(Photo Courtesy: Shira Mizel)
For most of my freshman year of college, I wore a wig. My mom’s stylist had cut and dyed it to blend seamlessly with my own thinning hair. It looked natural, but I was always afraid that someone might find out. Maybe someone would knock it off-center at a party. Maybe a professor would notice the fake hairline behind my real hairline. After a few days of clipping the wig on behind closet doors or inside bathroom stalls, I realized I had to come clean to my roommate.
The possibility that she’d spill my secret filled me with terror. People would find out that I was ugly, resent my fakeness, and leave me alone in a new and daunting place. All I could do was communicate how immensely important it was that she not tell a soul. I wanted to scare her into silence and she kept quiet like I’d asked. I didn’t consider the possibility that another person valued me enough to respect my wishes. I didn’t feel valuable, only afraid; anxiety is super blinding.
My first loss destroyed my spirit; this new one threatened my health.
I first started losing my hair after I graduated from high school, during my gap year abroad. I first noticed it while taking a bucket shower in Dehradun, India. Trying to get out the knots, I pulled fingers through soapy hair and many more strands than normal lingered on my hand. I didn’t feel like I was pulling too hard, yet locks encircled my fingertips and fell into the drain. A few weeks later, I flew home. My digestive patterns were still in India mode so I went to the doctor — I had giardia. Antibiotics quickly cured the parasite, but I kept finding tufts of hair on my pillow.
The culture shock would have been enough, so would the move to start college across the country, but hair loss took up all my worry space. Specialists tested and listened but did not offer any conclusive reason. They didn’t really understand. If the doctors truly knew my sadness, they’d find the cause: an elevated enzyme (that’s a thing, right?) or a vitamin deficiency. A dermatologist told me that finding the cause was improbable; hair sheds just happen sometimes to some people. Screw that, I thought, not this people. I swallowed Biotin, dribbled Minoxidil onto my scalp, and hoped for the best.
Before my hair fell out, I never thought I was vain. After all, outsides have no bearing on the parts of identity that truly matter. This conviction proved as lifeless and yielding as the hair I prayed would stay put. Suddenly convinced that outer beauty reigned, I began dedicating more time to caking on makeup, more money to adorning my wig with sparkly headbands, and more focus to reducing calories. I didn’t fully understand the materialistic whirlwind until my sense of self had all but blown away.
Evidence of my powerlessness was everywhere: my clothes, the bathroom floor, scrunchies. I fixated on what I could control: food. The more I stressed about hair loss, up went the premium on weight loss. With mealtimes came drinking cups and cups of water and cutting nourishment into tiny bits. Before long, I dreaded swallowing. Foods that had once delighted me now converged with saliva and guilt to disgust me. The conscious choice to diet soon morphed into a compulsion. I stared yearningly at other girls’ long, thick hair and hatefully rationalized that I was thinner, so they weren’t better than me. Everyone was my competition.
In the sea of low self-esteem, I sometimes felt a wave of contentedness, maybe from a stranger’s smile or an interesting class. For English, I wrote a paper about how the male gaze functions like Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon, a prison in which guards observe inmates constantly without being seen by them. I argued that gender relations have reduced women to objects for so long that a woman’s inferiority has become inherent to her being, rather than merely an exterior label. I felt proud of myself, until I touched my hair. Given my all consuming eating and hair struggles, the irony of earning an A for a paper that lambasted the objectification of women was not lost on me.
When I finally slipped under 100 pounds, no one congratulated me. I couldn’t share my warped victory with anyone. My first loss destroyed my spirit; this new one threatened my health. The seriousness and secrecy of my two-pronged problem left me totally isolated.
I needed to let people in, desperately. With immense trepidation, I told a few friends that I wore a wig. And to my utter confusion, they just didn’t care. Telling my secret was like giving a piece of my burden to everyone. The jig was up. If losing my hair wasn’t a secret, than what was it? Just another boring fact. I felt weightless. Not alone anymore, I felt that the people around me valued me for me, not my appearance.
There’s enough distance between that cloudy time and the present that I can reflect on it somewhat objectively; however, I don’t feel completely removed. I still live, work, and play in a society that glorifies thin. I don’t want anyone to police my body, including myself; that would truly mean handing over my power and control.