Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images

HEALTH

20 things I’ve learnt in 20 years without hair

September is alopecia awareness month. It’s a condition Emma Beddington has lived with for almost her entire adult life

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By Emma Beddington on

1. Alopecia is an autoimmune condition; when I was 20, my body decided my hair was a dangerous invader that had to be destroyed.

It did a brilliant job. I like to tell myself that I must have a fantastic immune system and will never get badly sick. This has no factual basis whatsoever, but it makes me feel good. 

2. First, my hair fell out; then, over the course of a year, my body hair, eyebrows and eyelashes followed.

There are better ways to spend your second year at university. 

3. If I could wave a magic wand and get only one back, I’d choose eyelashes every time.

It’s not just vanity – you have no idea how important lashes are until you lose them. My eyes are constantly irritated because there’s nothing to protect them from the grime of city life. 

4. Nothing worked – not steroids, injections, lotions or diet.

But they all helped, because they gave me something else to think about. 

5. Alopecia is an amazing timesaver, grooming-wise.

I wash my wig once a week, put it on my head and that's it. I haven't had to shave, wax or even take a view on the politics of body hair in 20 years. I could have got a degree in feminist theory in the time I've saved, but instead, I probably spent most of it looking for the perfect eyeliner (the lashless woman’s Holy Grail – I'm currently experimenting with a lush, super-soft Trish McEvoy pencil). 

6. Weather takes on a whole new importance.

Wearing a wig above 25°C is like riding a Heatherwick bus in a heatwave: a grim, steaming head sauna. Wind is even worse – I keep an emergency beanie in my handbag for treacherously blustery days.  

7. You think you're tied to your hairdresser? It's infinitely worse when you're trusting them with £1,500 of hair that won't grow back.

My brilliant hairdresser, John, has gone stratospheric in the 15 years since he first cut my wig, so I chase him from salon to salon, compulsively rechecking his contact details each time. Each visit costs the earth, but I just can’t break away. Sometimes I wake in the night terrified he'll die before me.  

8. Wigs are unsexy and comical, but I adore mine.

It's my normality shield – my cloak of invisibility. “You have a lovely head,” John the hairdresser says sometimes, stroking it idly. “You'd look amazing bareheaded – people will just think you're really badass.” But I don’t want to look badass; I just want to look ordinary. 

9. I don't like anyone seeing me bareheaded.

Not my parents, not even my best friend. I know it shouldn't matter; I know they don’t care. But that vulnerable, naked version of me isn't what I want them to see. Only my husband and my kids (and John) ever see me without my wig. 

10. Actually, my son used to win playground bragging competitions with “My mum can take her hair off!”

I refused to demonstrate, much to his disappointment. 

If I could wave a magic wand and get only one back, I’d choose eyelashes every time

11. Five or six times a year, someone asks me if I’ve had my hair cut or coloured when I’m wearing the exact same wig as the previous day.

I still don’t have a good answer to this.

12. I often hear women with cancer say that hair loss is the worst, most frightening part of their diagnosis and treatment.

It seems strange that something I've lived with all my adult life could be scarier than a potentially fatal disease, but there’s something primal and intense about women’s relationship with their hair – it’s intimately tied up with our notions of femininity. 

13. But I still feel feminine.

I still feel desirable. I still feel sexy.

14. Not always. But who does? 
 

15. The worst thing about wigs? The way they retain smells.

Barbecues, chain-smokers and Old El Paso fajita mix are my kryptonite. 

16. Occasionally, I dream that my hair is growing back.

I run my hand over my scalp and there are tiny sharp bristles or short soft baby curls; I touch them again and again in happy disbelief. The mornings after these dreams are always tough. 

17. In my head, I know this is it. It's never coming back. 
 

18. Even so, when there's a scientific breakthrough, I can't help wondering, just for a minute. 
 

19. Some days it matters more than others.

But, over time, it matters less and less. For years, I thought I couldn't bear to get married without my own hair, but I did, eventually, when being married became more important than looking the way I wanted. 

20. It’s not that important.

My brother has a brain tumour and, periodically, he loses his hair to yet another round of chemo or gets his head shaved for treatment. The hair loss doesn't much matter in the grand scheme of things – it's keeping him alive. In comparison, my puny aesthetic gripes are trivial. Because you can be both bald and terribly, terribly lucky. That's what I am.

@BelgianWaffling

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