Merine Kilian is a student living in New York. The following story was told to Jessica Chou and edited for length and clarity.
I started donating my hair when I was a kid. I have chronic kidney disease, so I grew up in the hospital for the first five years of my life. For the longest time, my hair wouldn’t grow at all because of the medication I was on, but it didn't really bother me. Instead, I just wanted my hair to grow so I could donate it because I had friends in the hospital who were losing their hair because of cancer. My mom used to always say, "When your hair is longer, you’ll be able to cut your hair and donate it so they can make a wig for someone like your friend Marisa." That just stuck with me.
Once my hair started growing, I would always let it grow eight inches, then cut it to donate. But I would only cut my hair to my shoulders — never any higher. Then, my cousin and my aunt were both diagnosed with cancer, and I thought, Okay, if I'm going to do this, I'm going to support them wholeheartedly. On August 2014, I had my last haircut for three years, and in December 2017, I chopped off 33 inches of hair, buzzing it all off to donate it and raise awareness.
This was a particularly emotional experience for me. Right before my buzzcut, I went to the doctor for a check up, and my doctor noticed I had lost a lot of weight. The day before my buzzcut, they told me to go get screened to make sure I didn't have cancer. My mom and I scheduled the appointment, and she asked me, "Do you still want to shave your head?" And I said, "Yeah. If I have cancer, there's no way I'm letting cancer win my hair."
The day of the shoot, I was nervous and excited. It's really thanks to my amazing family and friends that I had the courage to go through with it and share my story. It's such a silly fear now that I think about it, but I kept thinking, "What if I have dandruff, and everyone can see it?" But when it was done, I could feel the air on my head, and it felt so light. I remember my first time showering after the shoot, and thinking, Oh my gosh. The water does hit your head and it feels so different. It was crazy.
For some people, losing their hair might feel like losing a part of their identity. But buzzing all my hair off felt like I was gaining a part of myself. Before the cut, I was known as "the girl with the long hair." But I never felt like people would take the time to get to know me. And right when I decided to chop off all my hair, I was becoming a part of a new friend group, and I didn't really talk to them about all the volunteer work and donations I do.
For some people, losing their hair might feel like losing a part of their identity. But buzzing all my hair off felt like I was gaining a part of myself.
Now, my hair is conversation starter. After I chopped it all off, I was with my best friend and her older brother's friend came over. At first, I felt like he was like, Who is this guy she's talking to? But when he saw my face, he said, "Merine? Your haircut looks super nice." And then he asked why I cut my hair, and it was a moment for me to talk about how I wanted to raise awareness about cancer, and how easy it is to donate your hair.
Another friend watched the video and told me about her own family history with cancer, and I realized it was something we had never talked about before. So now it's something that unites us, and now I know when I want to go to a cancer walk or another fundraising event, I have some friends who are going to help. I feel like a part of myself is now open to the world, and if someone's weird about it, they're the crappy person — not me. I'm just being who I am.
My cousin is now cancer-free, and thankfully, I am also cancer-free. But my aunt is still going through it. When I sent my cousin and aunt the video, they both cried. My cousin told me, "Losing my hair was a big part of what I was going through, and it was really tough for me. But it's hair, it'll grow back, and I know if it doesn't, I'll look beautiful."
Next, I'd really like to dye my hair purple to raise awareness for cystic fibrosis, but once you dye your hair you can't make it into a wig. So I'm torn. I've definitely noticed when you do something more dramatic, people notice more; they pay attention. Now, I'm no longer the girl with the long hair — I'm the girl with the buzzcut, who donated all her hair to charity.