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calculated recently that I have been bald for 17 years. Seventeen years? It seems impossible. Seventeen of my 35 years, almost half my life, without any hair at all – no lashes, brows, leg or arm hair, and certainly no hair on my head. It doesn’t seem that long. I can still remember exactly how it felt to stand in my boyfriend’s flat and, oddly detached, survey the bedroom floor, every inch coated with a thick layer of my hair. I remember shaving off the remaining straggly sections a month later on holiday in Rome. I remember buying my first wig in desperation from Selfridges, the salesgirls sympathetic, but at a loss how to help. I finally chose a shoulder-length strawberry blonde bob, far removed from my real dark short crop of a few months previously. I remember the misery of losing my eyebrows and lashes a few months later, and how much more devastating that seemed than losing the hair on my head. How odd your face looks without that punctuation, how painfully I missed mascara. No-one knows quite what causes alopecia, an immune disorder where the body ceases to recognise hair follicles,
Red / maRch 2008
Can you imagine life without hair? as a teenager, emma Beddington lost all hers (yes, all of it). now 35, she Confesses she still hasn’t quite Come to terms with it
phOtOg R aph cl au dia jan k e
more than anythIng’
and instead attacks them. Stress is often cited as a trigger and I was certainly stressed after a first undergraduate year at Oxford, juggling a fraught long-distance relationship and a demanding course. Exhausted, I went to stay with my boyfriend in France at the beginning of the summer. Within a week, my hair was coming out in handfuls. Every morning, I would wake, with a distinct sense of unreality, to see my pillow covered in hair. Returning to Oxford two months later
‘On good days, I’m optimistic: at least I have smooth skin all the time, no rasp of leg stubble’
with a ginger wig, befuddled with antidepressants, I was still in shock. I never believed for a second, back then, that it might be permanent. I recall very clearly thinking, when my boyfriend proposed to me a few years later, that there was no way I would ever get married bald, have children bald, live my life bald. It seemed inconceivable. Apart from anything else, I couldn’t imagine the photos. I spent the first two years after losing my hair in aggressive treatment with high doses of steroids intended to
dampen the immune response that causes alopecia. The steroids made me puffy and ravenous. I put on weight and struggled miserably with a salt-free, calorie-restricted diet to manage the weight gain and high blood pressure, decimating my self-esteem still further. There was never any regrowth. Instead, I became acutely bulimic, desperate to control my weight if I could control nothing else, and battling the effects the steroids had on my appetite. I spent a year alternating very restrictive eating and occasional binges on junk food, followed by purging, spending wretched hours in college toilets. With excellent, gentle therapy, I managed to break the bingepurge cycles, but my eating remained restrictive for years. Unable to do anything about my missing hair, I did everything I could to feel as attractive, and as in control, as I possibly could. Through my finals and into my early years as a junior lawyer, I ate rigidly, obsessively, spent huge swathes of my salary on make-up and clothes, exercised religiously, took supplements, gave up alcohol. I look back on that period with huge regret. I don’t remember having much fun, or ever allowing myself to kick back 7
Red / june 2010
and relax. Instead, I recall lying in bed every night, counting off on my fingers how many different types of fruit and vegetables I had managed to eat that day. My boyfriend loyally stuck with me throughout, even though I can’t have been any fun to live with. Gradually, with better wigs and skilful cosmetics, I began to feel a bit better about myself. But the real turning point came when, aged 26, after nearly a year of trying, I became ecstatically pregnant with my first child. Somewhere in the desire to conceive and the excitement of becoming parents, the focus shifted away from being bald. I was pregnant, then a mother, with all the new perspectives that brought. I don’t know if I finally accepted my alopecia – I’m not sure I ever will – but I certainly had more important things to think about.
CLOCKWISE FROM ABOVE: Emma on holiday in Italy, aged 20; aged 18, before she lost her hair; aged 20, in one of her first wigs
‘Newly single, I don’t have someone who knew me with hair and loved me without’
uncomfortable being told how “brave” you are when people mistakenly assume you are in the middle of chemotherapy. Things are changing, though. Last year, I split up with my partner, the self-same boyfriend of 17 years ago who watched helplessly as I shed hair all over his flat. I no longer have the security of a partner who knew me with hair and loved me without. Newly single, thinking about dating and meeting new men, I find alopecia is constantly in my mind. For the first time in years, I find myself wondering about seeking treatment again, even though I know there is little chance of success. All those long-suppressed insecurities are bubbling to the surface. and try to redirect their hands, or, if I’m feeling more relaxed, I just try to push aside my anxieties, enjoy the moment, tell myself there are worse things I could be than bald. I have been too scared of rejection to talk about it up front – but it’s early days. I hope I find a better way. Right now, I vacillate between hope and fear. On bad days, I’m scared I’ll attach myself like a limpet to the first person who shows the slightest interest, grateful that anyone could find a bald woman desirable. On my good days, I’m optimistic – I’m slim and okay-looking, and at least I have smooth skin all the time. Not for me the agony of a Brazilian, the rasp of leg stubble, the misery of bad-hair days. Alopecia does have some unexpected benefits.’
can say with all honesty that since the birth of my two children, there have been whole years when I have barely had a conscious thought about my baldness. In the past 10 years, I have moved countries four times, and seen friends and family deal with illnesses far more devastating than alopecia. My mother died in an accident when I was pregnant with my second child. In the great scheme of things, baldness is pretty trivial. Yes, it always remained a minor sadness, but one I knew how to manage. My children have always seen me without hair and it barely registers with them, except as something to show off to their schoolfriends (“My mum can take her hair off!” my eldest son brags, effectively silencing the perennial, “My mum is better than your mum” conversations). I have excellent wigs that I always wear out of the house, and most of the time in the house, too; it’s how I feel comfortable. I frequently get compliments on my “haircut”, which I accept with childish amusement. My hairdresser is always urging me to go out without a wig, telling me what a nicely shaped head I have, but the kind of attention I would attract is not something I crave. On top of that, it feels
f course, everyone who leaves a long-term relationship and starts dating again is nervous and insecure; filled with body anxieties. I feel all of that, but for me, there’s an extra layer of vulnerability and fear about dating without hair. Could anyone find me attractive? If I tell them about it straight away, will they be put off? If I don’t, will it lead to awkward situations? What do I do when someone touches my “hair”? So far, I have been too embarrassed to address the issue like a grown-up, probably leading to some serious confusion for my unfortunate dates. At the moment, when someone tries to brush my hair back from my face, stroke my neck or cup my head in their hands, it can go one of two ways: either I shy away
Emma’s alopecia heroes
Sophie Thorpe works miracles
on thin, patchy, overplucked or entirely missing eyebrows (sophiethorpe.co.uk).
Sue Renigan at Positively hair
works with bespoke wigs that you can swim, shower, even sleep in, if you so desire. instead of a traditional mesh base, they use a thin silicone cap, much more realistic in look and feel (positivelyhair.co.uk).
make-up lindsay poole at time
Vial at Real hair has been
cutting wigs that make me feel human – and making me laugh hysterically in the process – for 10 years (realhair.co.uk). e
282 Red / june 2010
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