I recently read an article that describes alopecia as "a cruel disease that leaves men and women feeling ashamed" as a result of losing their hair. The article is about Helen King, a wife and mother of two who has alopecia universalis, which means she has lost all the hair on her body.
This happened to Helen after she had several bouts with alopecia areata, which is the loss of head and body hair in patches of varying sizes. Helen never developed alopecia totalis, the loss of all hair on just the head.
Further characterizing alopecia as "the disease with mentally hurtful repercussions that are misunderstood by almost everyone," the article reflects what seems to be most medical professionals' view of the psychological impact of alopecia.
However, alopecia is not a painful, physically debilitating, or life-threatening condition, though it is sometimes accompanied by irritation of the skin as well as minor complications resulting from the loss of eyelashes and eyebrows. Indeed, the main issue with alopecia is the way most people view hair loss, especially in women. It is not the condition itself, but taken-for-granted cultural assumptions that cause many alopecians intense emotional suffering and problems in their personal and professional lives.
A humanities professor who has alopecia areata betrayed some of those cultural assumptions when she wrote, "Alopecia challenges me to understand how my body can reject part of itself against my wishes. It taunts me to grow strong enough to accept myself regardless of the way I look. It makes me wish that I could reconcile my own body image with the intellectual notion that gender is a social construction."
One of the cultural assumptions behind the professor's statements is that each human being is constituted in such a manner that one's mind should be able to control one's body. Such mind-body dualism is not only tightly woven into the very fabric of Western cultural experiences; it has also inspired an ideology of self-control that necessitates interpreting the state of a person's body as a material sign of the person’s moral character and medical condition. Thus, many alopecians are driven to find a cure and socially acceptable ways of "coping" with their condition, not only because they do not want others to mistake them for social deviants or cancer patients, but also because they do not want to appear weak and defeated.
Female baldness, in particular, is often taken as a sure sign of illness, insanity, and illicitness, making it imperative for "real" women of integrity and strength to do everything within their power to keep "something on their heads," if not their natural hair.