After Javaria Akbar's hair started falling out in clumps, she decided to talk to other women with alopecia about how they lost their hair and grew it back again
There’s something unnerving about standing in the shower, looking at your feet and noticing that the water isn’t draining away because you’ve lost so much hair while applying your shampoo that the plughole has blocked up. Plunging out a soapy, matted hairball from the drain isn't fun and neither is realising that you can’t tie a ponytail anymore because you’ve developed two triangular-shaped bald patches on either side of your temples.
Chunks of my hair fell out after I had a baby, which is a common experience for many postpartum women. This occurs because higher oestrogen levels during pregnancy prolong the hair’s natural growth phase so it doesn’t fall out as it normally would. Once pregnancy is over and hormone levels go back to normal all the hair that should've been lost over the past nine months begins to fall out, sometimes distressingly all at once, like it did with me, instead of in manageable stages. It was alarming and upsetting seeing strands of hair come out in my hands. I felt uneasy and self-conscious when around lots of people. I looked different in the mirror and felt disconnected to the image of the woman staring back at me. I was simply all face. But the worst part was hearing the people I loved showing such deep concern as if I hadn’t lost hair but an actual limb.
Why did I, and everybody else, care so much? Because, as Phoebe Waller-Bridge told the hairdresser in Fleabag, “HAIR IS EVERYTHING”, especially in our beauty-obsessed society; women fork out an average of almost £50, 000 in their lifetime on hair maintenance, from cuts and colours to shampoos and styling products, as well as a further £23,000 on waxing or £6,500 on shaving.
This cultural fiction, that HAIR IS EVERYTHING, this bitter blend of falsity and fib dolled up as fact is the liquor we’ve all been sipping on since birth. And it’s this empty-calorie nothingness that makes women like me feel crap when our hair breaks the rules and goes AWOL. We’re all under the influence. This damaging mentality is doubly obvious in the South Asian culture I grew up in, where thick, long, silky-looking hair is the ultimate sign of beauty – it’s idolised and revered, the marker of youth and the ultimate beacon of female wellness.
I’ve grown up watching Indian actresses showcase impossibly long wavy tresses that have been blow-dried to perfection with giant hair brushes. I’ve seen countless Pakistani grandmothers massage oil into their grandchildren’s scalps to make their curls shine and been fed the lie from elderly relatives that repeatedly shaving a baby’s hair off makes it grow back thicker. In my culture, women with short hair are labelled as sassy and ‘too modern’; women with long hair that’s never been cut, treated or dyed are examples of fecundity, abundance and maidenhood.
But isn’t it odd that vitality, bounty and beauty is embodied in something dead? Isn’t it strange that we look for life in spiritless places?
"Creating awareness, talking about it openly helps"
For the past eight years, Catherine, 26, has intermittently experienced Alopecia Areata, an autoimmune disorder that causes small, round patches of baldness to appear on the scalp. After losing most of her hair on the top and back of her head, she now shaves it short and tells me she applies more make-up to “add beauty” to her face in addition to wearing wigs, bandanas and jewellery. "It's hard to find the exact words to describe how [alopecia] really cripples and hurts my heart, but how I’m also embracing it head on and carrying on with my life all at once," Catherine says. "I still fight my demons with my appearance and self-worth. I've had my tantrums but I’m also rising above it. Thankfully I have some great supportive friends - one even wore a ridiculous swimming cap with me to an outdoor water park when I had a break down because I couldn’t wear a peak cap and didn’t have enough hair to cover my patches. But she wore a cap with me so I didn’t feel alone.”
For Catherine, taking control of her hair loss took the form of raising awareness of her condition. She shaved her hair off for charity Alopecia UK and was featured in local papers. “Creating awareness, talking about it openly helps [me]. People have messaged me and told me that it’s inspiring how I have handled this all so well, how I’m taking it in my stride. I’m very open about the good and bad experiences.”
Natalie, 27, has a different story to tell after developing a hair pulling disorder called trichotillomania when she was just seven years old. She explains that she feels embarrassed and ashamed by her condition because “trich is self-inflicted” (sufferers feel an intense urge to pull out hairs from their scalp, eyebrows and eyelashes – the NHS describes one of its possible causes as a chemical imbalance in the brain, similar to OCD, and another as a type of self-harm that’s carried out to seek relief from emotional distress).
Natalie's compulsion to pull her hair resurfaced again in her early twenties after the breakdown of a long-term relationship and today she tends to pull out baby hairs at the front of her face and along her parting. On a few occasions, bald spots have appeared on her crown and bouts of stress and anxiety can make her urge to pull feel greater.
“I don’t really manage [my condition] that well, but I have asked close friends and family to tell me if they see me doing it – sometimes I am oblivious – and the self-awareness definitely helps to reduce the frequency and duration of hair pulling. I’m also a long time nail biter and joint clicker, and in the last few years have also started skin picking; all of these fall into the 'body-focused repetitive behaviours' category, along with hair pulling, so if I manage to stop [trich] then one of the others seems to increase in its place.”
"I read a quote that ‘someone’s opinion of you does not have to become your reality’ and it changed my life"
Maya tells me that she tried thickening shampoos, sprays, oils and even took medication from a trichologist to treat her mild alopecia in her twenties until something small triggered a change in her outlook. “I read a quote that ‘someone’s opinion of you does not have to become your reality’ and it changed my life not just with my emotions surrounding hair loss but also when it came to other challenging times where people expected me to behave in a certain way. It gave me the strength to become more comfortable and body confident when others tried desperately to erode it. I kept telling myself ‘this is your insecurity, not mine’.”
I eventually took control of my hair loss and got my hair cut shorter so I wouldn’t feel disheartened about long strands of it falling out in the shower. It has since started to reappear but the regrowth is very fine and soft, unlike the rest of my textured curly mop. And the truth is, that despite knowing that my hair doesn't make me who I am, I'm so very glad it's come back. Does my gladness make me a hypocrite?
I find it difficult not to absorb the negative background noise that surreptitiously invades our ears, the message that repeatedly echoes on a loop like a radio distress signal telling us that physical beauty is our most prized asset. It's a daily effort, marred with stops and starts, to remember it's not true. I’m still working on it but the one thing that always helps me feel better is to see the two reasons for my hair loss, my toddler son and daughter, hugging each other in the morning. I made a smart trade but I'll always be disillusioned with our cultural ideas of what beauty is, who defines it and who gets to be described as beautiful.
Attaching self-worth to the skin deep is not something I want to be a part of. There's no meaning in it, only judgement and imprisonment in a jail of 'ideals' that no one can live up to. The more I think about it, the more ridiculous it seems. It makes me want to tell every woman who feels lesser for experiencing hair loss that she is valued, she is important and she is beloved. I will start with me.
*For more information about alopecia, including details of how to find support, visit alopecia.org.uk.