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?