The bald truth: How we react to women with hair loss

Long, luscious hair is considered feminine, so Anthony Griffin photographed sufferers of alopecia — partial or total hair loss — to test our reactions to bald women, says Ellie O’Byrne

ABRONZED beauty swishes her hair away from the camera, dazzling the viewer with her abundance of rich, glossy locks. Turning back, she self-assuredly says to the camera: “Because I’m worth it.” The message to women is insidious and double-edged; if you boast a silicon-slicked, preternaturally shiny mane, you are worth it. But the inverse is also true; if you don’t, you aren’t.

Alopecia areata causes partial or full loss of hair, and it can devastate women’s confidence and self-worth. They spend a fortune on expensive wigs, eyebrow tattoos and false lashes to disguise their condition, while those who go bald in public are stared at and mistaken for cancer patients.

For eight months, Anthony Griffin photographed women who have alopecia. His exhibition, and the resulting book, An Uncommon Beauty, explore public perception of the condition.

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Griffin was interested in the secretiveness of female alopecia. “While researching the project, I heard stories of women whose own husbands had never seen them without their wig. That made me think that I probably know a lot more women without hair than I think I do,” he says.

Although public figures, such as UK TV presenter, Gail Porter (right), and Irish model, Amber Jean Rowan, have spoken about their alopecia, it’s rare to see female sufferers bald in public. Twelve Irish women volunteered to be photographed by Griffin, including Paddy Pender, who believes that making the condition more visible will help sufferers. Paddy feels uncomfortable in a wig, and does not wear one unless she’s attending a function.

“Losing your hair can feel almost like a bereavement,” Paddy says. She lost her hair very suddenly, in 2011, at the age of 51. “I had some regrowth and when it fell out again, I said, ‘I don’t want to be on a rollercoaster of seasonal regrowth.’ I made a conscious decision that I would not allow it to control me.” Eventually, Paddy lost of all of her body hair, including eyebrows and lashes. This is alopecia universalis.

Alopecia universalis has side-effects, such as respiratory tract infections, due to the loss of nasal hair (a first line of defence against inhaled pathogens), as well as discomfort caused by the rubbing of clothing against the skin, poor body temperature regulation, sunburn, and eye conditions (caused by sweat and cosmetics entering browless eyes).

For women in western cultures, bald female icons are a defiant rejection of the norms of beauty; from 16th century pirate queen, Gráinne Mhaol (maol is the Irish for bald), who reputedly shaved her head as a girl, so that she could go to sea with her father instead of visiting relatives, to Sinéad O’Connor, to Charlize Theron’s Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road. These women are strong characters.

Paddy certainly has character; she’s busy with charity work in Dublin’s inner city and says she never had much time for cosmetics, anyway. “It wasn’t as devastating to me as to someone who wouldn’t go out in the morning without full make-up on. I wouldn’t spend an hour in front of the mirror, anyway, and when I see people who do, I sometimes think, ‘for god’s sake, love, would you ever get a life?’.”

Alopecia areata affects equal numbers of men and women, so why did Griffin turn his lens only on female subjects? “We notice them more, because we see them as more unusual. Throughout history, women and hair are deeply linked,” he says.

With male pattern baldness affecting 70% of men, it’s true that we are no stranger to bald men. But from Paddy’s involvement with Alopecia Support Ireland, she says men have it tough, too, in part because they are less likely to talk openly about their condition. “I think it may be harder for men to talk about it,” Paddy says. “They just don’t seem to talk about things as easily.”

Paddy says it’s best to meet stares head-on and respond openly. She remains upbeat and philosophical about her condition and peoples’ responses to it. “I stare myself, if I see people with purple hair or funny shoes — it’s just something different that catches your eye. If they know me, they’ll talk to me as a person and not focus on the hair at all,” she says.

“I am not willing to use my body as a guinea pig for pharmaceuticals when there’s nothing else wrong with me. I’m not that vain that I want to grow hair back at a cost to my other organs,” Paddy says. Other sufferers find it harder to accept their hair loss. Their feelings of femininity, attractiveness and self-worth can suffer. Alopecia Support Ireland, started in 2008 by Liz Shiel, who lives in Athlone, is a good resource for contacting others who are experiencing the same problems.

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www.alopeciaireland.ie

 

Erica, 15, began losing hair when she was 10

Erica Kiernan is 15 and began losing patches of hair at 10. Having just completed her Junior Cert, in Loretto College, Crumlin, Erica’s condition progressed to alopecia universalis last Christmas.

In the age of the selfie, when teenage girls are increasingly image-conscious, how has Erica’s self-confidence been affected? “When I first got alopecia, I felt totally different to everyone else,” she says. “I hated seeing shampoo ads on the telly, and when they came on I’d switch channels. It definitely affects your confidence, when everyone in school is talking about the way they’re going to get their hair done.”

But Erica displays remarkable maturity and self-acceptance. Because of her decision to attend school without her wig, she knows who her real friends are, she says: “A lot of people supported me. A couple of the girls that are more interested in people’s appearance gave me sly looks and talked about me; I got called names, but you just have to ignore them and not let them get to you. “I lost a lot of friends, but I gained a lot of friends that I know will actually be there for me.”

Erica, who lives with her mother, stepfather and three brothers, has found Alopecia Support Ireland very helpful, and is currently using the ‘buddy system’, the group to help others who have the condition: “I help one girl who’s just losing her hair, at the moment, and we talk on the phone a lot,” Erica says.

‘I hated seeing shampoo ads on the telly and when they came on I’d switch the channels’

Early onset hair loss is less likely to regrow

The word alopecia means hair loss, but alopecia areata starts with the loss of small, regular-shaped patches of hair.

Dr Billy O’Connor is a consultant dermatologist at the Bons Secours hospital in Cork. “Alopecia areata is an autoimmune condition, where the body attacks its own hair follicles,” Dr O’Connor says.

“If you do a biopsy of the area, you see lots of inflammation cells around each hair follicle, like bees around a beehive. It’s that inflammation that causes the hair to fall.”

When alopecia areata affects the entire scalp, it’s known as alopecia totalis. If it progresses to the entire body (in 1-5% of cases), it’s called alopecia universalis.

There’s no cure for the condition. Steroid creams or injections can stimulate the hair follicles, but oral steroids are avoided due to their side-effects. “It can be possible to see regrowth in some cases,” Dr O’Connor says. “The chance of regrowth falls significantly in people who get it very early and very extensively.”

Up to 2% of the population may be affected by alopecia areata. Genetics plays a role, Dr O’Connor says: “Typically, it might be somebody who has a family history of alopecia areata, thyroid problems or pernicious anaemia, which are all immune conditions.”

It’s commonly attributed to stress, but is that a factor? “Stress doesn’t cause it but it can certainly contribute to it being more active and being slower to respond to treatment,” Dr O’Connor says.

See more photos on Anthony Griffin's Facebook page

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