Going Bald Made Me Confident
An article about Bryony Gordon's battle against alopecia, which appeared in Cosmopolition magazine
GOING BALD GAVE ME CONFIDENCE
Byrony Gordon was devastated when she developed alopecia but here she describes how the experience made her stronger.
"It was my sister who found it first. I was 18 and she was straightening my hair when she mentioned that there was a bald patch the size of a five pence piece on the back of my scalp. I reached around to feel the area and then, repositioning the mirror, I saw it for myself. I laughed, made a joke about looking like our granddad and then forgot about it.
"What I didn't know then, but would soon discover, was that this tiny bald patch was the start of a long, frustrating battle with alopecia areata, a condition that causes the hair on your head to disappear in patches. Within a few weeks, the patch had grown to the size of a £10 note. A month later, it was joined by a similarly large patch on top of my head. Then two smaller bald areas appeared behind my ears. Before I knew it, I'd lost half of my hair - and it's been coming and going as it pleases ever since.
"I didn't realise how important hair is to how you feel about your appearance until I started to lose it. I'd taken for granted all those trips to the hairdressers to have my highlights done. Suddenly, I was envious of women who moaned about their split ends - how lucky for them that their hair woes could be sorted with a bottle of intensive conditioner and a trim.
"For most women, their hair is their crowning glory. But after the alopecia hit, there was nothing glorious about my hair. It was embarrassing, it was ugly and every time I saw a shampoo ad that featured a woman with a shiny mane saying, 'Because I'm worth it,' I felt as though I definitely wasn't worth it at all.
"My hair didn't fall out in clumps as I'd imagined it would (to be honest, I'd never actually 'imagined' it happening). I was a teenage girl about to start university, not a man going through a mid-life crisis.
"I hadn't seen my doctor by that point so tried to work out what was happening myself. Was my hair loss caused by my love of dyeing it blonde, something I'd done since I was 13? Or maybe it was the new shampoo I'd started using? I switched to a baby shampoo, stopped highlighting what remained of my hair and. nothing changed.
"Bewildered and anxious and more than a little alarmed, I finally went to see my doctor. I showed her my scalp, grotesquely riddled as it was with bald patches, and, barely looking up from her notes, she told me I had alopecia. This was, I suppose, a relief; I finally had a name for my condition. She didn't say what had caused it, just that it was nothing to worry about, in a tone that sounded like: 'Why are you seeing me when I have a waiting room full of ill people?'
"It made me feel ridiculously vain. I felt overcome with shame for worrying about my hair when there were women out there who were losing it for more serious reasons, like cancer treatment. Now, every time I saw my peculiar-looking head in the mirror, feelings of low self-esteem were quickly replaced by feelings of guilt for feeling that low self-esteem.
"My GP prescribed me a steroid lotion that I was to rub onto my patches several times a day. She told me that this would get rid of the patches by stimulating hair growth and it did - only for them to appear somewhere else. I felt like I was playing a game of cat-and-mouse with my alopecia.
"In an attempt to cover up the patches, I'd spend what seemed like hours fiddling with my remaining scraps of hair, only for a gust of wind to ruin it all as soon as I left the house. But the feelings of frustration almost always gave way to feelings of guilt for caring so much, so I pretended I didn't.
"Fortunately, men didn't run in the opposite direction when I told them about it. When I met someone new, the first thing I would blurt out was, 'By the way, I am going bald,' and as a result, most were very kind, treating me as some kind of china doll who needed looking after. One bloke did ask 'Is it catching?' - so thanks, alopecia, for showing up what a selfish git he was!
"But I've always been conscious that it might bother other people more that it does me. Like when I had a patch last year at work I was worried that my colleagues sitting behind me might think it strange.
"Soon after it first happened, I handled my alopecia by joking about it. The world saw alopecia as a weird quirk, so I treated it as such, laughing that it added character to my looks. When a man in a pub called me baldy, I retorted that not having hair was preferable to not having a personality: 1-0 to baldy. I thought. But, deep down, it must have stung me. Most twenty-something's struggle with their self-image; imagine dealing with the added embarrassment of your hair falling out.
Regaining my self esteem
"It wasn't until I heard about a local salon that created extensions for people with alopecia that I realised just how much my confidence had been knocked. I visited the salon with my mum. We were greeted by the glamorous owner, Lucinda Ellery, who oozed self-confidence. Lucinda suffered from alopecia all of her life, but to look at her you couldn't tell - she had a long, thick mane of blonde hair.
"During the consultation, Lucinda told me about the hundreds of women she'd treated. My relief at hearing there were other girls like me was huge; discovering there was something that could be done about it was even bigger. As I sat in her office, I cried for the first time about my hair loss, Lucinda told me not to feel guilty - that for a young woman to be worried about her appearance was perfectly normal, not vain.
"She said alopecia could be triggered by stress, and that it occurs a few weeks after a traumatic experience. I'd got my A-level results two months before the first patches appeared. But the stress you feel about losing your hair only makes it worse, so you end up in a vicious cycle. The extensions would enable me to forget about the alopecia. 'You'll be able to swing from a chandelier with them,' Lucinda quipped.
"At £600, they were expensive, but I'd been so unhappy that my mum offered to pay. A few weeks later, I had my extensions put in. I've heard that some can make hair loss worse, but Lucinda's team knew how to avoid weighing the hair down. They used a system specifically tailored to my hair type, called the 'volumiser', which stopped the extensions pulling on my scalp or hair so that it didn't make the baldness worse.
"The process took eight hours, but the wait was worth it. When it was finished, I looked in the mirror and saw a head full of long, blonde hair. It looked amazing.
"That night I went to a party and held my head - and the flowing hair attached to it up high. For the first time in months, I got glammed up. My friends told me that the difference in my confidence was palpable.
"Six months later, I returned to the salon so that Lucinda could check my scalp. She lifted up the extensions and, amazingly, my hair had grown back, I was thrilled. Now I could be one of those women who moaned about hair color and split ends again.
"It showed me that the more I fretted about the alopecia, the worse it got. When the extensions had taken away the worry, my hair just grew back, I haven't had extensions since. I still get the odd bald patch but now I try to put it to the back of my mind and deal with it as it happens.
"With seven years experience of hair loss, I've become a master of Kirby grips, and I'm the Imelda Marcos of headscarves. I haven't got any patches at the moment and it's such a luxury to be able to wear my hair down - something I never did before.
"In a strange way, I think that alopecia has given me an inner confidence I don't think I would have had my hair not decided to fall out. It's made me see that beauty is skin deep. It may sound like a cliche, but that's only because it's true."