When a woman loses her hair

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I got a buzz cut. I told everyone that I did it just because I felt like doing it. But the truth is, there was a little bit more to the story.

The little bit more part began when my hair started falling out. I was at university. Before uni, I had very long hair. Almost down to my waist. I thought it made me look like a mermaid when I swam. I didn't swim that much, but it seemed worth it. My hair was thick and wavy, with the occasional rogue corkscrew curl. When I finally went to have it cut, the stylist couldn't stop exclaiming, "So thick! So much hair!" I probably blushed modestly.

But then something changed. My hair began coming out when I ran my fingers through it in the shower. Not in large enough clumps for me to panic- just enough to notice. A year later, it was half its former volume. By the time I graduated college, I avoided swimming pools. I hated the way I looked when my hair was wet, it was so thin that patches of my scalp showed. On my 22nd birthday, I stared at myself in the mirror after showering, and was horrified by what I saw. My hair looked sickly and miserable. I'd had enough. I made a doctor's appointment to talk about it.

"My hair is falling out," I told the doctor.

He examined my scalp. "We'll run some blood tests."

He called me a few days later and told me that I was anemic. Nothing life-threatening, but I needed to start taking a lot of iron. He wasn't sure about my hair. "It might grow back."

I took three doses of iron every day, and gradually, I began to feel better. I hadn't even realized how tired I'd been all the time. Suddenly, I didn't feel like I needed to lie down in the middle of the afternoon. I could work clearheaded for hours and hours. Life was better, but my hair didn't change. It didn't grow. I was constantly reaching up to adjust it, to make sure it wasn't exposing too much skin. I had to check it every few minutes, especially if there was any breeze at all.

I was a horrifying thing—a woman losing her hair, in her early twenties. Nothing about this was right. Everywhere I looked, women with gorgeous hair paraded through the streets. Women with lush, lustrous, bright hair. Women with thick, mysterious dark hair. Little girls with masses of hair they didn't even know to appreciate yet. I heard women complaining about how thick their hair was. How difficult it was to manage. How it was too curly, too straight. How it wasn't the right color. Everywhere I looked, I was reminded of how essential hair was to being a woman. Every description of a beautiful woman lingered on her spectacular hair. Every image in a commercial. I felt like I'd been left behind. I felt betrayed by my body.

When I went back for my now-frequent blood tests, I asked the doctor if there was some other option.
He looked apologetic. "We don't understand very much about hair growth," he said, speaking for the entire field of medicine. "You might want to try a form of Rogaine."

I stared at him. "Isn't that for...men?"

He nodded, looking straight at me, like this wasn't that huge of a deal.

"Oh." I nodded back. "I guess I could."

He scribbled a word on his little pad and ripped off the piece of paper. "Minoxidil," it read. He told me to go to my local pharmacy.

I went the same day. If I waited, I wasn't sure I'd be able to do it. The hair loss treatments were behind the counter, and I had to ask for the one the doctor had recommended. It had a picture of a man's head on it. It said, "For Men," in bold letters on the front of the box.

"Are you sure you want that one, honey?" the woman behind the counter asked skeptically. "It's for men. For men who are balding."

"Yes," I said, avoiding her gaze. I thought I could feel her staring at my hair. She probably felt sorry for me. And why wouldn't she?

I snatched the box and paid without looking up, my hands shaking. I went home and pored over the application instructions. And then, every day, I put my hair loss treatment on. I put it on in secret. I was living in New York City now, in a tiny studio apartment. My boyfriend came over in the evening a few nights a week, and I had to make sure he never found my generic Rogaine, my shame. I had to make sure no one ever found out about it. After a few months, I quit the treatment, because I was too embarrassed and too afraid someone would find out.

But a year or so later, when my hair still stubbornly refused to make a reappearance, I was back at it, determined that I would stick with it this time. I did. For nearly a year, I stuck with it. And when it didn't help, and I went to bed each night slightly dizzy, stinking of chemicals, I finally decided that I needed to do something different.  Instead of trying so hard to get my old hair back, I needed to change the way I thought about my hair. I needed to change my hair itself.

It took me a while to go all the way—to buzz it. First I cut it short. But even that didn’t seem quite right after a while. And so one day, randomly, I ducked into a unisex salon and told the woman working there to buzz it.

She hesitated. "Are you sure?"

"Please. Just do it."

She did.

I stared at myself in the mirror after. All of my features were in place, but my head was reborn, dusted with peach fuzz. I looked dramatic and vulnerable and somehow—pretty. "You look good," said the woman who had done it, still holding the clippers. I said, "Yeah, I do!"

And then I went home and put on a sexy, feminine dress and heels. I went to meet a friend downtown. And as I waited there, standing tall, people kept coming up to me. "You look amazing," they said. "I love your hair."
No one had said that to me in years, and it felt fantastic. But the best part was that finally, finally, I loved my own hair. I loved not having to think about it. I loved making a statement by not having it. I loved being totally exposed, rather than trying to cover up.

I realized that day that there’s a chance my old hair will never grow back, and even if it doesn’t, I’ll be fine. I’ll look good.

Since then, my hair has grown back into a shaggy short do, but I have no doubt that I’ll buzz it again when I need the confidence boost—just to remind myself that sometimes flaunting the stuff that you’re most self-conscious about forces you to embrace it. It forces you to acknowledge who you already are. And this is me: a young woman who isn’t ever going to try to hide behind her hair again.

And the next time I go swimming, I might even be a mermaid with a buzz cut. Why not?  

22 comments

  • I have been losing my hair since I was 26 years old. It started after the birth of my first child and falls out now if I am unwell (even a cold will cause it to come out in chunks) or have a particularly stressful event. I'm now 40 and have spent a small part of every day over the last 14 years stressing about my thin straggly hair. Sometimes I am overcome by such intense jealousy when I meet someone new who has the thick, glossy hair - the sort you mention in your article - that I can't bare to stand there and talk to them. It sounds shallow and pathetic, I know, but having awful hair is hard to hide. I've cut it super short and it looks ok but it's so unfeminine and butch looking - and I'm a girly girl. I have a decent selection of wigs and hair pieces, but I wish - more than ever - that I just had a decent amount of natural hair. I doubt I'll ever come to terms with. Well done to you for achieving that.

    Commenter
    Liz
    Location
    Sydney
    Date and time
    January 11, 2013, 9:28AM
    • This story struck a nerve with me as I have had a somewhat similar experience though not as severe. I suffer from trichotillomania and at times, have had significant bald patches all over my head. As a young woman, it really does seem like all of your femininity and beauty relies on having a beautiful head of hair which is so unfair. I do remember the feeling of shame and embarrassment when people would see my scalp through my hair but it was so painful I have tried to forget it as much as possible. What really hurt also was the lack of understanding and empathy about my disorder.

      I am one of the lucky ones, I am fighting the disorder and most of my hair is growing back. But it is one hell of a journey.

      You're a brave woman Kate.

      Commenter
      Mellah
      Date and time
      January 11, 2013, 9:29AM
      • It is wonderful you found the confidence to handle this hair loss. When I had my children my hair was waist length, thick and curly, and now, six years later, it is thin and has inexplicably become incredibly short. I have no idea why, nor where it has gone. My hairdresser thought I was strange saying it has just got shorter and shorter without being cut, and I don't think she really knew what I meant. It is surreal, a kind of slow-moving change in appearance you cannot control, and it did make me feel less feminine. I have the kind of face that suits longer hair; sticking out ears and larger nose; yet that is no longer possible. I am really happy your story has a happy ending in terms of self-confidence, and am happy to know I am not alone in my slow-moving "hidden" hair loss.

        Commenter
        SamSam
        Date and time
        January 11, 2013, 9:53AM
        • My partner recently shaved her head bald in solidarity with her sister undergoing chemotherapy. She looks amazing, she always looked amazing with hair, and now she simply looks amazing without hair.
          Hair does not denote femininity, masculine people with long hair still look masculine, feminine people without hair still look feminine.

          Commenter
          Catweasel
          Date and time
          January 11, 2013, 10:04AM
          • Significant hair loss + extreme tiredness are 2 key symptoms of PCOS - a condition that affects about 1/5 of females. Ask your doctor to run a testosterone test + referral to an endocronologist who can fix you up.

            I spent 4 frustrated years going from doctor to doctor to figure out what was wrong before I changed GPs and the new GP recognised it straight away. The Jean Hailes Foundation (VIC) and Women's Health and Research Institute of Australia (Sydney) have a wealth of information on it.

            Commenter
            vn
            Location
            rozelle
            Date and time
            January 11, 2013, 10:24AM
            • This comment is spot on. This happened to me 30 years ago but was diagnosed fairly early. I went on an androgen suppressant and the pill and things stabilised quite quickly. My hair did not grow back though. For me the best hair style is a short bob and streaks, as blonde hair reflects the light and gives an illusion of greater volume.

              Commenter
              Jill
              Location
              Blue Mountains
              Date and time
              January 11, 2013, 1:42PM
            • hair loss and tiredness are also key symptoms of Hypothyroidism, with a medication adjustment i regained about 90% of my hair loss but it took about 18 months and a lot of hat wearing to be almost back to normal,

              so i would absolutely check your blood tests to see if you had your TSH, T3 and T4 tested as well as checking if your androgen hormones were tested

              Commenter
              Jac
              Date and time
              January 11, 2013, 3:12PM
            • All of the above, plus possible alopecia, a genetic condition where hair loss occurs. Hair is lost on the body, the lungs (leading to breathing trouble) and even the fallopian tubes leading to difficulty in conception.

              Commenter
              Spike
              Date and time
              January 11, 2013, 4:05PM
          • You're very brave, well done, it must be liberating. I think many people could do with that sort of epiphany about how to deal with the way their body undergoes average and not-so-average changes.

            I have a friend who lost a lot of her dark, thick, long, gorgeous hair after a kidney transplant. She is a glamorous sort of gal, and it was horrifying for her. Her solution was going blonde, cutting it short and adding a fair bit of product to make it spike up at the back with a side parted, combo-over (for want of a better word) type fringe. The messy spikes made up for the lack of volume. I met her as a blonde and if she'd never told me how her hair used to look, I'd have left the conversation at, "I love your hair!".

            Commenter
            Nina
            Date and time
            January 11, 2013, 10:31AM
            • Whilst I agree that losing clumps of hair would be a significantly distressful event for any 22yo girl to have to endure, spare a though for all the young men in their early to mid-20’s who are cruelly ‘taken before their time’ by the equally soul & self-esteem destroying androgenic alopecia (commonly known as male pattern baldness).

              My hair started falling out just after my 20th bday, I remember getting ready for nights out on the town, and doing my hair with product/gel, and my hands being covered in hair. Went down the rogaine/propecia/finesta route for 3-5 years after that, then decided f it, and have been buzzing my head for the past 2-3 years (am now 28).

              Yes I agree, it’s not exactly the same thing, and shaved heads for guys “are” more accepted these days, but it is nonetheless equally frustrating being out and about and seeing guys around the same age with thick, shiny wavy and luxurious locks, and thinking ‘man I wish I had hair like him’!

              Good luck on your hair-less journey

              Commenter
              buzz-cut
              Location
              sydney
              Date and time
              January 11, 2013, 10:43AM

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