As is the case with so many things in life, I only really appreciated the significance of hair when I lost all of mine. I was 17 when I first noticed it – or rather, my little sister did.
It was a Sunday afternoon, we were watching television, and she wanted to try out the new pair of hair straighteners she had just saved up her pocket money to buy. My sister has amazing curls that I always longed for – the grass is always greener, and she in turn had wanted my naturally straight locks. I carefully placed the irons in her hair, scorching out all its characteristic kinks. When I was done, she asked to style mine. It was then that she found it – a bald patch the size of a five pence coin, slap bang at the back of my head.
In the ensuing weeks, the bald patch grew to the size of a ten pence coin, then a five pound note, until it was impossible to ignore. Soon, it was joined by another patch, on the crown of my head. That too spread across my scalp, joining up with the patches that had appeared behind my ears and at the base of my neck, until eventually I looked like the man with the combover from the 1986 Hamlet cigar advert. I looked like Sir Bobby Charlton. My mother panicked. I felt a strange calmness that perhaps came from feeling that my outsides finally matched my chaotic insides (I had, by this point, been suffering from obsessive compulsive disorder for five or six years). That calm was quickly shattered when boys started making nasty comments in the street.
My mum took me to see the GP, who told me I had alopecia areata, a condition that sees the immune system mistakenly attack the hair follicles. There is still no cure for it. The GP said it was probably caused by stress and hormones, in a tone that suggested I was terribly vain and she had more important things to be getting on with. She gave me a steroid cream, but it was like playing Whac-A-Mole with my alopecia – as soon as the hair began to grow back over a patch, it would disappear somewhere else. Strange, white tufts sprouted at peculiar angles from my scalp.
Eventually, my mother found somewhere that provided “hair systems” for women who had none, and at great expense, I was fitted with a wig that would make me look like a normal teenage girl, and not a balding middle-aged man.
This did the trick, in so much as it stopped me thinking about the alopecia, and after a year or so, my hair had grown back. Perhaps that was just a funny little phase, I thought. But then a couple of months later, a bald patch reappeared. My alopecia has never been quite as bad as that first bout, but I have had it ever since (currently there’s a patch hiding at the back of my neck), barring a blissful few months in pregnancy which seemed to kick-start my immune system and give me, for the first time in my adult life, a full head of lustrous hair.
Obviously, it fell out again when my daughter was a couple of months old.
It was my daughter, actually, who allowed me to see the utter madness of our obsession with hair. She was born with lovely strawberry blonde locks so unusual that, to this day, people stop her in the street and ask her where she got her hair from, as if she might have selected it at a shop. “Why is everyone so interested in my hair?” she asked me, when she was about six. “Why aren’t they interested in ME?”
It was a good question, one I did not have a fully-formed answer to. Why are people so judgmental when it comes to hair? Why do people think it’s fine to make snide remarks about the stuff on top of our heads – or the lack of it – in a tone they wouldn’t dream of if the person was, say, overweight?
Take, for example, the endless articles about the tiny grey hairs that are occasionally spotted on the scalp of the Princess of Wales, or the viral videos taking the mickey out of her husband for going bald (one such clip was viewed millions and millions of times on TikTok during the 10-day period of mourning for his grandmother). Carp all you want on social media about Liz Truss’s policy decisions, but is it really necessary to attack her for the state of her highlights? “The general consensus in my house,” wrote one wag on Twitter earlier this month, “is that in addition to taking a massive bribe from the energy companies, she has a very bulky highlight and her hair colourist should be ashamed!”
When Will Smith took to the stage at the Oscars to slap the show’s host, Chris Rock, it was over a joke he had made about his wife, Jada Pinkett Smith’s hair (or lack of it). Pinkett Smith has alopecia, and later spoke eloquently about the condition. “Thousands have reached out to me,” she said. “I’m using this moment to give our alopecia family an opportunity to talk about what it’s like to have this condition, and to inform people about what alopecia actually is.”
“I had so much outreach from people who suffer from alopecia, have children who suffer from alopecia, and they don’t talk about it because there’s so much shame around it,” Jada continued. “There [are] so many people walking around that have alopecia that we don’t even know.”
As one of them, I also wanted to highlight this really quite common condition (it’s thought that one person in every 50 will suffer from alopecia areata at some point in their lives). It’s why I have written my first novel, for young adults, about a teenage girl who loses her hair. Let Down Your Hair is a retelling of Rapunzel, with a twist – the main character is not saved by her incredible, shiny locks, but by losing them.
Barb is a hair influencer, with hundreds of thousands of followers who tune in to watch her tutorials on how to shape a voluminous updo, or create perfect plaits. She has everything a teenager could dream of, is lauded for her looks but she is miserable. When she discovers a bald patch, she thinks her life is going to come crashing down. However, it forces her to assess what really matters, how she looks on the outside, or how she feels on the inside?
I wanted to write this book for the teenage version of me who believed that her hair was her crowning glory, and that without it she was nothing; for all the other girls and women out there who walk around with this shame, hidden under wigs or head scarves or clever positioning of hair grips that take two hours out of your day to fix. It’s for women who have never lost their hair, but who still worry about it being too thin or too thick or the wrong colour. It’s my way of saying to people: yes, your hair is significant. But it will never ever be as significant as you.
Let Down Your Hair by Bryony Gordon is out in paperback, ebook and audio now (Orion, £7.99)
Three reasons we lose our hair… and how to manage it if it happens to you
About 40 per cent of women aged 70-plus experience “female-pattern” baldness (the most common type), says the NHS. But not all lose it uniformly – some notice overall thinning, others have total hair loss – and it can happen quickly or slowly. Causes range from genetic factors to medical conditions or treatment.
There are three main types: alopecia areata, which causes coin-sized patches of hair loss, alopecia totalis where nearly all hair on the scalp falls out, and alopecia universalis, where all hair drops off, including eyelashes and body hair. Alopecia can be temporary or permanent. Caused by the immune system going into overdrive and attacking hair follicles, it can also be triggered by stress or infection.
“Studies suggest that interferons – the body’s chemical messengers – may, in genetically-predisposed individuals, cause the hair follicle to lose its protective ‘cloak’ against autoimmune attack,” says Prof Vicky Jolliffe, of the British Association of Dermatologists. Treatment involves steroids, injected or rubbed on. Baricitinib, an arthritis drug, was approved in the US as a treatment after it was found to regrow hair in some people.
While chemotherapy knocks out cancerous cells, it can also attack healthy parts like hair follicles all over the body.
Scalp hair loss may be lessened through use of a “cold cap” during treatment.
These systems cool the top of the head while chemotherapy is administered, reducing the flow of blood and drugs to the scalp.
Chemotherapy hair loss is usually temporary, with hair typically regrowing within a few months after treatment.
It is not just men who can find their hair thinning: women can also develop androgenetic alopecia (hair loss caused by changing hormones). This can happen when hormone levels are shifting, such as menopause, and like male pattern baldness it is influenced by genes.
Minoxidil is the main treatment, bought over-the-counter. There are various strengths available, with some recommended for females.