I just finished reading Sheila Bridges’ memior, The Bald Mermaid (Pointed Leaf Press 2013) and I am compelled to share.
It was an unusual read for me as it was a personal memoir and I tend to shy away from individuals’ life stories because I feel like a voyeur rather than a welcomed listener. Sheila’s book (see, I’m already using her first name), however, touched me in ways I never expected. Sheila is a wildly successful interior decorator and designer in NYC with clients all over the world. She had a TV show, her work has been featured in all those glossy design magazines I never look at, she’s African-American and she is bald. The book itself, its colorful pages, it’s hardback heft, the wonderful collection of personal and professional illustrations, underscore the author’s eye for and careful attention to the aesthetic. Sheila’s memoir proved to be a remarkable page-turner which laid bare so many throughts and sentiments I have experienced over the years on the topics of being female, black, independent, articulate, a family member, a professional and just being me.
Have I not mentioned being African-American in this forum yet? No? Isn’t that funny? While racing through Sheila’s very witty and thoughtful prose, I felt so understood! The struggles of not fitting into so many neatly patterned roles and expectations from childhood to the present rang so true for me, I could hardly put the book down. Although coming to terms with the consequences of her hair loss to Alopecia areata proved central to the overall narrative, the truths of her storytelling went much deeper than that specific episode. How much does our professional and personal success have to do with our appearance? When it comes to others and their perceptions of us, how much control do we actually have? When we venture to take risks by living our own truths, what resources do we need to have and develop in order to make it a viable proposition for the long haul? What does it mean to be a success? And be black? And female? and Independent? All of those at the same time? What does our hair (especially, but not exclusively for black women) have to do with all this? Does it mean learning how to swim without getting your hair wet? (See the chapter on “Weave Etiquette”)
These are the questions Sheila explores, wrestles and dances with throughout. And I finished the book this morning feeling like she had truly done so much “heavy lifting” on my behalf. She writes, “That one life-altering event forced me to dig deep – to find out what I was really made of. In the process, I let go of everyone else’s expectations of who I should be or how I should live my life, which included how I ought to look.” (p.333) I can’t say that I am that far in my own development but I certainly aspire to such a level of self-understanding. And I am reminded of something my mother said often in response to the countless times she was asked to justify wearing her hair short : “I have been asked for many things in my life; hair was not one of them.” Thank you, Sheila and thank you, Mom!