On Jan. 1, “Hairspray” star Ricki Lake posted a photo of herself with a closely shaven head on Instagram. In the caption, Lake explained she has been suffering from hair loss for 30 years, causing her “deep pain and trauma.” “There have been a few times where I have even felt suicidal over it,” she wrote.
Her vulnerability struck a chord with the public. The post garnered a flurry of media coverage and more than 70,000 likes.
It’s not often we see images of bald women in mainstream media. Female hair loss remains a taboo. But why?
Although cultural aesthetics do not idealize male baldness, there’s more of a widespread acceptance of men without hair. This gender bias is not only arbitrary, it’s damaging to the self-esteem of the estimated 30 million women in the U.S. affected by some form of hair loss. According to the Cleveland Clinic, a leading nonprofit medical research organization, 50% of U.S. women will confront hair loss at some point in their lives, whether due to pregnancy, birth control, thyroid function, chemotherapy, stress or autoimmune diseases like alopecia and lupus.
In her Instagram post, Lake wrote that her goal in coming forward was “to help others while at the same time unshackle myself from this quiet hell I have been living in.”
Two weeks after Lake’s reveal, Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) went public with a bald head to share her own experience of living with alopecia. In a video statement viewed more than 3 million times, Pressley said this is how she’s “showing up” to the world.
Are we seeing the beginning of an erosion of the stigma attached to female baldness? We spoke to women living with hair loss about the psychological and emotional struggles they face, and how they overcame feelings of alienation from losing their hair.
“Hair is such a large component of one’s identity, especially as a female, and even more so as an Indian female who is expected to have the type of hair others envy,” Supriya Surender, who writes at the blog Baldie Boo, told HuffPost. “Alopecia sent me into my worst days. It’s hard to explain what it feels like to look in the mirror and not recognize the face looking back. Men are lucky because it is socially acceptable to be a bald man. People don’t look twice when they see a bald man. For women, that societal acceptance is just not there yet.”
“When a bald woman is walking the streets, people stare,” she said. “They wonder if she is ill. You can’t just blend in as a bald woman.”
Inclusion and diversity have become part of the conversation about beauty in 2020. But many women still confront pressure to “blend in” ― in part because deviating from normative beauty standards can feel performative, like you’re trying to make a statement and call attention to yourself.
“Sometimes I look at actors in movies or even friends and co-workers, comparing how thick their hair is to mine, as if I’m hoping that it doesn’t look as bad as I think it is,” said Alexis, a woman experiencing hair loss. (Like other women HuffPost spoke to for this story, she asked that her full name not be used.) “Hair is such a part of who you are and how you look at beauty, so I’ve been doing everything I can to keep the hair I have.”
The desire to “blend in” can be strong. But for many, it takes effort ― and the pull to feel comfortable in your own skin, simply as you are, can be just as overwhelming. This only creates more stress for women losing their hair, as Alexis explained. “In my 20s, I went to a hair loss specialist who showed me what my hair would look like with a clip-on topper. Although my hair looked amazing, it didn’t feel like me. A wig or topper is too cumbersome.”
Emma, a copywriter and yoga teacher who blogs under the name Lady Alopecia, describes a similar feeling. “When my patches had grown too big to conceal, I started wearing thick headbands and later, a full wig,” she said. “I found this to be so uncomfortable, though, and I developed a lot of anxiety from the feeling that I was always hiding something. I didn’t feel like my true self.”
Wendy, a woman from Minneapolis, told HuffPost that “remedies for hair loss are dependent on budget, tolerance and patience.”
Perhaps the most popular “remedy” to living with hair loss has more to do with perspective than any salve, pill or accessory. Changing perspective, Alexis said, begins with an honest discussion. “If more women spoke up and demanded solutions,” she said, “there could be more progress toward equal care when it comes to hair loss. It may seem trivial, but hair has societal and cultural implications.”
What exactly are the cultural implications of hair loss for women? “Hair is connected to expressing so many types of identity, from gender, sexuality and racial, but can also indicate a modern or traditional identity,” said Veronica Davidov, an associate professor of anthropology at Monmouth University. “From a biological-anthropological point of view, healthy hair is a signifier of fertility. This can translate into cultural views on sexuality.”
Davidov noted there are several religions where women use hair as an indicator of marital status. “In conservative religious communities that enforce a strict dress code, where women are not supposed to wear makeup and that kind of vanity is not necessarily encouraged, hair can be decorated,” she said.
She pointed out that hair is interesting because “it’s part of your body, but it’s also an accessory.” Hair is both self and other, which is why it’s often perceived as having a mind of its own. Of course, it doesn’t really, even on your best hair days ― and your worst.
“Hair loss is what you make of it. You don’t have to lose your mind,” Wendy said. You do, however, have to be diligent about self-acceptance. Among women who have come to accept their baldness, a common thread is that they all found a way to move their inward dial toward a place of freedom from social standards about what’s considered beautiful. “It was this realization that we all have something going on, which led to me accepting my alopecia,” Emma said.
“Something about my perspective shifted,” Surender said. “So began my journey to healing and acceptance of this crazy disease. Within the next year I started a blog to share my bald girl adventures. I talk about the day I went to work without a wig for the first time, the number of times I’ve accidentally wiped off an eyebrow, the days where I want to cry and hide, the days where I accomplish things that I never imagined I could.”
It’s natural to mourn any type of loss, especially one so intimately tied to your body and public persona. But a more fluid understanding of beauty, one that defies a singular aesthetic, can prevent loss from becoming debilitating. Finding acceptance through an open dialogue about beauty is crucial to this end.
“I’ve been able to connect with a community of hair loss warriors,” Surender said, “and it’s given me a sense of peace.”
Read more about the complicated relationships we have with our hair at My Hair, My Story.