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Alopecia, TV & Me

Author:
woman

By Gemma Garner

I remember the day I found my first bald patch. I was around 14, in the middle of getting my hair cut. I was getting a trim, nothing more, nothing less. My mum always insisted that I should get a bob, or a pixie cut, but losing THAT much hair seemed too drastic for me. What if I looked ‘like a man?’ What if I wasn’t pretty?

I was always so excited to go to the hairdressers. It seemed like something that would change my entire appearance. Style gurus in television programmes like ‘10 years younger’ taught me that hair is such a crucial part of my appearance. All of my favourite kids TV programmes that I grew up on had at some point used the ‘oh-no-she-got-gum-in-her-hair-and-now-she-has-to-rip-out-a-chunk-of-it-how-embarrassing’ trope that caused the otherwise powerful leading ladies to become centrepieces of ridicule. This taught me how important my hair truly was. Don’t fuck it up, TV said. You’ll be ugly, TV said.

My hairdresser was separating my hair to cut it, when my mum, who at the time had recently been diagnosed with alopecia, stopped her. ‘What’s that?’ she asked, gently. My hairdresser, a friend of my mum’s who knew of her alopecia, became silent. ‘What? What is it?’ I asked. I felt the tension grow in the room. My mum let me know about the small bald patch on the middle of the back of my head. My stomach dropped, my heart shattered, my world stopped. From that moment on, my life was different. My future was different. I went home after that haircut and cried. I cried and cried, and cried. Not just for days, but for weeks and even months. Who’s going to love me? I thought. Who will I tell? How much more will fall out? I began to feel everything spin out of control. My beautiful, curly auburn locks were no longer something that I felt proud of. I no longer looked forward to getting my hair cut. I no longer felt loveable.

Before me, my mother had already been diagnosed with alopecia, after an accident caused her to temporarily lose the ability to walk. She lost most of her hair, and developed an underactive thyroid that caused her to gain a lot of weight. This lead to a deep depression. It was the first time I ever saw my mum weak, hopeless and lost. Now, she is stronger because of it, and tells every woman she meets about how empowering it was to be fat, bald, and disabled; three things that our society deems the ugliest.

Now, I realize that some may be thinking it’s rather dramatic to talk about alopecia as if it were a terminal, life threatening disease. I would agree with those people. However, statistics prove that when people, especially women, suffer from hair loss, they would give up everything just to have hair again.

Eventually that little patch would grow, and make me lose one third of my hair on the back of my head. This led me to believe that it would eventually all go, and I would lose my entire head. Luckily, it stopped there. I was able to conceal it with hairgrips, and hats. I avoided sitting in the front of class, thinking everyone would laugh if they saw I was bald underneath. I told no-one, in fear that they would find it too disgusting. In hindsight, this was ridiculous. But at the age of 14, with my mental state slowly deteriorating and my sense of self confidence essentially gone, there wasn’t a rational bone in my body.

This was one of the worst times in my life. I had never felt uglier, more worthless, and more unlovable. The alopecia caused me to isolate myself, giving me more time to feed my ever growing habit of self-pity and self-loathing. Though forums full of young women who felt the same made me feel a little less alone, it was still dark, scary and lonely. Eventually my mum got better, stronger, and became her bracing, wondrous self again. She still had alopecia, but she was OK with it. She got me counselling, and my family and friends, as I opened up to them, were incredibly supportive. Although my alopecia was still going strong (and was also being very inconvenient with where it chose to show up) (how the fuck do you hide a bald patch on your natural cow’s lick?), It never showed up like it did when I first got it. I got steroid injections in my head on a regular basis which caused the patches to get smaller and easier to handle.

Now, here I am today. Stronger, happier, with a high self-esteem and a level of openness to the point that most people have to ask me NOT to share too much. I rarely get bald patches and if I do, it doesn’t particularly bother me.

It’s important to note that I’ve been incredibly lucky with my alopecia. It thankfully didn’t develop too much. For some people, however, it does. To prove how traumatic it can really feel, I decided to reach out to some women on twitter who also suffer from alopecia, and ask them for their experience.

‘My alopecia started when I was 11. I was devastated. I felt like I wasn’t a proper girl anymore. It was just heart-breaking for me. I was so jealous of other girls with lovely long hair. I felt so alone. I had no one to talk to about it. My alopecia gets worse when I am stressed. I was bullied quite badly throughout secondary school and this made my stress levels worse and my hair fell out more. It was a never ending cycle. I’m 28 now and I’ve worn wigs for the past 7 years as I was no longer able to hide the bald spots. I recently went 3 months with no wig but my hair fell out again and I felt the same way I did when I was a wee girl. Just devastated. It’s something I’ve just had to accept. I’ll never have lovely hair and I’ll always feel like I lost some of my femininity.’ –Amy Tucker, 28

‘Getting diagnosed with Alopecia was absolutely soul destroying – you’re losing something that essentially forms so much of your identity, so it changes the way you see yourself, and rattles and shakes up the way you saw yourself in the future. Plus, there are also so many unknowns – when will it stop? How will people treat you? What’s next?’ –Katie Hale, 23

‘Losing my hair was a frightening experience. Women without hair weren’t classed as pretty, apart from seven of nine in Star Trek and I certainly didn’t have her figure. I dealt with it as I was a strong women in her thirties with a loving family. After a while I shaved my remaining hair off, I didn’t want to carry on having it fall out bit by bit. So I took control of it. When my teenage daughter also got Alopecia that was much harder to take. Peer pressure at that age is so hard. As she went on her own personal journey of acceptance I was so proud of her and her inner strength. She started to own it and take back control of her life. Alopecia taught me that I am more than my appearance.’–Samantha Garner, 47 (a.k.a. My mum)

I’m sorry, dear readers, to ramble on so passionately about something you may not even understand. I don’t blame you, either. I had no understanding of alopecia when I discovered my bald patch. There are three types of alopecia; Areata, Totalis, and Universalis. Areata is where your hair falls out in patches, Totalis is when you lose all of the hair on your head, and Universalis is when you lose all of the hair on your body and head. Each are caused by different things. Areata and totalis are autoimmune disorders in which your own immune system begins to attack your hair follicles as if they were intruders. Universalis, however, is the rarest form of alopecia. It is caused by a genetic mutation that is present from birth, but may not show up until much later in someone’s life. The hardest thing about alopecia is that most of the time, all kinds of alopecia start out looking like alopecia areata. The first patch is certainly the one that causes the most anxiety. Where will it go? What more will fall out? Is this the start, or the end? There is no cure, only things that MAY help. You do them anyway. You have to hope for the best and prepare for the worst.

For most people my age, growing up, TV was the best time of the day. As soon as I got through the door from school, I would lounge on the sofa watching my favourite shows on CBBC, Nickelodeon, and Disney Channel. It’s impossible to argue that the shows I watched regularly at this age didn’t have some kind of influence on me; it’s all I consumed at that time. Television programmes have always been a deep reflection of society at the time that they’re shown. By looking at the societal and cultural themes that run through a programme, we can gain quite a large understanding of how people felt about life at that time. This is even true with seemingly innocent children’s television programmes. An example of this is in an episode of the sassy, progressive and incredibly popular Disney Channel show That’s So Raven that aired on February the 4th 2005, named ‘True Colours’.

In this episode Raven and her friend Chelsea apply for a job at the same upscale clothing store. Though Chelsea’s resume is far less impressive that Raven’s, she ends up getting the job. Why? Raven is black, and Chelsea is white. Raven, hurt and angered, continues to try and ‘out’ the store and make their blatant racism a public matter by getting the store owner to admit to it on camera, ultimately ruining their reputation. When I watched this show as a kid, I didn’t really think about it that much. But when I think about it now, this episode was incredibly controversial and the fact that it even aired at all says a lot about society as it was at the time. To this day, that episode is still incredibly relevant, as racism is still a huge issue, especially in the supposed ‘Post-Racial’ America.

So, if Television is really a reflection of what’s happening and what is and isn’t acceptable in society, then where do we stand with hair? This is a question I struggled to answer when I began to write this article. It’s almost impossible to create a substantial debate when there’s hardly anything to reference. Most women on television have gorgeous, long hair. No questions asked. The only female television personality who’s bald in real life is Gayle Porter, who before alopecia was a sex symbol, a fun ladette for men to view in their lad mags. Now post alopecia, she is only depicted as mentally ill, broken and rarely looked up to as a feminine figure. It’s just the way that it is.

But then I began to think; is that just the way that it is? I began to look at the things I saw around me. I think about the countless amount of times I’ve seen a beautiful young woman write ‘Should I cut my hair short?’ on Facebook. This woman, more often than not, knows that she wants to cut her hair, but needs approval first. She needs that validation. And let me tell you, she’ll never get it. My heart sinks when I begin to read the comments of these incredibly common statuses. With almost no positive responses in sight, all I see is ‘Don’t do it! You have beautiful gorgeous long hair!’, and ‘Your hair is amazing as it is. No.’. This makes it clear to me; hair is very, very important as a status symbol for women.

Why is it that we ask for permission to cut our hair? Why is it such a daunting thing to do? Why do people seem to think that short hair cannot be equally as gorgeous as long hair? And don’t even try to tell me it’s because long hair takes ages to grow. When we see men with long hair – unless they look like Brad Pitt, or Jake Gyllenhaal – we consider them gross, lazy and dirty. So it’s obviously not the hair itself. It’s what that hair does to the woman attached.

Ultimately, there are very few representations of baldness on television. Because of this, I’m going to look at both bald women, and women with short, ‘boyish’ hair. Both equally demonstrate how important hair is to us in society today. My first case study is a character from Friends. One of Phoebe’s friends, Bonnie, goes on a date with Ross. Phoebe describes her as bald before they go on their date. However, when they meet, Bonnie has a full head of hair, and they end up dating. Eventually Rachel persuades her to shave it all off again, and in response to her baldness, Ross is creeped out, disgusted, and doesn’t know what to do with this woman he once found beautiful. Although this plot line is done for humour, his disgust genuinely reflects a truth in society today. Another example of this is in Americas Next Top Model season 6, when all of the girls have to wear bald caps for a photoshoot. This is shown to be a statement, something that is difficult to pull off. This representation makes me wonder, when my mother’s hair fell out, and she decided to go bald, did she pull it off? Did she make a fashion statement? She sure as hell wasn’t trying.

Now I’m going to look at women with short hair in television. There are various examples of this and ultimately, they all are also making a statement about their character. Short hair on a woman in television represents masculinity, toughness, aggression and a lack of vanity. An example of this is when we look at Arya from Game of Thrones. She’s a strong, masculine character that hates most feminine traits. She notoriously slags off other women when asked why she isn’t a typical girl. Another example of this is in Supernatural, where Meg, a demon, after possessing a vessel, cuts her long hair. This is used to show how horrible it is when humans are possessed by demons, making a statement.

It’s important to note that long hair, however, is used to portray sexuality, innocence, beauty and even normality. Ultimately, it is the pinnacle of femininity, and it is mostly all that we see.

All of these examples show us something about society that explains why those with alopecia suffer like they do; hair is considered the be all and end all of a woman’s appearance. Because of how hair is shown in television, film and other mediums, from a very young age, we understand that hair changes how other people see us. It’s because I was bombarded with images of women with long, luscious locks growing up, that I eventually saw it as the norm, meaning that when there was a possibility my hair could all fall out, it was the end of the world for me.

Hair is one of the most important things in determining society’s rigid and limited gender roles. When I was losing my hair, I didn’t want to make a statement. I didn’t want to be aggressive, tough, and masculine. I wanted to be feminine. Although I am more than happy to have short hair and baldness be portrayed by some badass women, I want there to be variety. I want it to be a norm. I want all hair/lack thereof to be seen as beautiful AND badass. I want to see more bald and short haired women on screen. Maybe then, beautiful bald ladies will feel better off screen. At the end of the day, it’s just hair. Why can’t we treat it that way?

[i] http://www.popsugar.com/celebrity/photo-gallery/33327231/image/33327276/Jake-long-hair-slicked-back-Qamp

[ii] http://weheartit.com/entry/group/17062843

Lucy

Author:

 

lucy

By Hannah Barkhouche

A few weeks ago I went to see the film Lucy. As it was quite a spontaneous trip to the cinema I hadn’t built high expectations for the film, however I had seen the trailer and the concept did interest me. It’s basically about a new drug that allows the brain to use more than the average 10-20% cerebral capacity.

As a whole it was reasonably enjoyable and I did leave with a new found curiosity for the mind and its unknown capabilities as well as a respired awe for how far we have come as a species. But there were a few things that bugged me.

As a feminist in a patriarchal society I have grown accustom to many things – particularly the media – bugging me. Of course if I were to pick out every piece of misogyny or sexism I came across and anger myself over them then life would become unbearable. That’s not to say that we shouldn’t be angry about these things just because there’s so much. No, we have a right to be angry and anger is after all necessary as it drives change and in turn fuels the ever closer revolution. Saying this, it is possible and sometimes even vital (for your own mental sanity) to allow for humour in the place of anger – something the inspirational Brigit Christie has mastered. 

The first thing that bugged me about Lucy was something easier to find entertaining than enraging at first. It was the fact that a woman nearing 100% cerebral capacity apparently void of all feelings and desires still found it rational to wear a bodycon dress, heels and makeup. Wearing such things isn’t irrational entirely, and it would be hypocritical of me to say otherwise, but surely Lucy would be above any social norms and expectations? Additionally, that attire is just impractical at the best of times but especially when killing almost everyone in your path, being chased by a mafia type group and boarding a long haul flight. But then again, I do only use a measly 10-20% of my brain and so maybe there’s something I’m missing. 

However, whilst I did have a little giggle at just how impractical the wardrobe choices were, I did think of the more sinister side. Not many people will have watched the movie and thought that there was anything odd about how the character Lucy dressed. And this is because there wasn’t, not in the movie world. We are used to seeing women and even young girls on the big screen modelled to the Barbie doll ideal. Whatever their roles or talents, female characters’ master statuses reside in how much they fit society’s idea of beauty with everything else being considered secondary. When a woman is a lead in a film such as Lucy, I wish I could rejoice but I feel disheartened when the importance of the role is belittled by crafting it to be nothing more than the prettiest doll on the shelf. And- I am reminded of the young girls growing up watching films and TV shows with the same emphasis on the female characters’ attraction who are made to feel that they are invaluable in society unless they mould and paint themselves to reach an impossible beauty standard. I know that as much as these girls will achieve, in this day and age they will still feel the crushing pressure to look perfect from the inescapable sexism in our media. 

The film Lucy cannot of course be blamed for all this. I understand that it is conforming to the expectations of the industry and the audience. Nevertheless,  it does not cease to be disappointing and I wish I could simply see women on TV and film who make practical choices (like wearing trainers when running for their lives) not just attractive choices, and who represent the beautiful diversity of our world’s female population.

There was also one line in the film I was surprised to find almost offensive. It is the point at which the scientist played by Freeman begins introducing Lucy to his colleges as “The first woman to…”. I was annoyed because Lucy’s gender had nothing to do with her accomplishment; she was the first person to use over 20% of her cerebral capacity. It was unnecessary to bring gender into it as she had achieved something that no one in the entire population had achieved before, not just something that no female had yet to achieve. I found that the line made her experience seem less remarkable, degrading it by making it seen as though she was the first out of 3, 500, 000,000 (the female population), rather than 7,000,000,000 (the entire population). Historically, men have achieved things before women, but we have moved on and reached a time in which this no longer has to be the case and we understand that women are as capable as men. Whilst a small line in a long film, I felt that it reinforced the idea that woman are always thought to be secondary men and I felt that she should have been celebrated simply as a human being.

Whilst not being a feminist topic on the surface, another thing which bugged me was Lucy’s loss of empathy and altruism throughout the film. As we evolve, I like to believe we collectively become a more moral species – a notion moral relativists would dispute. The thought that as our minds expand our care for others diminishes paints a rather ominous picture of the future. Although I don’t want to think that that is the future we have in store, the concept was thought provoking. When male leads come to obtain powers they usually gain a high sense of morality too and are hailed as heroes, for example Superman, and Spiderman. Whilst I do not want to dig for sexism where it may not be present, Lucy was an entirely selfish character and I understand that she made us contemplate but I cannot help but wish that she could have been a super-heroine. 

Admittedly, I have picked apart and exposed the more negative parts of the film because these were the points that I thought about the most, but I did not see the film as entirely negative.   On the topic of representation, it was pleasing to see a female lead in a story that wasn’t about a romantic pursuit, and to watch the immensely talented Morgan Freeman play the leading man. Even in the 21st century, it is still unfortunately mainly the white, male actors of the world who are the protagonists of the most successful films.

 

All in all, it presented a unique story and whilst the amount of killing and violence was a bit extreme for me, Lucy’s journey was a thrilling one to follow and raised many inciting questions about the past, present and future of humanity.

 

Emma Watson and the Buzzfeed Backlash

Author:

By Issy McConville

Emma

I have a soft spot for Buzzfeed. It’s always there for a bit of light relief. We’ve all been there, at 3pm on a really slow day at work, when it suddenly becomes really fascinating to take a Buzzfeed quiz to find out which kind of ceremonial hat best fits our personality. But this week, Buzzfeed really let me down.

There I am, ignoring my Excel spreadsheet, reading about a lamb born with two heads, when I stumble across an article called, 23 Times Emma Watson Made Everyone Around Her Look Painfully Average. Emma Watson is currently trending everywhere, after her speech at the UN, launching the ‘HeForShe’ campaign, calling on men to become advocates for ending gender inequality. Wherever you stand on this campaign – and its focus on male allies to the feminist movement – I think it’s fair to say that Emma Watson’s speech was an important moment – having such a high profile figure, on a world stage, strongly proclaim herself as a feminist is very powerful, ‘I decided I was a feminist and this seemed uncomplicated to me’. And this speech has really got people talking. Only this week, Taylor Swift spoke of Emma Watson’s inspiration, and said that she would have ‘proudly claimed’ to be a feminist when she was younger if she’d had such a role model. The video of the speech of the ‘HeForShe’ Youtube channel has received over one million views, and a letter from a 15 year old British schoolboy to the Guardian newspaper, supporting Watson’s message, has gone viral on social media.

But back to Buzzfeed. Considering the media explosion Emma Watson’s speech caused, I can be forgiven for thinking that the aforementioned article might be related to it. Maybe I hoped for too much and ignored the warning signs. Look at the title – what kind of uneven number is 23 for a list? But more importantly, let’s talk about what this list of 23 contained – which, basically, was absolutely nothing relevant. It’s just 23 pictures of her wearing different outfits with embarrassingly desperate captions about how flawless she looks. Buzzfeed have clearly missed the ENTIRE point of Emma’s UN speech. Here, she calls for a move towards greater gender equality – ‘I think it is right that as a woman I am paid the same as my male counterparts. I think it is right that I should be able to make decisions about my own body’. Buzzfeed are doing the exact opposite – completely ignoring her political statements and just praising her for her smooth skin. Yes, to an extent I am impressed that she can fit in a comprehensive exfoliating regime alongside her huge professional achievements. Last year I lived without a bathroom light for 6 months and showered in the dark because I was too busy (lazy) to change it, and I definitely did not have the responsibility of a UN Goodwill ambassador. But I am not defined by my dimly-lit bathroom, and nor is Emma Watson defined by what she wears. She is defined by her actions and by her beliefs, the beliefs which she spoke of proudly at the UN.

My distaste for this list increases as I continue to read. In fact, if I was Emma Watson I’d be keeping a considerable distance from the author of this article, whose captions begin to err on the side of creepy stalker, ‘Then there was the time when this man in a grey suit tried to touch her back, and we were like, ‘Get your hands off our queen. You do not have those privileges.’ Most depressingly, we manage to move down to only Number 2 on the list before male validation creeps in– ‘Here are lots of men wearing suits and gazing longingly at Emma’ – because without a man to fancy you, really what is the point??

There have been some poor reactions to Emma’s speech. Most notably, from 4Chan users, threatening to release her naked pictures onto the internet in backlash against her feminist proclamations. This is a lot more malicious than Buzzfeed and it’s misguided objectification, but the thread of misogyny can still be seen. The very misogyny that Emma Watson was seeking to challenge with the ‘HeForShe’ campaign. So, Buzzfeed, you’ve really let me down – a message as important as gender equality doesn’t deserve to be made into light relief.

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