This article was originally published in November 2020.
Western cultures are (finally) at the helm of expanding their preconceived notions of “what is beauty?” From body size or type to skin colour and condition, greater efforts across industries are being made towards a more inclusive and representative landscape. But what has stayed relatively stagnant in this has been hair.
In a recent campaign for a luxury haircare line, supermodel Emily Ratajkowski noted that hair was, “a fundamental part of beauty, femininity and identity.” And though she received her fair share of backlash for this statement, her sentiment wasn’t far off from what we’ve grown up seeing in magazines and in turn, believing ourselves. This was why when Alopecia Areata entered my life in 2008, it felt like the end of the world as I knew it.
What exactly is alopecia areata?
Alopecia areata is an autoimmune condition that develops when the immune system mistakes healthy cells for foreign intruders. The immune system attacks hair follicles resulting in hair loss. It develops slowly and can recur for years.
I didn’t realize how important my eyebrows and eyelashes were until I lost them.
There are three different types of alopecia: Patchy alopecia, where you lose your hair in small patches, alopecia totalis, total hair loss of the scalp and Alopecia unversalis, which means total hair loss of the body.
For me, alopecia has shown up as an unwelcome visitor every two years since 2008 — even making its way back just in time for COVID-19 (as if this year hasn’t wreaked enough havoc in each of our lives). The first time it came around was hard. I noticed a small bald patch at the front of my hairline that slowly became bigger — not even bangs could hide my secret. As the months went by, I began to lose my eyelashes and part of my right eyebrow. I didn’t realize how important my eyebrows and eyelashes were until I lost them.
My family doctor was stumped and didn’t know what to say except, be less stressed! How could I not be down when I hated what I saw every time I looked in the mirror? I felt like I had been stripped of my femininity. Waking up early every day to colour in my eyebrows and glue on synthetic eyelashes began to take a toll on my mental health which made the hair loss worse.
This is how I managed my alopecia and the hair loss cure that helped most
I saw a dermatologist who explained that alopecia areata is somewhat a mystery to medical professionals and that there’s no real way to determine what the cause is. That same day I began steroid injections into the affected areas on my scalp. The steroid injections help stimulate hair growth, though it’s not always proven to work. Lucky for me it did. I repeated this procedure every two months until the hair began to grow back. For my eyebrows, I used minoxidil, you know, that good old-fashioned Rogaine.
Soon, my alopecia became a distant memory. That was until 2011 when it decided to come knocking on my door again. Around the same time, Lady Gaga had released her groundbreaking album, Born This Way, featuring the song “Hair.” I’d belt out the lyrics Gaga sang with such confidence — “I’m as free as my hair” — only to look in the mirror and feel the furthest thing from it. My hair wasn’t my freedom. It felt like my prison. And this prison, one partially self-inflicted, affected more than just my appearance. My mood went up and down. I went from being hopeful when the hair started to grow back, to depressed when I started to lose it again. It was a vicious cycle with no end in sight.
Living with alopecia helped me redefine beauty as I knew it
It’s now been 13 years with alopecia. At one point I really thought I was in the clear. It was gone. But nope! This time around, not only has alopecia blessed me with a patchy spot at the front of my hairline, it has taken my eyelashes from me again for the first time since 2008. That’s been the worst part for me. It breaks my heart, but at some point you have to say to hell with it. This is who I am. Middle fingers up to society’s standard of what beauty is.
When alopecia reappeared this year, it seemed more than I could handle in what has already felt like an intense year. But they said hindsight is 2020 (who knew it’d be so literal) and as I found out, it couldn’t have come at a better time. In a world where you’re forced to stay home, I’ve had a lot of time to reflect on what is important and what I am thankful for. It has allowed me to explore my identity and femininity from a perspective beyond what meets the eye. When one of the only people looking at you for six months is you, you have to learn to like what you see. And more than that, who you’re with.
That doesn’t mean I’ve accepted it completely. I still resist it as best I can. I’ve upped my vitamin intake by adding biotin, zinc and probiotics to my routine. I take herbal supplements such as green tea and ginseng. I’ve discovered crystals and meditation — I know that the effects of this may be placebo but it’s given me comfort and I need that the most right now. Castor oil is my new best friend. I do a pre-poo before washing my hair (this is a hair mask you can create by adding a teaspoon of castor oil to a conditioner of your choice). I’ve also been really attached to my scalp massager. None of this is proven be a hair loss cure, but I’m willing to try and find out. At worst, it helps with stress. And of course, steroid injections courtesy of my dermatologist every two months.
In the meantime, I have fun experimenting with wigs and eyelashes as a creative vice and no longer a necessity.
It’s not always easy. Body and hair acceptance isn’t a simple switch as it’s made out to be, though certainly closer in reach than it once was thanks to the recent strides of the beauty industry and key pop culture figures like Rihanna and Lizzo. I take it day by day, with all the lows and highs, but one thing remains constant — every morning I look in the mirror and while I’m faced with the symptoms of alopecia, I remind myself of three things I’m thankful for.
I may not have my eyelashes but I am more than that. I am more than my hair — I am beautiful. And feminine. Outside the confines of the industry standard and far deeper than what you see. Losing my hair once felt like a painful life sentence, but over a 13-year process, I’ve learned hair is nothing more than an accessory and without it, there’s just more room to play with all the other things that help make me me.
I can’t change my alopecia. I can resist it but it’s here for now. And it’s not that rare. So for anyone reading this who may share my experience, I want you to know you’re beautiful. Your hair does not define you.