Not long after my 21st birthday I was standing at the sink washing dishes. My mother asked me what the hell I had done to my hair. She was referring to an area on the back of my head but I had no idea why.... She took me to a mirror in a bedroom and held a smaller mirror behind me. She pointed to a round $2 coin sized bald patch casually revealing itself on the back of my head. I had no idea why all of the sudden this casual patch had made itself at home on my scalp.
Over the next week the spot, like a weed in an unruly garden, blossomed and flourished further across my scalp. Within a mere month my hair loss had become so severe I was left with little choice but to shave the remaining stragglers and opt for my first wig. I was diagnosed with Alopecia Areata.
"I was diagnosed with Alopecia Areata."
Alopecia Areata is defined as a sudden hair loss that starts with one or more circular bald patches that may overlap. The condition is considered autoimmune. The mechanism of hair loss involves failure by the body to recognize its own cells with resulting immune mediated destruction of the hair follicles. The condition is rare, affecting approximately 0.1-0.2% of the population. It is incurable.
Initially the condition was not easy to conceal. I went from having thin, dark hair to a head of thick, full blonde hair. The early days were tolerable. I ventured out sans hair to the supermarket and wasn’t too concerned with the glances and raised eyebrows. I took it in my stride so to speak. People often confused me for a cancer patient and others thought I’d done a Britney Spears, shaving my hair in anguish. Having such a rare condition meant just telling people “oh it’s just alopecia” wasn’t so simple.
When people commented on my perfect blonde hair and ask who my hairdresser was, I’d laugh and tell them oh it’s a wig. I noticed people going red in the face and becoming embarrassed at the revelation.
As the years wore on, I became more secretive about my hairlessness. I avoided situations where my wig might be dislodged or I’d have to tell someone I was in fact wearing a wig.
Dating was difficult. Windy days are torturous; I remember fleeing a crowded nightclub in Queenstown because I was being pushed around and I was petrified my hair was going to end up among the feet of the drunken crowd. I held back from hugging people. Hugging people wearing a wig is a dangerous activity.
I panicked while holidaying in the Pacific islands, yet desperately wanted to swim in the warm, crystal blue oceans. I ended up spending $400 a night on accommodation at a resort where I had private beach access. I avoided playing sports, I shied away from any activity, place or situation where my true, bald self might be unexpectedly revealed.
All of this because I couldn’t fathom people’s perceptions of me being a bald woman, could ever be anything but negative or discriminatory.
I missed out.
"I missed out because it was easier for me to hide than to be vulnerable."
Every September it’s Alopecia awareness month. For the past 5-6 years I have chosen to pretend this month does not apply to me. This September however I have chosen to walk a different path.
Revealing my bald head to the world has been both liberating and unnerving. For the first time in half a decade I have been forced to begin to consider my life as a woman, heavily tattooed, with no hair, and the connotations this brings. Where this allows me to fit into society, where I stand within western beauty norms, stereotyping, judgement, and the conclusions others may draw about me if I walk through the streets in my authentic glory.
How do I look in the mirror and still see beauty when social media is full of women that don’t look like me. Having such a rare condition means I’m constantly explaining myself, and sometimes revealing things to people that I at times, hadn’t fully accepted about myself. It brought great shame.
But you know what, it’d be easier for people like me to use their voice to create awareness so others can feel the freedom that I have only just reclaimed.
So next time you see a bald woman and glare, consider this: it may be choice, it may also very well be from chemotherapy, and it may also be the fact that one day she woke up and her immune system declared civil war and she is brave and free and enjoying not dropping a couple of g’s at the hairdresser every year.
- Michelle Blackie