance, the congresswoman felt like she could connect more to her constituents than ever before. "They could look at me and know that I am a beneficiary of having health care and how important it is in changing my life," she says. "I wasn’t just someone standing up there talking about an issue from an ideological perspective. I was someone that was having this experience."
In general, people who have approached Watson Coleman in public have been respectful and supportive. "I have been confronted by people who have thanked me, who have said, 'You know, this is probably making an impact on other women who need to make the decision about themselves,'" she says. "So there’s some good that’s coming out of it and that helps me."
But the most surprising reactions she's received have come from inside the Capitol, where she's been publicly bald since December. "Even though this is a very divided legislature, I have had Republicans — some of whom I don’t even know — come up and tell me they are praying for me, that they are wishing me the very best, telling me, 'You look positive, you look strong,'" Watson Coleman says. "It has just been an incredible experience in recognizing the power that you get from people who say they are praying for you and pulling for you and care about you."
Those kinds of messages are what keep Watson Coleman's spirits high, as is the short stubble that she can feel growing in slowly. For now though, she's baring her bald head not just as a reminder of the importance of health care, but of the importance of hope. "It reminds people that cancer is no respecter of position, wealth, sex, age," she says. "We’re all vulnerable to this disease. I hope my journey in dealing with this and trying to be upbeat will be helpful to others. We have to go through things so we get through things. If I don't ever grow hair back, I can live with that, too."