This past February, while on vacation, I was preparing to shower when I ran my fingers through my hair and felt something smooth and fleshy at the back of my head. It was a dollar coin-sized bald spot. Once I returned home and met with a physician I found out it was alopecia areata, an autoimmune disease where your body attacks your hair follicles. Currently, 6.8 million people in the United States have the condition that causes sudden hair loss resulting in circular bald spots.
Alopecia is simply cosmetic, but, unfortunately, it is totally unpredictable. Some people can experience only one spot during their lifetime, while others will lose all their hair at some point or another. Over the next three months, I ended up gaining 13 more spots, ranging from the size of a dime to half of my palm, and a lot more anxiety.
As a 24-year-old woman who dyed and bleached her hair since middle school and lives in Hawaii, where long hair is synonymous with femininity and beauty, losing mine in handfuls turned my life into an emotional roller coaster. I no longer felt like myself because I was watching my identity swirl down the drain each time I washed my hair.
I wish I could say the last thing on my mind was dating, but it was actually the contrary. How will anyone find me attractive?, I (closed-mindedly) asked myself. What is it like to date with wigs? Why me?, I envied my friends who could throw their hair up in a high ponytail. Who would pick me over them?, I imagined how the boys in my past would react if they knew what was happening to me now. So I swore off dating until I felt more comfortable with myself.
In June, a good friend from high school asked me to go out with her and her boyfriend to celebrate her birthday. I agreed and opted for a loose half-up, half-down do' and a lot of black hair powder.
That night, we met up with a group of his friends who I never met before. My very drunk self announced to my friend how cute one boy was—something I never normally do—and the news spread to said boy. Thankfully, his equally drunk self reciprocated the attraction, as he told my friend’s boyfriend. As the bar closed, the crew hopped in a car back to my home to meet my new dog. This part is a blur, but suddenly, everyone was gone and it was just me and him.
I woke up the next morning painfully hungover and when I turned to see him lying next to me, I freaked out and touched the top of my head to make sure I didn’t feel any fleshy scalp. I prayed the powder from last night didn’t smudge. Without lifting my head off my pillow, I tied my hair in a low ponytail and tried my best to muss it up for some bald spot-hiding volume. This way, he had no chance of seeing the large bald patches in the back of my head. It was the best I could do at the time. It must have worked because he didn’t act as if he saw anything strange. We talked a little, exchanged numbers and parted ways.
I didn’t see it coming, but we ended up hanging out the next week, the following day, and well, pretty often after that. Each time, I frequently excused myself to the bathroom to check that my spots weren’t visible. I hid the hair powder in a box of tampons under the sink just in case he decided to peek into my medicine cabinet. Whenever we woke up together, I jumped out of bed before him to saturate my scalp with the powder. If his eyes ever roamed to the top of my head, my heart stopped.
It was a constant ruse of me trying to hide my perceived imperfection because of what I thought male fragility could potentially do to our budding relationship.
After we became exclusive with each other about a month in, my therapist urged me to tell him about my alopecia. Since I prefer to avoid confrontation, this sounded extremely unideal. We ran through many test conversations but nothing felt right. What if he ran away? That would hurt like a bitch. But at the same time, I felt like I was deceiving him by not revealing my true self to him. Yet continuing to hide my condition was torturous. I flipped back and forth and finally one morning, I decided I couldn’t think about it and to just do it. I turned to him and asked, “Do you know what alopecia is?” Then I held my breath.
“Oh, yeah, my sister has it.”
A weight lifted off my chest as we talked about his sister’s experience and my own. “Your hair is not you,” he later said. The boy became my confidant. And when I felt like there were excessive amounts of hair falling out or my hair might be thinning in a certain area, he was also a distraction from it.
It’s been seven months since discovering my first spot. My shedding has slowed and every single spot has regrowth in it. I’m not sure if I can fully credit it to him being a wonderful support system in my life or just being patient with my treatment, but I like to think both have paid off in some way or another. Of course, I don’t know if I’ll ever have another episode again—I could go completely bald in the future—and I also don’t know if we’ll stay together forever either. But one thing I do know is, whatever happens, I’ll own it and I won’t let it stop me from taking risks, which might mean falling in love.
When I think back on how my life has changed in the past few months, I realize how wrong I was in thinking my condition made me unlovable, unattractive, and generally unworthy. I spent months thinking I had to hide who I was and I was scared of the possibility that that person was going to be someone without hair. So I missed out on opportunities. Instead, I should have been proud of everything that makes me, well, me. It took pushing past my fear and finding a community of other beautiful bald women online to realize that my identity isn’t merely my hair, it’s my personality, my thoughts, and my actions.
Most of all, it’s how I accept and embrace my whole self. Bald or not.