Smooth Operator

Losing my hair to alopecia revealed more than just the head underneath

I borrowed my parents’ car to drive to the West End suburb. It was a long drive, one that went by strip malls and big box stores, pet shops and pawn shops, shawarma joints and Swiss Chalets. I was not in my element.

The dermatologist had recommended Jenni’s Wigs, saying they had a good selection and decent prices. “These wigs are made of real human hair,” the salesperson said, “so you can wash them, style them, even cut them! But they also wear out the way real hair does, so we recommend you replace them every four months, otherwise, it starts to show, you know…” she trailed off. I tried on a few wigs; they were all so big, so fluffy, so voluminous, so styled. Here I was, a 25 year old woman in Chuck Taylors and a Le Tigre t-shirt, who used to style her short shag by washing it and sleeping on it while still wet, who was content not shaving her legs or armpits, listening to the clerk tell her the bouncy blonde bob really suited her complexion. I pulled the last wig off and finally recognized the person in the mirror: she was bald, and that suited her.

I started losing my hair in the early days of Grade 9. It began with one looney-sized spot, followed by many more. The dermatologist explained that I had alopecia areata, an auto-immune condition that made my immune system attack my hair as though it were a disease. With alopecia, the root of the hair remains in the scalp, which means that it is possible for the hair to grow back. Regrowth can be encouraged with cortisone injections to the affected area, or by using products like Rogain. I tried both, but soon grew tired of monthly dermatologist appointments and very irritating creams and lotions that would make my skin burn and flake. So I just bided my time until the hair returned, changing my hair style to best hide the damn spots.

But eventually the bald spots started growing larger. I could no longer hide them by parting my hair differently or swooping my bangs this way or that. I started wearing a lot of hats, soft lightweight berets that weren’t too hot indoors. I became a master of scarves, expertly wrapping my head in a flurry of silk knots and ruffles or crisply tucked cotton, depending on what the rest of my outfit commanded. At the time, I was singing in a retro-sounding rock band, so my headgear became very much a part of my onstage persona. Since my bangs were still kind enough to stick by me, few people knew that once the hat or the scarf came off, I looked like a sphinx cat.

I can’t remember what exactly prompted me to finally shave it all off. But one day I decided to lose the last resilient wispy locks in the mustard yellow sink of my apartment’s bathroom, using my then-boyfriend’s razor to finish the job (not big on shaving my legs, I didn’t have a razor of my own). I couldn’t stop touching my head—it was soft and warm, and just a little clammy. I walked into work the next day with a mixture of trepidation and relief; my co-workers knew of my alopecia and were cool enough not to make a big fuss over what was kind of a big deal to me. But one staff member, a part-timer who didn’t know me that well, hadn’t realized I had lost my hair—he thought I had shaved it off purposely. I was flattered that he thought I was badass enough to do such a thing, and at that moment my attitude toward baldness shifted. Instead of it being inflicted upon me, I was going to own it.

It wasn’t that much of a leap, come to think of it. Thanks to my family, my friends and my extended feminist tribe, I was already the kind of person who saw value in going against the norm and challenging expectations of female attractiveness, of femaleness period. I already cherished looking weird! In pop culture women are expected not to have hair on their legs, their armpits, or their pubic areas, but the head is supposed to be full of lustrous locks flowing in the wind. Being a bald woman and embracing it was just another way of flipping a proud middle finger to the rigid constraints of accepted commercial taste.

Then, one day, as I was applying sunscreen to my noggin, I noticed a bit of fuzz creeping through. Over the ensuing months, the fuzz continued to grow, and soon I was sporting a cute crop like Mia Farrow in Rosemary’s Baby. Why did my hair grow back? Your guess is as good as mine. I’ve read that it is rare but not impossible for this to happen, but also that it could very well fall out again. So my attitude toward the regrowth was the same as my attitude toward the loss: I just rolled with it. Today, my head appears to be full. You wouldn’t know I have alopecia unless I flipped my head forward and revealed the accidental undercut that creeps up around my ears. Whipping my whole upper body back and forth like a rag doll is one of my favourite dance moves, which I guess means many people do quite frequently see my bald spots, but at this point I couldn’t care less. This song is too good not to dance.

text // Marie-Camille Lalande
photography // Rémi Thériault

Read more stories about personal relationships with hair in issue 15 of WORN Fashion Journal, out later this month.