At my family home, a small, round mirror is placed in front of me as I sit at the dining table. The warm afternoon sunlight streams in through a window, spotlighting the excited faces of my huddled family. Behind me a woman I met only a few moments ago fiddles around in a suitcase trying to decide what I should look like. My appearance is out of my control now. I’m terrified. She places a soft bamboo cap on the crown of my head. With my two index fingers I hold the wiry meshing of a wig on what was once my hairline and pull the blonde strands over my scalp. I stare at this oh-so-familiar version of me in the mirror. I am in awe. It is identical to how my hair used to look and I can’t help but smile. Then my smile gives way to tears. I begin to sob, low and hollow.
“Get it together,” my aunty snaps, but with a hint of laughter in her deep voice. She’s used to seeing me cry. She wipes at her own cheek and turns away from me, my hair, and the mirror. The rest of my family do the same, one by one.
The person in the mirror is me 12 months ago. I stare at the strands of hair that fall down across my jawline and feel the fullness as I tuck the wig behind my ears. The hair feels so natural but so foreign, because it’s not really mine. I feel every painful second of the past year bubble to the surface again, reminding me of what I no longer have.
It took me a long time after I lost my hair to try on a wig. I was afraid that wearing one would be hiding who I really was now, as if I were ashamed by my condition rather than being true to myself and what I stood up for: to increase awareness about alopecia. To make it “normal” to be bald.
I began to lose my hair a few months after my 23rd birthday. It was April. I was curling my hair to go to the races when I found a small bald patch on the back of my head, around the size of a 10-cent coin. I was happy, I was healthy, and then suddenly I had a bald spot. What was going on? I spent the entire day trying to resist running my finger over the smooth spot.
After the fourth patch appeared in early August, I booked in to see my GP and he confirmed what I’d already self-diagnosed. I had alopecia. I was given a referral for an “urgent” appointment with a dermatologist, but when I called to book, the phone shaking in my hand, I was advised that I would have to wait nine weeks for a consultation.
Exactly a month later, my thick blonde curls were falling out in chunks. The stress was like nothing I had ever experienced before. I would brush my hair and there’d be three new patches. After every shower, I’d have to clean my drain, blocked by all the hair I’d lost in that 15 minutes. My hair was on the floor, in my sheets. It began to feel like it was everywhere except my head, where it belonged. In just one week I’d lost half the hair on my head, and it was soul-destroying. Still weeks out from the appointment I thought would present a magic solution, I decided to shave what little hair was remaining. It has never come back. I was trying to take control of the situation.
Eventually, I was given a treatment plan. First it was steroid injections, then immunotherapy. But every time I went in to begin the treatment, I was told my condition had progressed too far for it to be a viable option. I felt defeated, and no doctor could deny it.
Alopecia comes in many different forms, and of course, varying degrees. Essentially your immune system decides one day that it doesn’t like your hair anymore, so it starts attacking it, similar to how it would attack a virus. There’s alopecia areata, which sees a patient lose little round spots of hair; alopecia totalis, which is the loss of all of your hair on your head; and then alopecia universalis, which means there is no hair anywhere on the body. I have universalis. My eyebrows and eyelashes were the last to go and the hardest to say goodbye to.
It was after I’d lost everything that I began on immunosuppressants, which are medications that actively weaken your immune system. The aim of the game is to find the right balance between lowering your immune response enough to stop attacking you, but not so much that you’re constantly sick. It didn’t work: I was horrendously sick and for no gain. I was at war with my body, again.
My hair was at the core of my identity, and when it was gone I was forced to look at myself under the microscope to figure out just who exactly I was and what I stood for. I was exposed to the world and it scared the hell out me. There are so many things we associate with hair. Soft curls? Feminine, of course. A sharp bob? Professional. A pixie cut? Edgy. And if you have no hair? You look sick. You look strange. You’re different. It is hard for me to know that the first thing that pops into someone’s mind when they see me is “I wonder what is wrong with her?” but it is. I can’t deny that.
When it comes to our conceptions of beauty, some things have changed in the past 10 years, but a woman with no hair remains an uncommon sight. People want to look and question, and it’s hard not to be disappointed in them.
I know that I no longer fit the conventional definition of beauty. I’ve had to fight so hard for people to see beyond what I look like. But if confidence is based on who you think you are as a person, the reality is that when you no longer know who you are, your confidence stops, too.
When you’re dating it’s the elephant in the room. When do you address what is going on? How do you explain it? How would you feel laying out your whole medical history to a stranger you’ve just met? It’s not like internal medical conditions where you can decide if and when to disclose that information. It’s open slather. The first time I went on a date I felt like I had nothing to talk about, because losing my hair had been all-consuming. I was convinced I needed to explain what was going on as if it was to warn them, “Hey! I’m damaged goods so now is great time to run as far away as possible.” I mean who wants to date a problem-riddled person? I self-sabotaged every date I went on for months - that is, if I hadn’t found a way to bail out at the last minute.
Physical attraction is a big part of a romantic relationship, but when your hair is a major part of your appearance it’s hard not to feel unattractive when it’s no longer there. Just look at Tinder. The whole premise is based on the impression you form of someone based on their looks, within a matter of seconds. My confidence took a real hit every time a “match” told me their friends just swiped right on me as a “joke”. Then there’s the people who found it funny to crack a joke about my looks in their opening line, and then take offence when I take offence at their remarks. When someone uses you and your situation as a joke, it reaffirms all those negative thoughts that are already running through your mind. It’s only a select (and insignificant) few who have done it, but a quick message can have such long-lasting effects.
The first time I stepped out of the house wearing a wig I pored over my wardrobe looking for an outfit that I would be confident and comfortable in, in a bid to counteract my churning stomach. My makeup took double the time: I reapplied every stroke to make sure my foundation was even and my eyeliner was perfect. As I began to slip the wig over my head, I began to slip back into my old life. A sense of relief flooded over me then subsided as nerves and insecurity took over. I sat for 10 minutes just staring into the mirror, trying to come to terms with the new “old” me.
Then I was off. At the local shopping centre I just blended in. I didn’t stand out. Kids didn’t point and comment. I was just me, and it was lovely. I pushed the stray strands of hair out of my eyes and behind my ear. I played and twisted it with my fingers - the mannerisms came back so quickly and naturally. With that gesture, I had a stark view of how far I’d come. Wearing a wig was to be “normal” again.
But my life is so different now to what it was just over 12 months ago. I have become accustomed to my new, no-hair look. And I love it. Just as much as I loved my hair. Now I have the best of both worlds.