Off the Couch

Thoughts about the therapeutic process, and the dynamics of client-therapist interactions.

Hair Loss and Desirability

What does your hair say about you?

“I started losing my hair when I was 22,” said the man across the table from me. “No,” said the guy on his left. “What did you do?” It was obvious he had done something, because he had a relatively good head of hair for someone his age. He grinned and said, “I found Rogaine.”

The woman sitting beside me whispered in my ear that she used another treatment.

I learned a long time ago that hair has meaning – lots of meaning. Growing up in the 1960’s, my friends and siblings and I struggled with our parents for control over the length and style of our hair. At the time, hair represented our need to break free from the bonds that bound the tightly wound adults in our lives. Long tresses represented our freed inner selves and our goal of finding a way to live in peace with the rest of the world. Although we might have helped to end the war in Viet Nam, we sadly didn’t achieve anything near world peace;  and now many of us are fighting to keep just a little of the hair that once tumbled over our ears and down our backs.  

Clients are often surprised when I ask them questions about their hairstyle – why they choose it, how else they’ve worn their hair, how they feel about it, and so on; but while it may seem to be a superficial topic, even today our tresses still have tremendous psychological and emotional meaning. Understanding some of those meanings can lead to understanding many different aspects of a person’s psyche. How we view our curls, for example, can reveal something about how we view ourselves.

Our “crowning glory” can show off physical and emotional well-being, sexual potency and desirability, and even social and financial status. When it becomes dull or brittle, it can communicate emotional and/or physical disease.(Obviously, for many cancer sufferers, its loss is also a sign of the treatment they are undergoing.) But hair can also capture unrecognized and often unspoken daydreams about oneself and one’s world. One woman – a successful professional – wore her long hair in a thick bun. But one day she showed me that confined in the bun was tangled, knotted hair. She said that she never brushed out the tangles because it captured her secret image of herself as a helpless, disturbed woman/child, like Ophelia in the play Hamlet. Another woman came to therapy in huge sweatshirt and sweatpants that she believed hid the weight she had put on since the birth of her child. She talked about how much she hated her body and how helpless she felt about doing anything about it. But her hair was always beautifully colored and groomed. When I pointed out that she seemed to have a different relationship with her hair than she did with her body, she said that her hair had been thinning and she was trying to keep it looking as good as she could. I pointed out that what she was doing with her hair and her body was kind of contradictory, and wondered if she had any thoughts about that.

She was surprised. But as we talked about her contradictory attitudes towards different parts of her physical self, we began to open up all sorts of other thoughts and ideas about her inner self. And interestingly, as we continued opening those internal doors, changes started to happen. She started eating differently and exercising regularly. One day some months later, she appeared in my office in skinny jeans and a tight sweater, her hair pulled back in a ponytail. “I decided to see what would happen if I stopped trying to hide myself,” she said with a big grin. “And…?” I asked. “People keep smiling at me on the street. My husband hugged me this morning, for the first time in ages. And I feel good!”

Self-esteem in both men and women can be damaged by thinning hair, who may feel alone even though they are really not. According to New York Times writer Tatiana Boncompagni, there are some 80 million people in the United States who have some form of male pattern baldness. This is the kind of hair loss in which the hairline recedes and the hair on the crown of the head thins out. Research suggests that this kind of baldness is genetic or hereditary, but there are many other types caused by stress, emotions, physical illness, and a variety of environmental factors.

Given our cultural focus on physical appearance, youth, and health, hair loss can be traumatic for both men and women. The market is filled with hair-enhancing treatments; but there are those who have decided to buck the system and subscribe to the “bald is beautiful” position. In a recent article in the NY Times,  Daniel Jones writes, “Head shaving has gone prime time. And not a moment too soon for guys like me, who would never have had the guts to take such a drastic measure if so many men hadn’t acted so bravely to make an odd look so mysteriously hip. Macho types are inspired by the likes of Jason Statham and Vin Diesel; music fans have Pitbull, Chris Daughtry and Michael Stipe; intellectuals can look to Chuck Close and Sir Ben Kingsley; and aspiring athletes can air-slap high-fives with Andre Agassi, Michael Jordan, Kelly Slater and countless others.”

(Full disclosure: Having grown up with a father who was bald before I was born, I have always found baldness attractive in a man.)

Sinead O’Connor not withstanding, it is much harder for women to take the bald is beautiful approach to hair loss. We tend to try to hide it in one way or another. But no matter what approach you use, it is crucial to remember that the thickness of your hair has nothing to do with your value in the world. Furthermore, it is important to keep in mind that different people have different responses to different sexual signals.

When Demi Moore shaved her head for the movie GI Jane, more than one man confessed to me that the combination of vulnerability and strength was a great turn on.

So whether you choose the medical route (or any other treatment to stop the loss) or decide to emulate Daniel Jones’ shiny pate, remember that you have nothing to be ashamed of. Thinning hair may not be something you can change. But it doesn’t have to control how you represent the person who lives underneath it.  

Teaser image source: http://www.yourstuffwork.com/2011/11/vin-diesel.html

F. Diane Barth, L.C.S.W., is a psychotherapist, teacher, and author in private practice in New York City.

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