About one year ago, Samantha McGraw was watching The Fault In Our Stars when suddenly, a wild idea hit her. “I was watching the scene where young Hazel has to shave her head,” she told HelloGiggles, “and I remember reading on John Green’s Twitter or something that the actress had to actually shave her head. That just got me wondering. . . how big of a change could shaving your head really be?”

She didn’t have cancer awareness in mind, but wanted to know how hair — or the lack of it — changes how someone is perceived. “How did that affect [the actress’s] life, and how was she treated?” she explained to HG.

The 23-year-old, who hails from Taylor, PA, works for an event company and substitute-teaches in nearby schools, but she’s also incredibly interested in photography and stop-motion animation. So she decided to do something totally wild: she shaved her head and documented it, day by day. “I thought maybe I could turn it into something where I could have an end product, but also something where I could help someone else out,” McGraw told us.

So on September 18, 2014, she took the big leap: She shaved her head entirely.

Though McGraw hadn’t gone into this photo project thinking about her body image, getting rid of all of her hair proved to be a challenge in self-confidence. “Doing this really changed how I felt about myself,” she told HG. “I looked in the mirror and didn’t really feel. . . pretty, I guess. I felt like I couldn’t hide behind my hair anymore. I felt naked.”

Getting rid of her hair was a completely surreal experience, and it was like removing a layer of protection. “If you want a good idea of what it feels like to suddenly have no hair, think about what your fingertip feels like after breaking a nail,” McGraw told HG. “Everything is all sensitive and weird. Now imagine that all over your head and almost amplified.”

Though she received a ton of support from her family and friends, and reactions were “mostly positive,” there were definitely some who didn’t support her project, she tells us. “I had a friend or two actually stop talking to me,” she explained, “which is fine. That kind of stuff bothered me initially, but I realized that if they couldn’t talk to me without hair, why should they get to when it grew back. . . I’m the same. Just bald.”

Others judged her sexual orientation based on her decision. “I did have someone say ‘Oh, she must be a lesbian,'” she continued. “To that I say, hair doesn’t define sexual preference. Shame on that person for thinking the length of my hair dictates who I love.”

Though some days she struggled with her appearance (and other days she forgot her black backdrop for the project!), she kept on taking a picture every single day, then compiled it into a video to document its growth and transformation. “There were also some days when I would go to take my picture, and I didn’t feel like taking it because I kept looking miserable in the photos,” she told HG. “But I didn’t want to fake a smile or anything. Those ended up looking worse. So I kept the grumpy or sad looking ones too, because not every day we have is a good day. We have some really awful days.”

Body image wasn’t initially a part of McGraw’s inspiration, though — but it was a huge lesson she learned. “It kind of hit me all at once, once it was gone, like — wow,” she said. “Now I don’t really know how to feel about how I look.”

But the entire project made her stronger and feel more beautiful than ever. “I definitely without a doubt feel more confident with the way I look now,” McGraw told HG. “Like, out of this world more confident. . . I’m currently conflicted between just letting it grow or cutting it back down again. I’ve been pinning it back a lot because it reminds me of being bald. I just missing touching my head when there was nothing up there.”

Hair can be a huge part of someone’s identity, and stripping it away to find out who you really are — and how others will view you — is a concept that would scare many. You go, Sam! Thanks for being such an awesome, body-positive inspiration. Check out the entire video below.

(Images via Samantha McGraw.)