Relief, Dysphoria & Everything In Between: 5 Trans People Share Their Hair Stories

This piece is from our series, Hair Story. We interview an array of people from different walks of life to discover what their hair means to them. From photographing non-binary individuals who challenge society's norms by wearing their hair in bright colours, to investigating the 'dumb blonde' stereotype, this series explores the intrinsic link between hair and identity.
Some say that a person's crowning glory is their hair. It is often the first thing that people pass comment on, but it's also much more than what's on the surface. In many societies, hair plays a more significant role, with certain styles, lengths and colours denoting everything from gender to status. And for some trans folk, hair can be a confidence boost or a marker of new identity just as much as it can be a deep-seated reason for anxiety, fear and dysphoria.
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This is something I myself can vouch for. For the past 30 or so years, I have maintained exactly the same cut, colour and hairdresser, who has seen me from boy to woman (and supported me through those awkward transition years when I believed that I looked like Kate Moss at Glastonbury). 2018 was supposed to be the year of my great 'hair reveal' – the year in which I would allow the 'new' me to come forth and be seen. I had a book deal, some money in the bank and a growing sense that, for a trans woman in her middle years living with HIV, I'd done alright.
I wanted to cut my hair, lose the flicks and the feathery outlines and allow my natural light grey hue to grow through short and strong. I started the process, and as we all do, I courted opinion from those around me who I knew had my best interests at heart. But nearly everyone I talked to about my new look warned me against it. "You'll look hard." "Your hair looks lovely as it is." The point they were making was simple. They didn't mean to be horrible. Quite the opposite. But they were talking to me through my trans-ness, and being trans meant that I should try to retain or create as much femininity as possible to 'soften my edges' and 'feminise' my face. It played deeply into feelings of dysphoria which still circle, years on from transitioning.
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But if writing this story has taught me anything, it's that I'm not alone. For many trans people, the relationship they have with their hair is fraught with the different natural processes of hair loss, which can add to feelings of stress, anxiety and depression as they strive to express their personal and gendered identities, as well as hair gain, discovering how wigs, cuts and routines can shape a new identity.
Ahead, I talked to five trans people about their feelings and experiences. Here are their unfiltered stories.
1 of 5
Kate, 48

I do have fears around being attacked and having my wig removed.

My hair has always been important to me in terms of expressing my identity and image. It has changed so much over my lifetime. As a child, I had such blonde hair in what you might now call a gender-neutral pudding bowl haircut, which all the kids in the '70s seemed to have. I had pretty short hair in my mid teens as an army cadet. Then I started to grow it, partly as a rebellious act and partly because it felt like a connection to my true gender without being out to the world.

Early on in my transition, the way my hair looked was one of the most significant things to me. Thanks to testosterone, my hair started to thin in my late 20s. At the time, it really got me down and it also made me think that I might never transition. Back then, I was so hung up on the concept of 'passing' and I thought that I couldn't be authentic if my hair wasn't real – or at least looked real.

That completely changed when I discovered the bright red wigs. They looked beautiful, but I realised that I would stand out from the crowd in a big way. I just decided that I had to own that and not be scared about it. It actually gave me a huge confidence boost. My red wigs don't define my gender, they are just a part of how I project myself to the world.

I do have fears around being attacked and having my wig removed, though. I have nightmares about that. My wig is always attached to my own hair with a handful of bobby pins to ease my anxiety around it coming off. I don't worry about people realising it's a wig, but I don't feel confident about showing people my head without my wig unless they are close friends. I have to be honest – it's a major source of anxiety. I have thought about other possibilities I could manage with something that would just cover my receding hairline, but I really do love my hair pieces.
2 of 5
Carla*, 43

I worry about what I'll do when I retire. I spend around £1,000 a year.

My hair is instrumental to me. In fact, it is the most important aspect in expressing my femininity and womanhood. I would say that it is even more important than the gender affirmation surgery I had. This is because it is part of the image I project to the world every day. I feel that in a physical sense, my hair frames my face and softens my features. Styling, colour, cuts are all an expression of my femininity and individual style. I'm feminine and I want to express that.

It's not necessarily about having long, luscious, blonde locks, but having the freedom to wear my hair as I choose to. Sometimes that can be androgynous. I want to get to a place emotionally where the prospect of being bald doesn't affect my self-esteem. I had a receding hairline when I socially transitioned, so I've always felt like I had to find a solution, and I have a pretty much perfect one considering current technology. My 'unit', as it is called in the profession, is undetectable in person – it really is!

I can't talk to the people around me about my hair. Occasionally friends will tell me how beautiful my hair is, but I never let on it's not all mine. In the early days I bought ill-fitting, hot, synthetic hair pieces which were so impractical and didn't last because I didn't know where to go for the right product. They were removable but taking a wig off at night just brought me more dysphoria.

I worry that it will become hard to afford, particularly as they are imported from the United States and made to measure. I worry about what I'll do when I retire. I spend around £1,000 a year on the unit, and then £500 on top for re-fusions and styling a year. I would love to be confident as a bald trans woman. But I'm just not.

*Name has been changed
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3 of 5
Kate, 54

I nearly didn't transition as I felt I would struggle passing with my thinning hair.

I feel like my hair is my trans moment, a symbol of what trans can be: it is visible, vibrant and fabulous.

In my 30s I started to develop male pattern baldness, so had a crew cut which was in vogue back then, luckily. I didn't like it, but I felt like my only option was a masculine style. Transitioning in 2003 was all about passing and living in stealth. There was not a huge queer trans scene that I knew about. I nearly didn't transition as I felt I would struggle passing with my thinning hair and male pattern baldness, and back then, wigs were frumpy.

I was only 38 when I took finasteride, which is a treatment for an enlarged prostate, but one side effect is to aid hair growth. It really helped me and I grew back enough hair to let it grow longer. I had it bleached, put on a pink cardigan and hoped for the best. Just before I started to live full-time as a woman, I had the worst haircut ever. My hairdresser cut in a really short fringe and started to use a razor to trim the back of my hair. I remember grabbing the razor off him because he was cutting my hair as if I were a man. Of course, I smiled, left a tip and cried for the next two days but I felt incredibly dysphoric. As a result I didn't get my hair cut for almost a year. Eventually a friend dragged me into a hairdresser and said, "Please do something with her hair!" They were amazing and I've been going to the same hairdresser ever since.

I have had every haircut going: lowlights, highlights, fringes, long, short and graduated bobs. I've been blonde, red and black, most of which was to please my then cis, straight boyfriend who liked long dark hair. When we split up, I went to a very expensive new colourist and asked them to take my long brown cis hair back to a fabulous chic grey – everything my ex would have hated. It took a few goes, and to help it along, they cut it much shorter which actually made me feel more femme, more queer and even younger. Since then, my short grey hair has been tinted lilac and then turquoise, and it has remained this colour ever since. I now feel like the queer trans person I always was underneath.
4 of 5
Charlotte, 26

I feel like I missed out on my mum styling my hair as a child and a lot of the styling practice that young girls get.

Early in my transition, I wore a wig but I found it really restrictive so I stopped, but I really struggled to express my gender identity without long hair. I found that as I grew my hair, it allowed my pass to be consistent.

I think my hair is just as important to my appearance now as it was earlier in transition, but it takes less work! When it was short, I had to have it styled into a pixie cut (or as close as I could manage), and then when it was long enough I had it cut into a bob. Both of these styles require a lot of management. Now my hair is shoulder length, I can get away with brushing it through and pulling it into a ponytail. I struggle to put my hair into any kind of style other than this. I feel like I missed out on my mum styling my hair as a child and missed out on a lot of the styling practice that young girls get. I'm desperately trying to learn to style plaits, which have eluded me so far.

Looking into the future, I'm worried that my hair will thin and I will stop passing so well. I have a tall forehead, one of my facial features that causes me dysphoria, so I have to have a fringe. Sometimes, I think I'd quite like to go without it, but I don't think I'd pass half as well. I also have balayage to lighten my hair. Luckily I only need it lightened a couple of times a year, but when I'm having it done it often means spending most of the day in the salon. As you can imagine, this can be really expensive but stepping out of the house with my hair looking nice is such a great feeling.
5 of 5
Fox

Since starting my medical transition, I've started to notice hair falling out.

My hair was always my strength. Pre-transition, it was something I could change to make myself feel a bit better. Before taking testosterone, which I started seven years ago, I had really thick hair, the kind of hair that looked really awesome when wet and slicked back. Since starting my medical transition, I've started to notice hair falling out. At first, I had convinced myself it was just my hairline adjusting to a more male one. A few years ago, at my own birthday party, a very honest friend told me that I was heavily thinning. It was the first time someone else had commented on my hair and I felt awful.

Having a rather small head, I feel like my hair is important to me and to my confidence. Also, I feel like I’m making up for 'lost years' because I transitioned in my 20s. I'm not ready to lose my hair. Not at all, and the hair thinning has really affected my confidence. I now have to style my hair in a different way. I can no longer just slick it back.

A few years ago, I looked into alternative treatments. When I’m learning about a topic, I will study it intensively. I knew I wanted to find a cure, not just a treatment. A number of pre-testosterone trans guys were reporting fantastic growth with the use of minoxidil, like Regaine, but I was wary of it due to the long list of side effects. I felt like there must be a better solution. The Serioxyl range of shampoo, conditioner and mousse has no side effects, and is relatively cheap. I also discovered the natural benefits of biotin and have been taking a pill each day with other vitamins for the past year and a half.

While I will probably never have the thick locks I used to, I'm maintaining the hair I have left. I now have a more masculine appearance, which makes me feel so much better in my own skin. Being trans is all about compromise. For me, taking testosterone has been a lifesaving move, despite losing some hair on my head – and growing some on my back and bum!
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