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.
Another cultural assumption embedded in the humanities professor’s comment is that there is an ideal body type. Many Westerners live under the tyranny of the “tight” body — an ageless, “fit,” and pulchritudinous treasure in earthen vessel. It is “forever young” and healthy and mirrors the kind of marketable sex appeal sanctioned by their society’s guardians of “good” looks. It is further presumed that the ideal body type for a “real” woman includes a head of “beautiful” hair. Such hair is thought to be “an indelible signifier of female beauty,” wrote Nichi Hodgson. “Except of course, when it is growing on any other part of the body, and then it becomes decidedly illicit.”
It is not uncommon, therefore, for apolecian women to lament their loss of their locks because they believe it makes them “look like a man.”
For men, on the hand, hair loss is a sign of status and sagacity, at best, and the natural aging process, at worst. That, of course, implies a third cultural assumption — that the anatomical and attitudinal differences between males and females are such that it is only proper for the “two sexes” to fulfill certain fixed roles and expectations.
“This complex of cultural processes,” writes marketing professors Craig J. Thompson and Elizabeth C. Hirschman, “can invest seemingly minor losses of self-control … with a high degree of symbolic importance. Second, they inspire a consumer orientation that tends to magnify the significance of physical changes and deviations from the culturally idealized body types.” No doubt, the multi-billion dollar medical, pharmaceutical, and cosmetic industries thrive and feast on such magnification of the medically mundane while gnawing away at the self-confidence of “patients.” In other words, many people with apolecia have the weight of the world on their shoulders because they have succumbed to cultural imposition of the unnecessary.
The social significance of hair as well as the dualistic metaphysics, relative standards of beauty, and shifting conceptions of gender roles used to render hair meaningful and almost magical are social constructions and not incontrovertible, immutable, and incorrigible realities. No one needs hair to be attractive, healthy, or whole. Neither does the presence or absence of hair determine the kind of person you are.
Just as members of society had the audacity to attribute mythical power and significance to human hair, alopecians must have the audacity to demythologize hair and thereby end their “hairmares.” As Sheila Jacobs declares in the introduction to her classic book titled The Big Fall: Living With Hair Loss, “It’s time to change a stigma into a distinction.”