At school, I had a teacher called Mr. Rees—or "Greasy Rees," as we called him. It was the 90s, but Mr. Rees seemed to have time-traveled to us from an earlier time. He spoke like they do in old war movies, called us all by our surnames, and wore his hair on the back and sides tightly slicked to the head, like a parody of an old style bank manager. The hair on the top, meanwhile, had gone completely and in its place was a polished bald pate so shiny it was clear that the same product that went towards keeping his remaining hair plastered down was also used to add a little luster on top.
Being the noxious little shits we were, we never let him forget his baldness. The favorite wind-up was to pull your hair as tightly back as possible and slap your forehead whenever he came in the room. If he noticed our mockery he never let on. Except for once. It was during science and one of the class morons fired an elastic band across the room that hit him plumb on his bald patch. It was an impressive shot, to be fair, but Mr. Rees didn't see it that way. He blew up, screaming and shouting at the kid; his bald head turned puce with rage.
Afterwards, all the talk was about what a nutter old Greasy was for losing his shit like that. That we had pushed him to it never occurred to us, nor did it cross our mind that there was anything wrong with humiliating a nice man for a physical characteristic over which he had no control.
We were just kids, of course, but prejudice against baldness continues into adulthood. "It's the last bastion of political incorrectness," says Spencer Kobren, the LA-based host of the Bald Truth, a radio show aimed at men losing their hair. "You're not going to go up to a chick and be like, 'Hey, do you know what, it looks like your ass has got bigger!' But that same girl can go up to a guy and say, 'Hey it looks like you're losing your hair,' and it's considered OK."
Even if most of us aren't so crass as to do that, the prejudice is deeply ingrained. Studies consistently show that women are more attracted to men with hair. Note also our aversion to hairless presidents—Eisenhower is the only bald man to be elected to the Oval Office in modern times—or the way Wisconsin governor Scott Walker's bald patch recently became an actual issue in his bid for the Republican nomination.
Faced with such a hostile reality, it's hardly surprising that the realization they're losing their hair can be a painful experience for many men. And yet, says Kobren, they're not supposed to complain.
"Society doesn't let men show that they're uncomfortable about their appearance. You're expected to just man up," he says.
This attitude is particularly true for balding men. A 2012 study by the University of Pennsylvania found that men with shaved heads are perceived as more manly, a finding that's consistently reflected in TV and movies where bald men are generally either violent psychos or heroic tough guys. Not the sort of chaps who would be seen dead crying into their cornflakes because of a few strays hairs shed on the pillow.
"I don't want to be too casual about the use of the term 'depressed,' but balding certainly put my anxiety through the roof. I wore a hat a lot and generally tried to avoid all discussion about hair." — Phillip Paoletta
Yet hair loss can be devastating. A study two years ago by researchers in Germany revealed the psychological toll of going bald. Staff at the Charité Universitätsmedizin teaching hospital in Berlin found that the "enormous emotional burden" of hair loss caused problems of self-esteem and, in the worst cases, triggered psychological disorders like body dysmorphia and trichotillomania, an obsessive physical tic that causes the sufferer to repeatedly twist and pull their hair, making the hair loss far worse than it would ordinarily be.
According to the American Hair Loss Association, two-thirds of American men will experience some degree of appreciable hair loss by the time they're 35, while 85 per cent of men's hair will have thinned out significantly by the age of 50.
Most of this hair loss—95 percent—is caused by male pattern baldness (MPB). Also known as Androgenetic Alopecia, MPB is characterized by a receding hairline or a thinning crown or both, as in the case of poor Mr. Rees.
Phillip Paoletta began experiencing MPB in his second year of college. Besides the telltale hairs left on his pillow, he noticed hair clogging the drain after a shower. For a long time he explained it away with various unlikely excuses—lack of exercise, poor diet, a suspect ingredient in the shampoo. This denial was shattered, however, when he spoke with a doctor, who told him point-blank that he had MPB. The revelation didn't go down well and there followed a long period of unhappiness.
"I don't want to be too casual about the use of the term 'depressed,'" says Paoletta. "But it certainly put my anxiety through the roof, and made me exceptionally self-conscious. I wore a hat a lot and generally tried to avoid all discussion about hair. It was a miserable time."
Kobren is less circumspect about linking hair loss to depression, comparing the way baldness can negatively effect men to "a cancer of the spirit."
"For many guys it completely destroys their self-esteem. I had a guy call in who told me he gave up a law degree to be a delivery man, just so he could wear a hat."
Dr. Gershen Kaufman, a former professor of psychology at Michigan State University and the author of The Psychology of Shame, thinks stories like this reflect how much our hair is tied into our self-image.
"Think of all the times we look in the mirror and we see our face and hair and experience them as part and parcel of the same thing—who we are," says Dr. Kaufman. "Our self lives in our face and anything that alters our face, namely our hair, is going to drastically alter how we perceive ourselves."
When I was a kid, the haircut of choice was the spike. At my local barbers, Adams Gents Hairdressers, I sat on the wooden plank that Mr. Adams balanced across the chair arms for boys too small to sit in the seat and waited to be transformed into Val Kilmer in Top Gun. The ensuing mess usually looked more like a bad case of static.
Another boy who made the vertiginous journey up to Mr. Adam's wooden plank in order to get spiked was my old school mate Paul 'Riggs' Riggall. Riggs, who is now bald, feels no nostalgia for his lost locks.
"I had terrible hair," he says. "Once I got into mid-teens and wanted a longer, Oasis-style cut my hair would stick up and became impossible."
Riggs, like Phillip Paoletta, tackled his early onset baldness by shaving his hair off completely. Both found it liberating.
Paoletta described the experience of having his remaining hair buzzed in a barber shop in West Africa as "one of those close-my-eyes-and-see-what-happens moments" from which he has never looked back.
Riggs, meanwhile, thinks shaved heads look better because they suggest a willingness to embrace the change. "You're saying, 'Yes, I'm going bald and I don't care.'"
He says that this is in contrast to the kind of in-between baldness of our old teacher, which seems to cling hopelessly to the past, thereby creating an air of desperation.
This perception is confirmed by research. The Pennsylvania University study quoted earlier found that while men with shaved heads were viewed as stronger, taller, and better potential leaders than their coiffed counterparts, none of these findings held true for men with thinning hair.
Kobren doesn't totally buy it. He says that Hollywood poster boys for the shaved head look like Jason Statham or Vin Diesel are "anomalies," who happen to have "the right facial structure and stature where hair loss works."
"But for most of us, it doesn't," he says. "I'd look like Caine from Kung Fu if I shaved my head."
For the many men who share this view a multi-billion dollar hair loss treatment industry has developed to help them in their quest to hang on to their mane. But be warned, Kobren insists that 99 percent of the products and services for sale out there are "complete bullshit."
To make his point he describes an encounter with the Florida-based hair restoration company, the Hair Club, back in the late 80s when he was first battling hair loss.
"When I went to see them I was greeted by this really hot chick who told me, 'We can help you and no one's going to know.' I kept trying to push her to tell me the process and eventually she brings in someone who has gone through it. This guy's wearing this really obvious wig and I'm like, 'That guy's wearing a wig!' She says, 'Well, it's not really a wig, it's a hair system.' And that's when I found out they wanted to shave off all my hair and fit me with a rug."
Kobren steered clear of this and many other "miracle treatments," but others have fallen prey to the charlatans, sometimes with tragic results.
Did you know steroids can cause hair loss? Read about it on Motherboard.
In the early 90s, Michael Potkul ended up with scars from his temples to his neck after a botched hair transplant by a surgeon in Pittsburgh. A court was told that Dr. Dominic A. Brandy severed key arteries as he tried to stretch Potkul's scalp, stunting hair growth instead of encouraging it. Potkul was so appalled by the result he attempted suicide by shooting himself in the chest, the bullet barely missing his heart.
In the end, Kobren found a doctor to prescribe him Finasteride, a medication for enlarged prostate that he had heard anecdotally was effective in treating MPB. Finasteride is now marketed as Propecia and alongside another medicine, Rogaine, is the only FDA-approved drug for the treatment of hair loss. But Propecia remains controversial. Users have to take it daily and if they stop, it ceases being effective. Meanwhile, some users—Phillip Paoletta included—have reported suffering sexual dysfunction as a side effect.
Besides medication, increasing numbers of men are opting for hair transplants. The boom is likely due to improved surgical techniques, which have eliminated much of the risk of scarring. These improved techniques have been accompanied by some magically restored hairlines among a host of male celebs, including Kevin Costner, David Beckham, and LeBron James. While the stars are remaining tight-lipped, the smart money is on Follicular Unit Extraction (FUE), a technique whereby naturally occurring clusters of one to four hairs, known as follicular units, are cut out from the back of the head and put into balding areas at the front.
Dr. Robert M. Bernstein, Clinical Professor of Dermatology at Columbia University, wrote the first paper on FUE in 2002. At his clinic in Manhattan he operates daily, offering FUE and another hair transplant technique known as Follicular Unit Transplantation (FUT), in which hair follicles are dissected from a long, thin strip of skin cut from the back and side of the scalp.
The procedures cost around $15,000 [€13,500], but despite the high price, Dr. Bernstein says business is up nearly a third in two years. He says his clients cover the full range of ages from 18 to 80 and are from all backgrounds and ethnicities.
"We treat a lot of young Indian men," he says. "It's very important for them to have hair when they are dating and for marriage."
He denies that there's much stigma surrounding hair transplants these days. "It's pretty widely accepted at this point. There are about 400,000 done around the world every year."
Asked why so few celebrities admit they've had it done, he says: "I think with any cosmetic procedure people are reluctant to admit to it, especially men."
I'm not sure what we'd have done if Greasy Rees had walked into class one day sporting brand new hair, but I can't imagine we'd have been too sympathetic. I feel bad about the way we behaved towards him (though obviously not so bad that I'm going to stop myself from exploiting the memory of his mistreatment for this story). I suppose the one consolation he must've had was the sure knowledge that, statistically, a large proportion of his tormentors were likely to suffer the same fate.
Though he can't be certain, my old school pal Riggs thinks he probably joined in the goading of Mr. Rees. These days he finds retribution coming close to home.
When he plays superheroes with his eight-year-old son, the boy is very specific about the roles dad can play. "I can be Lex Luthor or The Thing from Fantastic 4," he says.
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