I’ve been in the bathroom for over half an hour, pinning, tying, brushing, curling and straightening my limp, chin-length hair, trying to sculpt something normal out of a patchy dry-shampooed mess. I glance at my phone; there’s no time to fix the unfixable. I only have 10 more minutes before I need to leave for work and, defeated by the process of backcombing, hair spraying, and grimacing at myself, I’ve given up on conquering this bad hair day. My easily knotted ends and my flat, balding crown are decidedly shittier than usual, so I run into my bedroom, throw on a cap and leave the house, smudging angry tears on my puffy cheeks.
There is a painful predisposition to bad hair days and I’ve had it for over ten years. It’s called androgenetic alopecia, also known as female pattern hair loss (FPHL), and it is the most common form of hair loss among women around the world. Almost half of all adults will experience hair loss by the age of 50, with slow, progressive signs of thinning all over the scalp. For most people, it is distressing, embarrassing and shameful. When hair is the ultimate definer of exterior beauty, sensuality and health for women, losing it feels like you’re losing yourself too.
I was in my second year of high school, around 13 years old, when I experienced shedding for the first time. Shedding is normal in the regular cycle of hair growth, with roughly 50 to 100 hairs falling out every day to make room for new hairs. But day by day, I was noticing more shedding than growth. Long, thin strands blocked the shower drain, and my middle part widened like a thick, pale stripe in the centre of my head. Within 12 months, my once long, silky brown hair turned into short baby fluff with noticeable patches of scalp peeking through.
Ever since then, I’ve had to learn to cope when almost every day is a bad hair day. Almost every day I stare at my reflection in the bathroom mirror and wonder how I’m going to face the world looking like this. The life of a balding young woman is a damning existence, because humiliation is always within reach. I never know when the wind is going to dismantle a perfectly quaffed ‘do that I spent an hour labouring over, or, god forbid, a curious acquaintance wants to run their fingers through my waif locks and make an unsolicited comment about how thin my hair is.
For a long time, I’ve kept this part of my life a secret, too afraid to surrender to well-meaning comments that are so backhanded they feel like a slap. I’m petrified of what kind of attention the word “alopecia” can bring. For the sake of my wellbeing and fear of not being looked in my eyes but at my head instead, I lock that word away under a cap or something that can hide this small but huge thing that I can’t control.
There is no go-to thinning hair method. This is not something a hair, skin and nails supplement can solve. I’ve dressed the delicate skin on my head with tonics, oils, lubricants and mousses all in the name of growing it back. You name it, I’ve tried it and to no avail. The private hell of mourning your transformed appearance is a spiral of insecurity that I have nosedived into again and again. But facing the world is inevitable, even on my worst hair days.
So I guess the only way to untangle yourself from the bitter self-loathing that comes with bad hair days, is to grow what’s inside the skull instead.
In the last couple of months, I’ve experienced another bout of shedding. Strands of hair snake into my hand as I coax shampoo through my roots in the shower. I put them on the glass door to remind myself to chuck them out after. I cannot explain the kind of defeat that shrinks your confidence when you realise your hair is just not growing anymore. So I guess the only way to untangle yourself from the bitter self-loathing that comes with bad hair days, is to grow what’s inside the skull instead.
Despite grieving this lost cause, I have found power in sharing my experience and listening to others who have experienced loss in their own ways. If you type “female hair loss” into a search engine, you will find a myriad of experiences from people like me, and maybe people like you, too. There are social media accounts dedicated to how to look hot in a wig or a topper, and there are online communities brimming with posts from people of different age groups. They ask about professional help, share their wig tips and their stories of how they’ve defied the beauty standards we are all trying to kick out of our psyche.
For now, I think finding a good outlet for self-expression is important. I haven’t been to a hairdresser since I was 19, so I chop my fringe with Priceline scissors and invest in clothes that show more of my personality than a ponytail ever could. I have a cat who nudges her nose into my eyelids after I’ve cried, licking my tears like jelly meat, and I have a playlist for every mood swing. I write to free the fears and frustration, and when the panic rises, I let someone listen. For everything a nice outfit, a small cat or Angel Olsen album can’t solve for, I still have thoughts that I can transcribe in a notebook and a friend that is only a phone call away.
For failing to meet the societal affliction of beauty standards, I am not alone. I could try to tell you that I don’t care about what I look like, but sometimes I really do. How do I accept this point of difference, when I feel like an outsider in a room full of nice hair? I let it teach me perspective, because at the end of a bad hair day, under whatever I’ve topped on my head, is still me. Not everyone is going to understand and that’s ok. What matters is that I don’t hold myself back anymore, even when I spiral.
I’m not going to feel good on all of my bad hair days, but leaving the house anyway is at least something to be proud of, and maybe one day the weight of it all will become a bit lighter.