On what she’d presumed would be one of the happiest days of her life, Tanya Maheshwari developed a migraine and debilitating neck pain.
This was her roka – a pre-wedding ceremony that doubles as an official announcement of the relationship.
The 27-year-old senior programme officer, who grew up in Delhi in India before moving to Hong Kong in 2017, had succumbed to the expectations of others with regard to how a bride-to-be should look on such an occasion.
She had put on a wig for the day.
It weighed heavy on her head, she said, like five kilograms plus the burden of her worried mind.
“Instead of having fun at my roka, I felt uncomfortable and out of character,” she told VICE. “All the brides I've encountered were always looking for ways to make their hair even more luxurious or silkier on their wedding day. I felt like I didn't have a choice but to wear a wig because no one around me had ever heard of or seen a bald bride.”
Maheshwari has alopecia, an autoimmune disease that causes hair to fall as the immune system attacks hair follicles. The National Alopecia Areata Foundation identifies three types of alopecia according to severity: alopecia areata (that results in loss of coin-sized patches), alopecia totalis (total hair loss across the scalp) and alopecia universalis (hair loss across scalp, face, eyebrows, eyelashes, and rest of the body).
Alopecia can be challenging for anyone, but it’s especially difficult for women in a world where hair is often equated with femininity, fertility, youth and beauty – the “crowning glory.” And this gets compounded on that one day where the social pressure to look “perfect” is at its peak: the wedding day.
“There is definitely a certain standard and expectation of beauty that brides feel they must look like,” said Anamarie “Ana” Tan, a 31-year-old Filipino-American clinical cancer researcher living in Los Angeles. “I've always admired a classic and timeless look, but also have grown to love being different.”
In several Asian communities, long, luscious black hair is heavily glamourised, and hair rebonding to turn wavy hair into straight tresses is common. For Tan, her idea of healthy and beautiful hair was contextualised by her Filipino roots as well as western standards of beauty. She pictured herself getting married with a full head of perfectly sleek hair, especially because she didn’t know or see a single bride who did anything different.
Five years ago, she was diagnosed with alopecia. After taking a few months to figure out how she should do her hair, Tan realised that going bald was what she’d be most comfortable with.
“Despite support from my friends and family, I heard statements like, ‘I feel so sorry for you,’ ‘You are lucky your face is so pretty,’ ‘At least you didn't lose your hair because of cancer’ and ‘Wow, go bald? I could never do that!’” she said.
These backhanded and occasionally pity-laden comments temporarily rattled Tan until she connected with other women with alopecia over social media and networking conferences. When she decided to get married three years ago, she was sure she wanted none of those beauty standards – western or Asian – to affect her. She bucked all expectations from friends and family and showed up on her wedding day sporting a fierce bald look.
“At our wedding, I felt the most authentic and beautiful with just my bald head,” she said. “I looked like a classic yet unique bride. I was confident, carefree, and [I] hope that other brides with alopecia will also feel empowered about non-standard beauty on their wedding day.”
Latina culture, like many Asian cultures, is fascinated with long hair, too. Gabriela “Gaby” Caringer, 29, from Toronto, Canada, is a Latinx freelance hairstylist who learned she had alopecia six years ago and was shocked to lose all her hair in her adulthood. As part of her hairstyling profession, Caringer had witnessed first-hand the emphasis brides of all backgrounds place on hair and how upset they are if it does not meet their expectations. Caringer’s alopecia taught her that one’s hair does not define them, that their worth is entirely up to them.
Caringer initially struggled with being in public without hats – her personal security blanket. But her family pushed her to flaunt her bald head on her wedding day.
“I remember walking into [bridal boutique] Kleinfeld and telling my [bridal] consultant that I will be a bald bride, to which she responded, ‘No you will be a bride.’ It’s a daily battle to remind myself that my self-worth doesn’t come from what I look like, what I have or don’t. I remind myself that I am beautiful, worthy, powerful, and above all, I’m Gaby regardless of whether I’m bald.”
Families are not always as supportive of such a decision as Caringer’s, but 32-year-old human resources and marketing consultant Kylie Bamberger from California, USA, was also lucky to have a family that wanted her to just be herself at her wedding.
Bamberger was diagnosed with alopecia areata at age 12 and experienced bald spots occasionally for three years. Despite trying various treatments like steroid injections to promote hair growth, her hair fell out prolifically in May 2006, resulting in an alopecia universalis diagnosis. Later that month, she and her family decided to shave her head.
Over the years, Bamberger has become more comfortable as a bald woman. But even though her friends and family had seen her wigless for years, some asked if she’d be sporting one on her wedding day.
“There is a standard of beauty that all women are pressured to meet, but bridal standards are ten times this pressure,” said Bamberger. “That expectation of brides to wear all-white, to have perfect hair and perfect makeup and perfect heeled shoes was nothing more than mere suggestions [for me]. I needed to embrace who I was not just for myself, but for thousands of other brides who are afraid of embracing their true form.”
Bramberger hopes her advocacy for self-acceptance will inspire other women to make their own decisions, too. The momentum to empower current and future brides with alopecia to shine on their wedding day also continues to expand with the help of campaigns and social media visibility.
Case in point: A three-part campaign series called #TheBaldBrownBride by one of the largest desi diaspora websites Brown Girl Magazine in collaboration with product implementation consultant Neehar Sachdeva.
Sachdeva, who currently lives in Texas, USA, was diagnosed with alopecia at age six months. After years of wearing a wig and being bullied for it, she decided to shave her head.
“If you shave your head, who is going to marry you?” her grandmother asked her at the time.
“I was familiar with dating as a woman with alopecia,” Sachdeva told VICE. “In fact, one of my exes broke up with me because his mom would not accept my baldness.”
But determined to overcome the opinions of others (aka “log kya kahenge?”) and to become the representation she didn’t have while growing up, Sachdeva decided to initiate the #TheBaldBrownBride campaign to destigmatise the lack of hair in South Asian communities and to help current and prospective brides visualise themselves on their wedding day.
“Alopecia is a blessing in disguise for me. If someone does not want to marry me solely because of the fact that I don’t have hair on my head, why would I ever want to marry that person? After I shaved my head and let go of judgement, I was able to embrace who I am. Now I want other brown brides to see how beautiful they can look without hair,” she said.
As for Maheshwari, who wore that dreadfully heavy wig to her roka, she is working towards a world free of wigs and hair extensions. She even cut her hair short for her pre-wedding shoot in 2019, just before the pandemic derailed plans for the wedding. For the big, fat Indian wedding that she and her husband are aiming to have next year, she’s planning to go completely bald.
“The discussion in India around alopecia is solutions-focused, but that gives one false hope instead of helping them accept this condition. It will take longer to accept baldness because there's a lot of unlearning to do from misinformation, collective shame, and denial,” Maheshwari said.
“But for my wedding, I will embrace myself and my baldness, and remember that this, too, can be what a ‘perfect’ bride looks like.”
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