For her first 65 years, Marsha Coupé had dark hair. She wore it in a blunt pageboy style, with red lipstick. She was wedded to her look, she says. Six weeks ago, she got a No 1 shave. Afterwards, she looked at the floor of the salon in her home town of Davis, California. Seeing the black locks scattered, she put her hands to her head. “I could not believe how good it felt. Like a baby’s head,” she says, rubbing her scalp as she speaks. “Almost like you’re a baby who just got born.”
It was Coupé’s daughter, Antoinette, 48, who suggested the cut. “She said: ‘Mom, hair is an accessory. Women make too big a deal. Every woman should shave her head at least once,’” Coupé says.
At first, she disagreed. “I said: ‘Not all women look good with shaved heads. I have a very flat head in the back. And she goes: ‘No, Mom. It’s not about how you look with a shaved head. It’s about what happens to you when you shave your head.’”
Antoinette knew this from experience. She shaved her own head when she had a brain tumour removed three years ago. She has done it again since, by choice, but she has mitochondrial disease and cannot dye her silvering hair. The fact that Coupé continued to colour hers made them both uneasy.
“We had a really good talk,” Coupé says. “I mock people who have [cosmetic] surgery. I like having a lived-in face. And my daughter said: ‘Oh yeah, as long as you don’t have any silver hair!’
“She called me out on how contradictory that is. On one hand, I want to have the face that shows my life; on the other, I have the most dishonest hair imaginable. Dark, dark hair at 65. And that was a valid point.”
Coupé hated the idea of growing out her colour, so Antoinette circled a date for her mother’s shave on the calendar.
The two women already saw this phase of life as “shedding season”. “I think it started with my move back to the US in 2019,” says Coupé, a website designer. Born and raised in the US, she had moved to Kent in England 16 years before to join her third husband, Richard, whom she calls her “great, great, great love”. She was still grieving Richard’s death, from cancer, when news of Antoinette’s illness arrived.
She sold her house and belongings. “I came back with 13 suitcases from my entire life. Watching somebody you love die is the most humbling experience. And then watching somebody you love struggle … It’s OK. It’s life. It’s shedding, isn’t it?” she says through tears.
The pandemic has sharpened the losses – and the gains. “It’s shedding the way we used to live and adapting what we have now, which is in some ways a much smaller life, but in other ways a much richer life,” Coupé says. She and Antoinette live scarcely a mile apart and “have tried to create the outside life internally” between their homes.
Coupé was a young mother – Antoinette was born when she was 17. “When you are that young, you really are quite interdependent,” she says. She loved grooming Antoinette’s hair; shaving her own head must have felt like not only a sisterly act, but a motherly one, too. The new style has helped her “to feel more free emotionally and mentally”. She plans to keep it short.
“We are living in fearful times,” she says. But she hopes “to grow more fearless with age. I would love to help people not to be afraid.” To this end, she is working on “a really fun activity book about dying”. She had the idea when Richard was ill.
“I look at my life as maybe I have five, 10 years left,” she says. This sounds surprising. She is not ill. But death has always felt close to hand, a legacy of growing up “with hell, fire and damnation expounded from the pulpit”.
“I don’t want to live to be a very old person. I would like to encourage people I know and love to go for whatever it is that they have a huge desire for – to be brave about life.”