My father was the seventh son. His hair loss started when he was just twenty. It happened quickly too – in a few short years, his entire pate was shiny and smooth, though the thick dark hair around his ears hadn’t even had time to go grey. He married at twenty-three, to a young blond hairdresser, thinking, hoping, that having an expert close by might perhaps mitigate the long-term effects of his affliction. And for the first few years of marriage, she laboriously administered scalp massages and strengthening treatments, but to no avail.
Male pattern baldness is genetic. Suffering is not only limited to men, because it’s related to androgens (male sex hormones like testosterone) it’s simply more common in men. As we age, our hormone levels change. Those with the baldness gene will find that increasing levels of hormones like testosterone are converted to Dihydrotestosterone (DHT) which aggressively causes the follicles to wither. Over time, scalp follicles narrow, hair becomes finer and increasingly sparse, until it stops growing completely. This happens in a typical ‘pattern’, a receding hairline that often leaves a small island of hair at the crown, tempting many men into the attempted comb-over.
Ironically, the same testosterone that triggers baldness, can also have the opposite effect on facial hair. Male sex hormones are the same triggers that cause facial hair to sprout during puberty, and the gene for baldness has no influence on facial hair. Then there are those who suffer from alopecia, an auto-immune disease which attacks all follicles. In severe cases, alopecia sufferers will lose their eyebrows, eyelashes and even pubic hair, though it has been known to regrow.
There is a myth that hereditary baldness skips a generation. There is a grain of truth here, though not enough to save both my balding brothers. There are over 200 genes that control hair growth, and the fact is, while hair loss is recessive, it’s possible that both your mother’s X-linked chromosome and the Y chromosome could carry it. While my dad lost his hair suddenly, and at the age of 20, both my brothers experienced a slow and perpetual descent into baldness that spanned two decades. In the nineties, they wore beanies. In the naughties, they had buzz cuts. Now they rock peaked hats and fine, luxurious hipster beards, speckled with streaks of ginger and white.
The past five years have seen a surge in demand for hair transplant surgery. Methodologies have evolved, as the multi-billion dollar aesthetics market recognised the financial and physical discomfort that some men will endure to restore their hair. According to WhatClinic.com, there are almost 100 dedicated hair transplant clinics in London alone, with hundreds more offering massage, acupuncture, heat treatments and chemical solutions for those unwilling to spend tens of thousands on surgery.
The question is one that has been asked for years within the elective cosmetic world. Should we embrace the things we cannot change, or should we take every advantage of modern medicine to change the things we cannot embrace? Is the man who carefully puts his wig on every morning placing his own self-loathing there for everyone else to see, or is he bravely putting on his armour in an increasingly image-conscious, selfie-driven world?
Lewis Hamilton, Wayne Rooney, James Nesbitt, Kevin Kostner and a host of over 40 male actors have clearly opted for transplant surgery. While they might make it to the occasional hairy headline, it hasn’t seemed to have impacted their levels of success. John Travolta’s wig is just as obvious as Joan Collins. Neither want to face the world without them. Though Joan has had perhaps the last laugh. She’s launched her own line of wigs. Perhaps she’s not embracing her age, as much as making the most out of it.
I look at my two sons and wonder what their journey will be. I can’t imagine that the world they will grow up in will become less self-obsessed.
My ten-year-old has a bright blue fringe, inspired by his favourite vlogger, DanTDM. And as I worry about how they will grow up and handle their own puberty and likely hair loss, the splash of colour gives me a little hope. My sons are lucky enough to live in a society where lack of conformity is OK. Where they can express themselves through colour, clothes, friendship bands, and coloured fringes. Where non-binary gender is becoming more understood, where traditional ideas of masculinity have been transformed. Perhaps the stigma of wigs and hair pieces will fall away as all of us face a future of wearable technology and emerging body modification. We shall have to wait and see.
Photo credit: Flickr/malehmann