If you went by what you saw in Hollywood and ads, you’d think that hair loss was a problem specific to cis men.
Commercials for hair loss products are generally geared towards men. When it comes to movies and TV shows, it’s not at all taboo to feature male characters who are bald or have gray or thinning hair. In essence, the fact that men often have to go through losing their hair is accepted as part of reality.
But society rarely applies the same standards for women.
For the most part, women onscreen consistently appear with thick, flowing locks, sometimes varying in length or color but nearly always looking fresh from the salon. In most cases, the actors who play these female characters are wearing hair extensions to make their hair look impossibly full. That’s on top of the hours and large sums of money spent on various treatments for their original strands.
You would be very hard-pressed to find a female character who is bald or has close-cropped hair on television.
When they do appear, the portrayals are usually tragic, with women losing their hair to severe illness, or shaving it off in an act of rebellion. Something as mundane as natural hair loss, though?
Absolutely unheard of.
Yet the truth of the matter is that about a third of all women will experience hair loss during their lifetime. For most, it’s the same type that men tend to experience: androgenetic alopecia, commonly called ‘male pattern baldness’ (which should tell you how much more men are prioritized in this discussion). Dermatologists have developed a system to identify the types of female pattern baldness that exist.
Certainly, cis men tend to wear their hair shorter, so it can be more noticeable when their scalps appear sparse.
Women usually experience hair loss differently, with thinning taking place at the parting and hair at the temples slowly receding. As you can probably tell, the differences in how alopecia manifests between genders appear not to be biologically based but due to social norms. The problem is that femme-presenting people don’t usually have the option of owning their thinning hair the way men can.
Covering up these issues is less of a freely made choice and more of a social mandate.
In my own life, I’ve known many people who struggle with thinning or damaged hair. For the women experiencing hair loss, the experience seemed even more difficult than that of the men’s.
Femininity is so closely tied to hair; a huge part of performing womanhood is about maintaining one’s physical appearance. Hair is an essential component of that performance. That’s undoubtedly reflected in how common insults about receding hairlines and unkempt hair are these days.
My loved ones have experienced hair loss for a multitude of reasons: exam stress, aging, eating disorders, and various mental and physical illnesses.
For my part, during past periods of severe depression, I have found it very exhausting to take proper care of my hair. When I couldn’t muster up the energy to do so, it usually culminated in clumps of my hair gradually falling out. Despite all of the emotional upheaval I had gone through, during recovery periods I would find myself bemoaning the damage to my hair.
Even now, I am sometimes plagued with insecurity over the way my hair appears.
Almost unconsciously, I’ll find myself worrying over whether it’s noticeably thin or damaged. I don’t make an active choice to think so negatively – it’s a result of social conditioning. After all, mainstream media and society taught me and so many other women during our childhoods that hair is intrinsic to a woman’s being.
Elders in my Bengali family would gently spout idioms like, “A woman’s hair is her greatest asset.”
Of course, it’s great to be proud of your appearance, and in some communities, hair is tied to important cultural traditions and rites that invaders tried to stamp out.
But if we accept that our hair – part of our appearance – is our greatest asset, then we’re buying right into a world of self-hatred and sorrow. That’s not the future I want to be a part of – no matter how much hair I lose.