Living works of art

Founder of Henna Heals Frances Darwin, talks to about reclaiming hair loss

Photo Credit: Katerina Shaverova

Photo Credit: Katerina Shaverova

“We want to empower you. We want to help you feel beautiful, and give you the confidence to be a walking work of art.”

Frances Darwin is the founder of Henna Heals, branded by its own website as a global community of Henna artists with one unified goal–to empower those experiencing hair loss through the application of beautiful henna designs onto the bare head, now known widely as ‘henna crowns’. At a time when arguably more focus is on cancer, chemotherapy, and finding a cure for hair loss, the Toronto-based photographer has decided that it’s time to change the tune and concentrate on the individual.

During her time in San Francisco, Frances came across a henna artist named Darcy Vasudev, who was already working on henna crowns. The original plan for the pair was to carry out a ‘Maternity Henna photo shoot’, using this as an opportunity for expectant women to have some time to themselves, combining the skills of both the world-renowned henna artist and the photographer.

Their idea took an unexpected turn when Frances found out that Darcy had also been designing henna crowns for cancer patients for a few years. At the time, Darcy was designing a henna crown for a woman named Tara Schubert who had lost her hair while battling breast cancer. Frances was able to photograph her and, during the photo shoot, Tara commented, “I’ve never felt this beautiful, even before the cancer”. The seed for Henna Heals had been planted. After Tara sadly passed away a few years later, her life inspired Frances to spread the word about this type of healing through her own contribution as a photographer.

“For cancer patients, the henna crowns really are a healing experience”

The Canadian organisation, which now boasts over 150 henna tattoo artists all over the world, was founded by Frances in 2011 with the help of three henna artists (the only three she could find with henna crown experience), and has grown massively since. Artists design intricate, temporary patterns on the client’s head to create these crowns, using naturally-sourced ingredients, which usually last up to two weeks. The individual will then have his/her photographs taken in order to create lasting memories and to spread the word. The bare head becomes a beautiful work of art, rather than an external sign of illness.

Most of Frances’ clients are cancer patients who have recently undergone chemotherapy treatment. Chemotherapy is often administered to kill cancer cells which grow and divide rapidly, but the treatment will also affect any other cells developing at a similar rate. This often leads to substantial hair loss during and immediately after a chemotherapy course. Depending on the person, hair will often grow back once the course has finished, but hair loss can often be one of the more visibly overwhelming signs of cancer.

Henna Heals is able to offer these cancer patients an opportunity to be proud of their survival, without having to explain why they’re not wearing a wig, and the recipients often relay an empowering message. “For cancer patients, the henna crowns really are a healing experience. This is all about them reclaiming a part of themselves that would normally be perceived as ill or damaged or not nice to look at and making it beautiful.”

Photo credit: Lina Hayes

Photo credit: Lina Hayes

Speaking to Nouse, Frances continued to explain her reasoning behind this service, and how she feels they benefit not only the cancer survivor, but also their family and friends. “Women, for example, are always the glue of their family, even when they’re sick.” Henna Heals has been designed not only to help these women come to terms with what they are going through, but also to allow them to re-energise physically and mentally, and really concentrate on their own health. “It also lets the families appreciate what their mum, sister, wife is going through at the time,” she added.

One of Frances’ more recent clients was a newlywed from Turkey, Ayça. Ayça has stage 2 Hodgkin Lymphoma and was able to design a henna crown completely unique to her. The henna crowns generally cost $100, and ten percent of the money these henna artists make is added to the ‘Henna Helps Fund’ for people who aren’t able to afford the full price henna crown. More often than not, the service is requested as a gift for family members or friends to give a loved one.

Speaking to Queen’s University, California, Frances mentions her frustrations over the cost of these crowns: “I don’t feel comfortable charging a cancer patient for this, but I was initially told that a for-profit social business was the way to go, because funding for non-profits and charities is drying up quickly in our Canadian economy”. She is currently seeking legal advice on turning this venture into a non-profit organisation at some point.

Henna Heals is certainly not restricted to women, nor is it restricted to cancer patients; those with the auto-immune disease Alopecia also experience hair loss, and benefit greatly from the henna crowns. Due to the non life-threatening status of the disease, little is known about the cause and cure of Alopecia.

Frustratingly for those with Alopecia, people often mistake these clients for those dealing with cancer. In a recent interview with Huffington Post, Frances explained, “In my line of work I’ve spoken with several women with this condition who are constantly assumed to have cancer. It’s difficult to deal with the stares, pity, and even well-intentioned comments of people saying ‘you’re going to be alright’. Alopecia is not life-threatening.” Henna Heals restores control, allowing both Alopecia and cancer patients to walk around and continue their lives with the confidence they deserve.

As the organisation expands out of Canada, Frances plans to take a more relaxed approach. When asked whether Henna Heals is based in Toronto, she smiled and shook her head. The Toronto base has very recently disbanded in order to make the move into an online organisation and to provide equal opportunity to henna artists all over the world. “Henna Heals is a movement, more so than an organisation”, Frances responded, “we never wanted to create an illusion that henna artists in Toronto are better or more privileged.”

“It’s difficult to deal with the stares, pity, and even well-intentioned comments”

Her strategy seems to be working. Henna Heals has very recently gone viral, with articles appearing in Jezebel, Huffington Post, and the Mail Online. TV station crews are also travelling to Toronto from all over the world to interview Frances, an achievement she finds both fulfilling and frustrating at the same time. “I originally started Henna Heals because I wanted to let the world know about this incredible opportunity. With a marketing background, I noticed that henna crowns weren’t getting the attention they needed in order for them to become more mainstream. Now the world knows – that’s awesome!”

Henna Heals has already inspired others across the globe to raise awareness. The Turning Heads Art Crown Project, based in Sydney, Australia aims to bring attention to the subject of hair loss and raise awareness of Alopecia Areata, according to its website. Further to this, the amount of people interested in being a part of Henna Heals across the globe has multiplied considerably.

But with exposure comes great responsibility, and Frances is particularly concerned with maintaining the quality of future henna artists: “This is really hard to do when you haven’t met the two hundred people who want to be a part of your organisation.” Henna has been used for over 5000 years in its all-natural form, according to some historians, in both cosmetic and healing capacities. Henna Heals will only put clients in contact with henna artists who use safe and completely natural dyes to create their henna paste, refusing to affiliate the company with ‘black henna’ which often causes burning and scarring.

Asked whether any previous ambitions for the company had been put on hold, Frances mentioned that she had originally started raising money to build a Henna Heals artists referral website – the “couchsurfing of Henna” – but has now focused her time on creating new and useful resources such as henna crown tutorials, competitions, and the organisation’s new website hennaheals.com.

Frances’ next move will be “learning to let go of the reins” and delegating tasks to others. In order for Henna Heals to become a successful international movement, Frances understands that she needs to “create a team that can support the movement and turn it into a self-sustainable, reliable community of henna artists”.

Photo Credit: Frances Darwin

Photo Credit: Frances Darwin

So where does Frances see the movement in ten years’ time? If all goes to plan, Henna Heals will have turned into an international success story, working for hair loss patients both inside and outside of the hospital walls, and with little involvement from Frances herself. “Henna Heals is a passion project, but I am still working a full-time job!”

Passion project or not, this will undoubtedly go down as one of the most loving and honest services you could offer someone coping with hair loss. What better way to celebrate someone’s life than with an ancient form of adornment?

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