America’s Hair Is Falling Out

 

 

If not all of America’s, mine at least. It fell out once before. Lots of it at once, I mean. Hanks.

I wrote it off to turning fifty; my mother used to talk about “evil hormones” and I was beginning to understand her theology. But then my hair grew back.

When you are healed of some distress, you become at once invulnerable and wary. Without consciously thinking this, I was somehow sure that it would never happen again.

Yet when it did, I was not in the least bit surprised.

Distress forms a groove, and the second time, you find that rut more easily, your brain summoning the same pained emotions (ugly pink scalp! Shiny bald head!) with less energy and less drama. “Going bald again,” I inform my husband. He shrugs and says, “We’ll be bald together.”

The first time, his nonchalance enraged me. How could he trivialize my hysteria?

This time, I was grateful.

And this time, I passed up the temptation of remedies. A gentler shampoo, okay. But pricey medicines that make more hair fall out as soon as you stop taking them? That is a devil’s bargain. As for the many “natural” cures, the placebo effect is powerful, and so is time, and when time heals, it is easy for charlatans to take credit. Whoever decided a well-fed woman lacks biotin? “Severe biotin deficiency in healthy individuals eating a normal mixed diet has never been reported,” according to the National Institutes of Health. Few of us even run low. All those biotin capsules, gummies, liquids, creams, and shampoos are supplementing is a deficiency of hope.

As it turns out, that was in fact the cause of my trouble: a deficiency of hope. After weeks of reassuring concerned friends that I was not under any unusual stress, I came upon an article in The Atlantic titled “The Year America’s Hair Fell Out.” Then one in The New York Times, reporting that Google searches for hair loss were up—not just from people who lost their hair with COVID, but also from the rest of us, maddened by public idiocy or grieving or just scared.

Peer pressure can work the right way, too. Suddenly it felt okay to admit that I was probably a little extra stressed too. Burning planet, imminent civil war, violent storms, people dying all around me . . .  I had ignored all that, because these are not causes listed in the medical fact sheets. We are trained to think of surgery, childbirth, and serious illness as the conventional shocks to the system.

I would like to nominate current events to the list.

Still, it is a puzzle. Why would we lose strands of protein that, if folklore holds, can continue growing in a coffin? The condition is called telogen effluvium. Such a pretty phrase. It means that stress shoves the roots of your hair into a resting state: Everybody down! Blood supply is cut off. Silence descends.

A few months later, the hair that has been deprived of nourishment and hanging on as a thread . . . lets go. Gravity, a hairbrush, a sideswipe from a tight turtleneck—it takes nothing at all to sever its tenuous placement atop the head.

Telogen effluvium lasts about a hundred days, which—I did a quick count—is roughly how long it took before I could no longer take a section of hair in my fingertips, slide down, and find enough hair loose in my palm to braid a Victorian brooch.

I was relieved. Because even though I have just sworn to you that this second round bothered me less than the first, even though I have thin straight fine gray hair that is hardly worth keeping, the loss still panicked me, for reasons both primal and societal. I even researched wigs, brightly informing my best friend that they made really good ones now, with a lacy weave and real human hair from—oh God, where was it from? Corpses? Better not to think about it. Women who went into the convent, maybe, or Buddhist nuns before they shaved their heads. Why are holy women so regularly shorn or shaved?

I know that answer; we all do. Hair is supposed to be a woman’s glory. Read: her sexuality. In Biblical times, a woman’s long hair was a sign of righteousness before God, but somehow that got twisted—as did just about everything about women and sexuality.

We lose our hair (and supposedly, our libido) with age, so that was my first suspect. I stood in front of the mirror, my wet hair combed and parting itself all over the place, lines of pink parceling out my head as though platting it for a subdivision. So we are here, now, I thought. We have arrived, the body and I, at that place I gazed upon with such sympathy when I saw right through older women’s airy perms to their naked, vulnerable scalps. Born as bald as a cue ball, I was now heading back.

As I thought these glum thoughts—I, who had vowed to embrace age with grace—my hair dried, and now I looked like one of those nervous birds that pluck out their feathers, leaving bare patches. Why not pluck out the rest and just go bald? More solar energy would penetrate. I would feel tough, which might be fun. Then I realized, with genuine dismay, that it would not suit my wardrobe. I could never afford to replace all those silk skirts and fuzzy sweaters with black leather. Besides, with the luminous exception of Sir Patrick Stewart, it always seems to be the villains who are bald. Lex Luthor. Lord Voldemort. Mr. Burns.

So I hatched happy plans of a bolder new personality as a redhead, maybe with some Charlie’s Angels feathers. Or with snow-white hair a foot long.

My friend’s only response was a reminder that wigs could be hot. She meant sweaty hot. “I am trying,” I reminded her through clenched teeth.

By the time I braved the trip, the wig shop (shoppe, actually) was closed. Reduced hours, because of COVID. And because of COVID, they will soon need expanded hours. And I will need therapy. No more can I be Rapunzel, allowing a prince to climb my locks. Or unlock them. I will dry no one’s perfumed feet with my soft hair. (Unless I make a little mat of the stuff that had already fallen out.) Never mind that my hair was already too short to climb or mop up water. Chopping off one’s hair is meant to be a grand gesture: A dramatic gift to cancer survivors. A noble martyrdom for money, like Jo’s in Little Women. A rebellion against the charms expected of a young woman, or an attempt to flee danger, cross-dressed. But just losing it? The phrase means going crazy for a reason.

Have you noticed the regression? I am right back there again, mired in the first-time angst, having learned nothing at all. I sit myself down with “On His Baldness,” by the Tang dynasty poet Po Chü-i. He, too, felt dismay at first: “At dawn I sighed to see my hairs fall/at dusk I sighed to see my hairs fall/for I dreaded the time when the last lock should go. . . . ” But that ellipsis buys him time, and when we next hear him speak, he has found an upside: “They are all gone and I do not mind at all!/I have done with that cumbrous washing and getting dry;/My tiresome comb for ever is laid aside.”

He is cooler, freer. He trickles a ladle full of cool water on his bald head, baptism into a new simplicity. By shaving his head, he has freed his heart.

Christianity is confused on the subject. Though monks shave all but a tonsure, the Old Testament God warns Moses that men “shall not make baldness upon their heads,” and in Ezekiel, a sure sign of God’s wrath is that “shame is on all faces, and baldness on all their heads.”

Well, which is it to be? Holy or ashamed?

That, I will have to decide for myself.

 

Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.

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