They’re the most sexualized strands in history. We brush it, flick it, blow it, and toss it. We spend a substantial amount of our time fiddling with it, and a significant proportion of our income maintaining it. But what if you’ve haven’t got it?
Does lack of hair make you any less feminine?
Looking at Britney’s bristly mound of mousiness, it’s hard not to think so. But while her brief encounter with clippers may have been a desperate cry from within, at least it was her call. The same can’t be said for the four million Americans who succumb to alopecia—unexplained partial or complete hair loss.
Carrie found her sudden hair loss three years ago devastating. “My absolute favorite thing was having my highlights done,” she told me. “My hair was long and blond and I used to wear it in a French pleat. Then in a flash—in less than two weeks—every strand on my head, face, and body fell out. I was left as bare as a baby rabbit.
The shock was so great, I couldn’t believe this had happened to me. Then when I realized it was for real, I wept for weeks and weeks,” she recalls.
What makes alopecia harder to handle is its mysteriousness. Doctors can’t say what causes it, or what really works to treat it. Indeed, they can’t even tell their traumatized patients if their locks will regrow again. (Hair growth returns in about 50 percent of people.)
So far, alopecia is established as an autoimmune disorder. The baldness happens because for some unknown reason, the body attacks the growing cells in hair follicles. This makes existing hair fall out and stops new hair forming. Age, ethnicity, gender, and social status hold no bars to alopecia. It doesn’t discriminate.
In Carrie’s case, the condition seemed to coincide with the birth of her second son. He was six months old and she’d just stopped breastfeeding when it happened.
“Seven years before, I had a scary episode when I suddenly developed a bald patch on my crown a bit bigger than a dollar,” says Carrie. “But then it grew back again. I just didn’t expect anything like that to happen again.”
In fact, alopecia can be recurrent. Although there is probably a genetic element—20 percent of people with alopecia have a family member who also has it—and it’s more likely if there is eczema, thyroid problems, or asthma, though these are not really risk factors. With alopecia, something else is at work. Many doctors say stress or trauma seems to be the trigger.
Stress—the small word far too liberally sprinkled about as the cause of everything from spots to cancer—may actually play a defining part here. Anecdotally at least, that seems to make sense.
When I was at school, one girl a few years above me wore an orange headscarf until she left for university. The rumor was her hair fell out after she’d been told her father had died. And a few years ago, I knew one pretty lady whose bitchy acquaintances tanked up on jealousy and told the police she was responsible for a fire that had nothing to do with her. A bald patch appeared on her crown soon after and persisted for months.
Miranda’s story is similar. Her fiancé was killed in a car crash, and Miranda’s mane of dark brown glossy locks tumbled out in clumps.
“My whole world had collapsed. My hair falling out just seemed like the final kick in the stomach,” Miranda says. “Life in those dark months was hard enough and my hair loss made it even harder. What else could so effectively wipe out the confidence I’d managed to cling on to?”
At least Carrie had a husband to support her. “He wiped my tears and told me I have a stunningly-shaped head,” she tells me.
After religiously rubbing steroids prescribed by a dermatologist into her scalp—which were supposed to suppress her immune system to try and stimulate hair growth—Carrie had the beginnings of regrowth, albeit soft and downy. “But I swelled three dress sizes,” she says. “It was a side effect of the steroids. I had a choice: be fat and hairy or slim and bald. I chose the latter.”
So Carrie made a positive decision to remain a smooth woman. “Having semi-permanent make-up has made me feel better about myself. There was a time I couldn’t bear to look in the mirror. No lashes or eyebrows made my face look piggy,” she says. “So I had some drawn on, plus a little pigment on my lips and cheeks. I don’t feel so naked now. It’s made an enormous difference in how I feel when I see my reflection.”
It was a supplement called Nourkin that Miranda thinks helped her hair regrow, albeit straighter and thinner than before. “But I’m not complaining,” she says. “I’m just so relieved it came back at all.”
The two traditional medicines available to treat baldness in men and women are finasteride and minoxidil. Needless to say, nothing seems to work for everyone.
“I wear a wig when I go out to dinner,” says Carrie. “I do it just to stop everyone from staring.”
And indeed, wigs have come a long way. In fact, some are so good and stay bonded to the scalp for so long (up to a month), some rich women shave off their hair just so they can wear one.
“Tell them not to be so stupid,” retorts Carrie when I tell her. “They don’t know how lucky they are.”