Hair has quite a distinct place in popular conscious- and no time does that feel more apparent than when you begin to lose yours. 

Hair, and indeed where it is, appears to dictate so much about how we categories, gender and construct ourselves. I have been a hairy person since birth, on account of hormones and my mixed-race status. The dark hair that covers my neck, arms, back and anywhere hair will grow, has acted as somewhat of an emblem for navigating my identity and culture. The anxiety, teasing and body-dysmorphia caused by my body hair was a saga that involved support from doctors and members of my extended family. Eventually, learning to love and leave my body hair intact was a long but empowering experience- now, losing my agency on how to treat my hair feels violating.

I first noticed patches of hairlessness on my usually thickly-haired arms; initially chalking this up to cheap-shirt induced chafing, I was bothered, but presumed quick grow-back would follow. A few weeks later, I noticed the hair on the back of my hands was completely gone- seemingly overnight, then another few weeks later- my boyfriend found a bald patch in my hair. I sat in sickly silence on the edge of my bed as he gently combed through my hair, my heart sunk a bit each time his phone was raised to take another picture. I made an appointment with my GP and spent the next few days lacing my fingers through my hair in the back of lectures, feeling patches of the strange tackiness of my scalp. 

Alopecia, is a word that comes from the Greek ‘alwpeki`a, meaning ‘fox’, “because loss of the hair is common among foxes”, according to the Webster online dictionary. Alopecia describes a range of hair loss: from patches, to total body hair loss; caused by a range of conditions from Iron deficiency to the hair-loss commonly associated with aging. 

Alopecia Areata, my strain of the condition, is characterised by patchy hair-loss on the scalp and other areas of the body. Alopeica Areata is an autoimmune disorder caused by anti-bodies mistakenly attacking hair follicles, often caused by illness, stress, weight loss, hormonal imbalance or deficiencies- according to the NHS website. For a condition that effects approximately 1 in 500 people, surprising little seems to be known about Alopecia Areata. All questions I seemed to have could only be answered with “perhaps” by the nurse and various medical websites. Many people I interacted with online reported irrevocable hair-loss in some places and regrowth in others, most explained that this new condition was often a lifelong affliction, coming on after periods of high stress. Campaigning for treatment has been a fraught process; after my blood test results did not show signs of deficiency, I was prescribed a steroid cream, Betamethasone, that has been “reported to help hair regrowth” but is not a clinically proven treatment. 

Whilst alopecia has no adverse physical effects on one’s health (unless it is a symptom of another condition), the condition impacted my life in complicated, distressing and unexpected ways. Around Christmas Eve I developed a small rash on my chest which induced a rather severe anxious reaction- suspecting I now had a serious skin condition I cried on and off from 2am to 4am because I felt like I was losing control of my health and body. Before, I was the sort of person who was perhaps not worried enough about my health- ignoring pains and lumps: now I was crying at night over a rash because the idea of becoming suddenly seriously ill no longer felt like something that “wouldn’t happen to me”. I also began to feel a strange guilt that I had wished my hair away in all my younger years of hating it. One night, my boyfriend complimented my eye colour, and an immediate urge to end the conversation took over as I began to worry that talking about liking my eyes may cause something bad to happen to them.

It took some time for me to admit to myself that alopecia was affecting me. Having had a friend suffer a diagnosis of Non – Hogkins Lymphoma in sixth form, I felt that alopecia was really a lucky hit on the dartboard of potential medical inflictions. This sort of guilt pervaded my thinking constantly. Was I hypocrite for caring about my hairloss after spending years promoting a ‘beauty is a subjective’ narrative to my friends? Did my vulnerability reveal a flaw in my feminist conviction that prides myself on my academic achievements and rejects being confined to my appearance? The truth is, there hasn’t been a day since November that I forget I have alopecia. Showering lost its refreshing power as washing and brushing hair became a distressing and often mood-ruining event, and I admit I sometimes put those tasks off for embarrassingly long because I don’t want to confront the sight of hair sliding off my head onto the shower basin floor. I took some comfort in taking time to treat my hair, buying scalp oils and expensive conditioner, even if only for mental placebo. These were also important acts of self-care, giving myself time to relax which is perhaps what my alopecia was signalling a need for. 

I am unsure what caused my alopecia, and that uncertainly contributes to anxieties about a lack of oversight of the condition itself. I had been battling ongoing fatigue and illness from contracting the Delta variant of COVID 19 in May 2020, as well as associated stress of lockdowns and a year of so-called ‘university of zoom’. I need not explain the effects that lockdown living has had on all of our collective physical and mental state, and whilst the vulnerability of alopecia is upsetting, it reminds me to be sympathetic to myself for the trauma that 2 years of a global pandemic has caused. 

I decided on day one that I wanted to make my diagnosis public. The idea of keeping my condition a secret would only serve to deepen the stigma I imposed on myself, it also helped prepare me for the possibility of the condition worsening. Making my alopecia public knowledge was a brilliant decision and I received much kindness and support from my friends. Perhaps, however, the most comforting reactions of all were that of no reaction. I would not go as far to say, “hair does not define me”, because as mixed-race person I rejoice in the textures and placing of my hair- but seeing how people have continued to respect my academic work and value my place in their lives far beyond my potential appearance, has been comforting.

Many will push the narrative of “learning to love” your alopecia, and whilst I am overjoyed for those who achieve that love, I have accepted that I cannot force myself to experience this new condition positively. Instead, adjusting to life with hairloss is much the same as adjusting to a new normal after any loss. I will continue to learn about my body and adapt to changes as and when the come; for those who are going through this condition now, my word of advice is: be tender to yourself.

Categories: Features

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *