As women, we are constantly being scrutinised about our hair. The texture, the length, the style, the colour, I could go on and on. Women of colour and in particular, black women have to deal with immeasurable amounts of nappy hair jokes from fellow black brothers and even other women. We have all had our fair amount of random sticky hands yanking our puffs in primary school and telling us how “spongy” (*insert side eye*) our hair is. Then as we got older and the hair got straighter, there were the painful pokes and that ever-invasive £30 question…“is your hair real?”
Looking back, those tedious situations and tiresome questions are sometimes quite funny and bond us. They create a shared experience, like black hair glue cementing a track we’ve all tiptoed at one point. The reality of all this is that, as cliché and pathetic as it sounds, hair is a big part of our identity. It plays a major role in the way we express ourselves, an integral way in which we are peer-assessed and even the way we dress. Basically, our hair is very important. With that in mind, imagine how hard it must be to be young, black and bald in a climate where hair is ‘everything’.
People act like I woke up one day in a bed full of hair and bald.
Tayla* is a typical 21 year old student who likes mojitos, Mac and minstrels like most girls her age. In fact the only thing that slightly separates her from her peers is that she has Alopecia Universalis, meaning she has no hair, at all.
Alopecia is a strange disease in the sense that there are no collective symptoms, aside from the obvious hair loss and there is no definitive ‘cure’ or treatment. As Tayla talks, her carefree, chilled vibe evaporates into a more solemn presence as she starts at the beginning.
When the doctor told me there was no way to determine whether my hair would start growing back in a week or in a year, I felt sick. I just couldn’t breathe.
Similarly to other ‘Alopecians’ (a word used in some support groups to describe people with Alopecia), Tayla’s hair loss began with a bald patch on her scalp that eventually led to complete loss of body hair.
So my hair started falling out, and it’s funny because I used to hate my hair, it was so tough! But then it starts falling and I’m crying actual buckets.
Laughing, she explains how when her hair first started falling out. she used to try and keep it in zip lock bags.
I don’t know why, it’s not like I was going to bloody glue it back to my scalp.
Websites dedicated to supporting people with Alopecia link the disease to stress and the NHS website states that often stress can prolong the issue and this was the case for Tayla.
Here I am in my first semester of my first year at uni, stressing out because my hair was falling out so more of my hair keeps falling out until there’s nothing left. Then my eyebrows, my eyelashes, everything, it just all goes. I could’ve drowned in my own tears that year.
By the end of her first year, Tayla had been diagnosed with Alopecia Universalis and was completely hairless. Always one to look on the bright side, she dryly joked “At least I don’t have to worry about shaving my legs anymore, that part is pretty good”.
Though there is no physical scarring, the emotional damage can be deep and painful.
At one point I felt so distraught I wanted to nearly commit suicide, I sunk into such deep depression that I had to take an interruption year out of uni. It sounds pathetic but it happened so fast that I felt like what should’ve been one of the best years of my life ended up being the worst.
A year on and she’s started getting used to her hairless body though it doesn’t make it easier for her. Seeing Tayla out and about you would never know about this condition and she credits this to her to what she calls “my holy grails, a good lace front wig and the Sleek eyebrow pencil”.
Sadly, she tells how she has to put on a face full of make even when she’s lounging about because she’s scared for people to see her without it. “It’s embarrassing you know, I don’t want them to feel sorry for me and all that. One time the fire alarm went off and I just stayed in my room because I couldn’t be bothered to put on my wig or draw on my eyebrows”. That unwanted pity has led Tayla to only telling two of her friends about the Alopecia.
“There are pros though, don’t get it twisted. I no longer have a designated washday and I haven’t bought mascara in forever! Of course no longer having to shave is the biggest blessing so all clouds…” she laughs heartily.
With Alopecia, the hair follicles remain active, so new shafts could produce whenever and Tayla excitedly tells me how she has two eyelashes growing and a few leg hairs so she is hopeful for the future. “If it doesn’t grow back I’ll live. As long as I have my brow kit and demi wispies anyway!”
So, It’s all well singing along to India Arie and chanting ‘I Am Not My Hair’ because it’s true, but there is also the fact that to many young women, hair is important and it does give us that sense of security. After all, in the words of Tayla “there’s a big difference being bald by choice and bald by force”.
*Name has been changed.