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Chronic Illness

How I Learned To Stop Worrying, And Accept Being Bald

As a balding woman with PCOS, learning to let go of my hair was the first step towards having the hair of my dreams.

It was a posh salon, and I had no business being there. Because salons are for people with enough hair to do something with, and my sparse strands barely qualified.

Still, there I was, hoping a world-class haircut could give me some self-confidence.

I waited awkwardly on the low leather chairs, refusing offers of cucumber water and chamomile tea from spiky-haired men. Surrounded by mirrored walls, I felt uncomfortable, doing whatever I could to avoid catching a glimpse of myself.

Eventually, the stylist summoned me to her chair. She was blonde and eastern European, shaped like Barbie’s mother-in-law. Under her hyper-judgmental gaze, I sweated and squirmed.

“Hmm, I’ll see what I can do,” she said, doubtfully, as a woman a few yards away took a surreptitious photo of me with her phone.

That was four years ago. It was the last time I had a proper salon hair cut. Not that what I walked away with would make anyone’s style book.

Never Had Much Hair

As a woman with a complex of dysfunctional hormone symptoms called polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), I never had much hair.

At best, I had a normal amount, but the actual body of my hair was so fine that the most I could ever do with it was a skinny pony tail or flaccid 1980s perm. But after fertility treatments and pregnancy, even this meager supply of hair failed me. Now I was no longer thinning: I was balding.

Wear hair? That is an option?

After my humiliating salon experience, I turned to the the internet to see how other women with PCOS were handling hair loss. There, I discovered a whole community of women in their 20s, 30s, and 40s trading tips for how to conceal hair loss and “wear” hair.

Wear hair? That is an option?

The author, Anna Beyer, “wearing” her hair.

Learning To “Wear” Hair

Indeed, it was.

After feeling helpless since my 20s, I suddenly found myself exposed to an secretive subculture of other youngish women, all struggling with thinning or balding scalps. Navigating this hair loss dark web would teach me how to use fake hair, but to do so, I would have to get over my fear of exposure—of the fear that someone who had known me for years might suddenly point out my luxurious artificial locks.

My first fake hair arrived in the mail, long and blonde with dark roots that made it hard to blend with my natural tint. I unboxed it that afternoon with only my 2-year-old daughter watching. Seeing myself in the mirror with a full head of hair for the first time in 40 years, I felt ridiculous. But when he came home, my husband–though confused at first–was supportive, despite the fact that I endlessly badgered him with insecure questions about how I looked.

Still, the early results were promising. So I continued to turn to my members-only hair loss support group, learning more and more about the mysterious art of wearing fake hair.

There are two types of wig-wearers: the out and proud, and the totally undercover.

There are two types of wig-wearers: the out and proud, and the totally undercover. I chose to be open about my new look, which led to several conversations where friends claimed they couldn’t tell that my new hair was not real.

Even if the mean girl voice in my head said they were lying, I kept putting on my hair and playing the part, acting confident. In private, however, my husband endured a thousand questions. Did my hair look good? Did I look weird? Could people tell it was fake?

Unfortunately, I didn’t realize someone else was picking up on my obsession — my now three-year-old daughter

Taking A Step Back

One autumn afternoon, as I brushed my daughter’s long hair into a ponytail, I noticed some tiny, patchy spots.

At first, I couldn’t believe it. Am I just so obsessed with hair loss, I see it everywhere? But the same day, I found little hairballs in and around her bed.

She was pulling out her hair.

Worried I was infecting my daughter with my own anxieties, we met with a child therapist. Accompanied by my husband and feeling under-styled in her mid-century home office, I brought all of my guilt to that first visit, convinced that my own obsessions with hair had cursed my child with an incurable case of trichotillomania.

Deliberately not talking about hair made me realize just how obsessed I had become.

The therapist wouldn’t go that far, but she did agree: it wasn’t helping.

“No more talking about hair — hers or yours,” she said. “Make hair a non-issue.”

Deliberately not talking about hair made me realize just how obsessed I had become. To a certain extent, that was natural: after decades of self-consciousness and embarrassment, I’d finally found a way to appear ‘normal’. But in doing so, I’d imposed my own preoccupation

upon my daughter, teaching her by example to constantly judge her own standard of hair beauty.

For both of us, it was time to break the habit of making such a big deal about hair.

The author without her wig… and hair too is beautiful.

Pressing The Mute Button On Self-Consciousness

Even after I learned to press “Mute” on the hair talk in front of my daughter, the anxious dialogue lives on inside my head every time I leave my house wearing a wig.

“Are they staring? Is my tag showing? Was that compliment sincere?”

Yet eventually, I reached the level of a seasoned hair-wearer by saying “So what?” to these questions. I stopped caring if I was “passing”,  if daily shifts in my hairstyle made people uncomfortable. Instead, I embraced a new world view: I can literally have any hair I want.

By letting go of hair, I now have all the hair.

By letting go of hair, I now have all the hair.

I got my latest haircut under the light of the full moon, a time when we release what doesn’t support our growth. My husband wielded the clippers in our kitchen, and buzzed off the last of my thinning strands, leaving me with a buzzcut.

“That’s badass,” he said. “I did a really good job.”

My daughter, rubbing my fuzzy head, agreed. Whether my hair was thick or thin, long or short, real or fake… it was beautiful, all the same.

Chronic Illness Essays

The Man In The Makeup Aisle

It's hard being a young man with alopecia. Especially when you're trying to learn how to draw your eyebrows on.

People sometimes ask if I have cancer because I don’t have any hair, not even eyebrows.


Luckily, I don’t. Cancer is a life-threatening disease that everyone understands. Not alopecia universalis. It is merely a dull, chronic condition whose negative side effects are largely psychological.

For a long time, having alopecia made me feel different from “normal people,” and more vulnerable to their attacks and stings.

So I began drawing on eyebrows and eyelashes to look at least a little more normal.

My First Visit To The Cosmetics Section

Daniel Ulloa was born with alopecia universalis.

I started this just after graduating college at the age of 22. Every so often I would see that quizzical look or get asked a question I didn’t want to answer, like “are you in chemo?” I was sick of being perceived of as “weird looking,” and I personally hated hated how I looked without eyebrows or eyelashes.

I thought I looked unnatural without hair. So I headed to the makeup aisle to find me some.

It was stressful. There are just so many options in the women’s cosmetic section! The brand names meant nothing to me; the vague promises of their catchlines was just word salad to me. I got a bad case of decision fatigue just walking down the first aisle. I walked away the first time in defeat.

I thought I looked unnatural without hair. So I headed to the make-up aisle to find me some.

Finding guidance on what products to buy was difficult. I was embarrassed to ask people for help, thinking they would judge me a weirdo. I had no one to talk to, who also had alopecia and had tried the same thing.

Eventually, I ended up making my first stabs at an eyebrow after following some instruction videos online. That helped me with technique, but finding the right shade of makeup was difficult.When I tried a very dark shade, a couple of friends said it looked weird, especially with my light complexion.

Finally, I met a woman who recommended a shade that went well with my skin tone. I used it consistently for years.

Practice Makes Perfect

But even then, the process remained challenging. Sometimes, I would accidentally draw my eyebrows on too thick, like those of a cartoon character. There are some pictures from those days which look so ridiculous, I’ve scoured them from social media.

While I got better over time, I never got a great technique down. Sometimes, my eyebrows would look normal, while other times, I’d inadvertently draw them on crooked, making me look wonky. Eyelashes, though, were easier: for them, I’d just circle my inner eyelids with a pencil.

For years, this morning routine of putting on my eyebrows was incredibly stressful. The more I worried about how I would be perceived if my eyebrows didn’t look natural, the more likely I was to screw them up. When you’re trying to be on time in the morning, this is not what you want to be worrying about.

The more I worried about how I would be perceived if my eyebrows didn’t look natural, the more likely I was to screw them up.

Even in the best-case scenario, though, there were a lot of things that could go wrong to destroy my meticulously-arranged look. In the summer, when it was hot, my eyebrows would run: I’ll never forget the feeling of embarrassment I once felt when I looked in a mirror after a day out walking with friends and saw I’d completely wiped my eyebrows off.

But even when my makeup was applied perfectly, some people still didn’t like them. My parents were among them: they said I looked better and more natural without the makeup.

Daniel Ulloa with his eyebrows penciled on.

Ditching The Eyebrow Pencil

Eventually, I had my eyebrows tattooed on, in a process known as microblading. It wasn’t very painful and they look sufficiently real. I still outline my eyelids for the effect of lashes.

Your self-image can’t be defined by what other people think.

Once in a while, a few people say something but I shrug it off. I’ve gotten better at that, but it took a long time to learn.

Because if there’s one thing that years of drawing on my eyebrows every morning taught me, it’s that your self-image can’t be defined by what other people think. When it comes to self-esteem, the most meaningful things you do, you do for yourself.

Chronic Illness Features Instagram Profiles

Bald Is Beautiful

In a society which equates health and attractiveness with hair, these three alopecia crusaders are proving that baldness can't stop anyone from living a happy life.

The summer after fistfuls of Rosie Quinn’s brown locks started falling out onto her princess pillowcase, she went to the park with her parents. Her mother, Paula Quinn, left Rosie’s pink Chicago Cubs baseball cap at home. It was a turning point.

When Rosie was first diagnosed with alopecia universalis—an autoimmune disease in which the immune system attacks hair follicles—at age 3, Paula and her husband, Larry, scrambled to find a cure. They wanted to bring her hair back. They read medical journals, scoured the Internet for a solution, tried creams, steroids, herbal medicines and special diets. In their Chicago home, Paula scrutinized Rosie’s scalp daily with her iPhone flashlight for signs that a hair was starting to push through; it never did.

One day early on, Rosie, now 7, came up to Paula. “Mommy, don’t worry, it’s just hair, it’s just falling out,” she said. “And I said, ‘you’re right,’” Paula said.

“Mommy, don’t worry, it’s just hair, it’s just falling out,” she said. “And I said, ‘you’re right.”

Soon after, Paula and Larry sat down one night after Rosie and her younger sister went to bed. They decided to pivot to what they could control, building Rosie’s confidence, and to stop covering up her hair loss. It was a path they called “no secret, no shame.”

“We shifted to raising a little girl who loves herself unconditionally,” Paula said. Leaving the pink hat behind was a first step. “Rosie ran to slide, bald, oblivious to the significance of the day,” said Paula.

What Happens When You Have Alopecia

Like many others living with alopecia—there are several types, and those with alopecia universalis lose the hair on their head plus their face and the rest of the body—Rosie and her parents have had to come to terms with society’s perception of having no hair. Healthy locks have long been tied to health, youth, and even one’s sexual identity. For those with alopecia, moving past these perceptions can be a challenge.

At 3 years old, Rosie would get sympathetic smiles at the grocery store. Kids pointed fingers, parents shushed them. “Don’t stare,” they said. The worst was when people assumed she was a boy. After “Hey little guy, how are you today?” or “Good scootering buddy!” Rosie ended up in tears. The Quinns started encouraging her to wave to curious onlookers and introduce herself to make the encounters less awkward.

“My hair’s on vacation,” she’d say. In Starbucks, she marched up to bald men and told them, “Did you know you’re bald like me? We’re twins.”

“Her confidence caught people off guard,” Paula said, “and got her smiles wherever we went.”

Rosie Quinn and her mother Paula.

The Quinns started spending more time with friends that loved Rosie and focused on activities she enjoyed—and was good at—like painting. Then, one day the Quinns surprised Rosie by turning one of her paintings into a headscarf she could use on days she just didn’t want to hear people comment about her head. Wearing the scarf shifted the conversation to Rosie’s art and her skills instead of her baldness.

Rosie wanted all bald kids to have that same experience. She urged her mom to help. Soon after, Paula left her job at Google to start a non-profit, Coming Up Rosie’s. It produces headscarves and superhero capes from original artwork for people struggling with baldness and any other difference.

“We’re using this difference to help other people, which has helped Rosie’s confidence,” Paula said. So much so that at a recent alopecia conference, Rosie spoke before an audience of several hundred attendees.

What Is Alopecia

For Ebony Jean, 27, of Jackson, Michigan, her turning point came on social media.

Jean found out she had alopecia universalis when she was 4 and her hair started coming out in clumps. To cover up her bald spots, her mother sewed her hats that matched her outfits. “I remember being on the school bus, and I was sitting by myself,” Jean said. A couple of boys behind her yelled “Snatch her hat off” and they tossed it back and forth the whole way home. “It was heartbreaking,” she said. “I was just crying my eyes out.”

At 9, she lost almost all her hair. Her mom shaved her head and started making her headband wigs. “It was therapeutic for her,” Jean said. “She couldn’t make my pain go away, but she did what she could.” Jean wore wigs into her teens and twenties.

 

If Grace Jones had alopecia, she’d be Ebony Jean.

She started talking publicly about her condition two years ago at The National Alopecia Areata Foundation’s annual conference. She posed bald in a powerful stance and shirt printed with “What is Alopecia” and posted the picture of herself on Instagram and Facebook. The next day, her Facebook post had almost 1,000 likes and 60 shares.

“I was so overwhelmed with all the love and support people showed me,” she said. “I’m so grateful for that picture. That moment of releasing myself.”

Subsequent notes of support from strangers with alopecia from across the globe emboldened Jean to venture outside without a wig. NBA veteran Charlie Villanueva, who also has alopecia, reposted her picture on his social media. Since then, Jean has received dozens of photos from people with alopecia who said her confidence inspired them to go without a wig.

“People respect you more if you’re vocal about what you’re dealing with,” Jean said. “A lot of people told me, ‘I absolutely love you without the wig. I want my freedom to inspire other bodies to be free.”

Since then, Jean ventures out more without a wig, but still wears one to work, at Sephora. “I’m just not ready to go work without a wig,” she said.

Men Get Alopecia Too

Tyrone Folliard-Olson, left, came down with alopecia arata when he was just 14.

Tyrone Folliard-Olson, 34, an attorney in Minnesota, struggled for years to get his hair back. One treatment included getting 100 steroid injections in his scalp.

He was diagnosed with alopecia areata when he was 14 and his barber noticed a bald spot. For Folliard-Olson, keeping a sense of humor about his condition, finally shaving his patchy head, and ceasing scalp treatments, liberated him.

“I always said I was one of the youngest people I know to have a comb over,” he said.

Folliard-Olson was lucky not to have been bullied in school. In his early twenties in law school, he wore hats to class, often drawing looks. “It was awkward,” he said. Finally, he decided to shave his head. But it wasn’t an easy decision.

“Society places so much emphasis on hair as it relates to beauty and attractiveness,” he said, “and hair gets so intertwined with our self-confidence and our notions of self-worth. For me to imagine myself as bald was an incredibly difficult thing to do.”

“Society places so much emphasis on hair as it relates to beauty and attractiveness, and hair gets so intertwined with our self-confidence and our notions of self-worth.”

Cutting his hair off, however, felt like cutting away the negative emotions intertwined with it, he said, the worry, the anger, the feelings of unattractiveness and helplessness. “Once it was shaved, it felt like a massive weight was lifted off my shoulders,” he said.

A few years later, Folliard-Olson’s eyebrows and eyelashes started falling out. “That was even more devastating,” he said. “You don’t realize how much eyebrows frame your face until you lose them. It shatters your self-confidence. It was a dark time for sure.”

He decided to pursue treatment for his eyebrows—getting monthly shots—but leave his head alone.

Baldness Can’t Stop You

Rosie Quinn isn’t going to let alopecia stand in the way of growing up to be anything she wants to be.

When Paula Quinn asks Rosie what she wants to be when she grows up, she says a supreme court judge. Rosie has asked Paula if there could ever be a law keeping bald people from being a judge. “I tell her, ‘no honey, your baldness will never stop you from doing anything.’ But look at our society,” Paula said, “it’s hard.”

Plenty of women with alopecia work as lawyers, Paula said, but in the courtroom, most wear a wig. “Rosie’s going to go through times,” she said. “She might want to wear a wig one day. We’re letting her drive this. In our world, there is this emphasis on external beauty, but we’re really trying to sell this inner beauty thing.”