Author Michelle Law suffers from an autoimmune condition called alopecia areata.
Recently, my older sister's been looking for love. Along with a slew of dating sites, she has also joined Tinder and been enjoying sending my siblings and me screenshots of prospective Romeos alongside the inevitable duds. “This guy sent me a message that just said, 'DTF NSA'. What does that mean?” she group messaged. My brother promptly responded with an explanation, which is NSFW, and available on urbandictionary.com. “This is why I hate dating!” I responded. “Way too stressful.”
Besides the odd proposition, dating is getting to know someone from the ground up. It's sharing the deepest secrets about your childhood and family and bathroom habits. But above all, it's about being hyper vigilant about your appearance. And that's the crux of the unpleasantness for me: a huge part of dating is about making yourself appear attractive enough for someone to want to spend time with you and potentially have sex with you — a task that is, in my experience, fraught with feelings of anxiety, deception and fear.
I've been bald from an autoimmune condition called alopecia areata for most of my dating career. The condition causes your immune system to mistake your hair follicles for foreign bacteria, halting the normal hair growth cycle and resulting in bald patches (alopecia areata), the loss of all scalp hair (alopecia totalis), or the complete loss of all body hair (alopecia universalis). Alopecia affects around two per cent of the Australian population, which is close to half a million people. I've experienced alternating periods of complete baldness to having a full head of hair, but for the past three years I've had no head hair, no eyebrows and have lost most of my eyelashes.
It makes dating hard. Particularly as a young woman — someone whose physical appearance is weighted above all else as her most defining and valued characteristic. Before each date, there is a checklist of questions for me to consider, most of which are wig-related. (I wear a wig in public simply because it makes everyday interactions easier and means I can avoid questions about cancer, religious extremism and what is endlessly baffling, lesbianism. So I also wear a wig on dates to make my partner feel comfortable, despite the fact my own discomfort increases exponentially as a result. Dating, am I right?)
The questions include: Will it be windy? Will it be cold enough to wear a hat for added security? What if he feels the base of my wig while we're kissing? And then there's the terrifying prospect of the date night: What if he asks why I can't maintain certain positions or enact repetitive jolting movements? What if his hand, or worse, brushes off both my eyebrows? If my wig falls off do I explain myself or feign surprise? I imagine if my baldness were exposed, both of us would be startled, before saying an awkward goodbye and then never speaking again. He would relay it as a humorous anecdote at parties. I would die alone, bald and sassy and surrounded by stray animals.
When you aren't up front about your baldness, dating involves a certain degree of deception, which isn't a healthy place for a relationship to start. I knew that people were taking me, literally, at face value, when my appearance was something I'd meticulously crafted over hours in the privacy of my own bathroom. My appearance was a sham, but I kept it a secret because I feared flat-out rejection. (I've heard of women with alopecia who sleep with their wigs on because they're terrified of what their significant others will think. And the only time I did tell someone I was dating that I had alopecia, he expressed his sympathies before promptly sleeping with somebody else.) But more than rejection, I feared the notion that people would find it impossible to separate my physical state from who I was as a person.
Eventually, I got tired of fearing my “coming out” moment; I wanted to be up front with people from the beginning. So I wrote a blog in which I documented everyday instances in my life, including my experiences with alopecia, called Single Asian Female, which you'll find nestled between dating and pornography sites when you Google it. I figured that if someone was interested, I could direct him to the blog without having to explain my condition for the millionth time. If the right guy came along, he'd be comfortable with the truth — which he did, and he is.
Dating, and at times existence, is a terrifying prospect for bald women because of the negative portrayals of hairless women to which we've all been conditioned. Society dictates that baldness in women be reduced to a form of demoralising punishment, sacrifice (shave for a cure, where alongside fund-raising we show solidarity and empathy for those experiencing a diminished sense of self following hair loss), a devastating side-effect of cancer treatments, or a sign of ultimate evil (Satan in The Passion of the Christ is played by a bald, eyebrowless woman because that's apparently the most sinister and repugnant image known to mankind. Hooray!). On the flipside, bald men can occupy positions of great power, influence and even be considered attractive, as opposed to frightening and alien.
When your dateability is entwined with your physical appearance, being a bald woman can make you feel like you don't have options. Losing your hair doesn't physically hurt, but the fallout can be profoundly psychologically damaging, when feelings of innate self-worth and confidence are challenged — by negative, desexualised portrayals of bald women, by sideways glances on the street — and you're made to feel as though the only attention you inspire or deserve is anything but romantic.
In my experience, and from hearing the experiences of other bald women who own their baldness, we're entirely comfortable with our own appearance. We're dateable and know this ourselves; we're just waiting for everyone else to catch on.