For many women, hair is a significant facet of public and personal identity. From a young age, women are categorized socially by hair color and length, texture and style, reduced to features acquired genetically or at the price of a straightener or bottle of dye. The gendered imbalance of the importance of hair is evident in our language; referring to “the blonde over there” still conjures for most an image of a female-bodied person. In black culture, the phrase “good hair,”— described by Lauren Walker as a reference to to hair that is naturally wavy, not kinky—is mostly reserved for women. The existence of the term itself exemplifies the complicated politics of hair within different realms, often a confluence of gender, race, class, and power dynamics.
For these reasons, discussing female hair loss remains taboo despite women making up 40% of the 50 million Americans experiencing it. Academic research supports the idea that hair weighs more heavily on feminine identities. In her studies on the subject, Priya Dua defines “hair work” as
a technology of the self and/or the body wherein hair is a tool that women use to construct identity in everyday social interaction. These processes are located at the interstices of femininity, gender, normality, health, and beauty. Hair work is something that women are socialized into…hair loss is something that women need to be more concerned with than men.
In order to explore these ideas I spoke with a close friend about her own experiences with hair loss and identity. Michelle* is a 30-year-old nurse whose thinning hair has impacted her self-image in different ways over the last decade. “I feel like I was always aware of my hair being flat and fine,” she says, over drinks in Brooklyn. “It just wasn’t thick. In my early twenties, in the midst of nursing school I became more conscious of it. I’d start noticing that I could see my scalp in certain angles, or that I could see the ridge of my head through my hair.”
After doing research online and finding few options, she decided to see a doctor. She recalls that “he basically dismissed my claims and came off as incredibly insensitive. He was bald himself and made the joke that, ‘Hey it’s hard for men, too!’ I left just devastated thinking this was my fate, that this was happening and I couldn’t do anything.”
When asked what was most upsetting about noticing her hair thinning, she responds, “It’s just another part of the aging process that makes you feel like you’re losing yourself. This is the face I’ve looked at my whole life, this is the hair I’ve had, and it’s going away.” Hair is also a big part of her personal fashion. “It’s kind of your everyday, permanent persona. I wear a lot of black, I like my boots. My hair and shorter bangs are kind of goth, kind of edgy. It definitely influences my style.” Being a nurse means having to wear a uniform, and she finds that just having a slightly out of the ordinary hairstyle makes her stand out to her patients. “At work my hair draws attention – mostly because of my bangs which are kind of Betty Page-esque-and people comment and say it’s different.” She laughs, “People tell me every week that I look like the girl from NCIS.”
“This is the face I’ve looked at my whole life, this is the hair I’ve had, and it’s going away.”
The physical differences between male and female hair loss contribute to varying societal perceptions of the condition. NYU Langone Medical Center reports that for men the most common form of hair loss, androgenetic alopecia, can start anytime after puberty and the likelihood of going bald as a result is high. For women, the same condition typically begins later, and while it may cause hair to thin dramatically it rarely leads to baldness. Michelle says, “the way my doctor explained it to me that it’s like trees in a forest. You have the same amount of trees but instead of thick tree trunks they’re skinnier.”
Because of the pattern of female hair loss, dealing with thinning hair can be a performance steeped in disguise. Although most people likely wouldn’t notice that Michelle’s long dark hair is thinning when they meet her, she explains that the uncertainty of how noticeable it is leads to anxiety and precautionary behavior. “There’s certain ways I won’t wear my hair and certain things I don’t do which I think would draw attention to it. I’ll see pictures of myself and think how obvious it must be.”
In a time of changing norms, new pronouns, and fluid gender, experimenting with personal identity often begins with hair. However, the element of control is lost when it comes to naturally thinning hair. “I see women all the time who are bald or with super short hair who are beautiful. But most of time it’s a choice to have a short haircut, they have the right head shape and it’s a whole look,” Michelle notes.
Her concerns about her hair lead to issues of intimacy, even in non-romantic relationships. “I remember a few years ago I was goofing off with my friend,” Michelle recalls.“She was being funny and pretending to pick stuff out of my hair like a monkey and she goes, ‘Oh my god I can see your scalp!’ And she said it so innocently and she was genuinely surprised and didn’t mean anything by it but I jerked my head back and snapped at her and walked away. I was surprised by how much it affected me.” This fear of naming the issue is echoed in Dua’s studies, which found women often only bringing up the subject to “safe people,” indicating how far-reaching the taboo is.
“I’d like to think that I will be this badass woman who doesn’t care what anyone thinks but I do now, I care about how people see me.”
One of Michelle’s “safe people” was an ex-boyfriend, the first romantic partner she ever opened up to about her concerns. According to her it made it easier to talk to him because his hair was also thinning. “We were even able to joke about it. We broke up on good terms and during one of our final conversations it felt like there was closure and I said ‘Maybe one day down the road I’ll turn and see your bald head and you’ll turn and see mine,’ and we both laughed really hard.”
At this stage in her life Michelle feels more equipped to deal with her hair concerns. “Since it’s been over the course of many years I think more and more I’m coming to terms with it and treating it like any other aspect of my personal care.” But insecurities still crop up, particularly about the future. “I think about it because I’m not in a relationship right now and it makes me think about when I find someone that loves me, are they going to love me if I lose my hair? More importantly, I have to love myself, and this issue can impact that. I’d like to think that I will be this badass woman who doesn’t care what anyone thinks but I do now, I care about how people see me.”
*Michelle requested we not use her real name due to the sensitive nature of this interview