what i wish i knew

Hold on, Let Me Grab My Wig

January 05, 2021
Hannah Horstmyer

I had just gotten home from swim practice, and I went to take a shower to rinse the chlorine off of myself. Afterwards, as I was brushing my hair, I noticed several large clumps being pulled away with the brush. I was 13, and I panicked. What ensued in the following months changed my world more than I could have possibly imagined.

Doctor after doctor ran test after test. Some inserted needles into the epidermis of my head, injecting me with steroids to promote hair growth, others delicately offered contact information for the “best” wig stores near me, specializing in hairpieces for those with hair loss resulting from radiation, chemotherapy, or Alopecia Areata— a phrase that for me long felt like acid on the tongue. I wore some awful wigs in my first few years of baldness. Itchy, hot, uncomfortable... I wore them everywhere. I felt like a character in a Doctor Seuss story. “She wears it on a boat, or perhaps even in a moat! Under blazing sun and red-hot sky. What a strange hairline! Something is awry!”. I eventually grew tired of wearing a wig, and began going out with a scarf, and then at long last, my bald head. 

📸: @abaldleo

I’ve become more comfortable with my baldness since my initial hair loss, but I’d be lying if I said those nagging voices in my head stopped completely. You know the voices I’m talking about. The ones that say, “this outfit would look better with a wig,” or “maybe people wouldn’t stare at you so much if you looked normal”. 

Now granted, those voices are much quieter than before and they don’t come around as often, but one place that used to give me so much anxiety (and still does occasionally) is the swimming pool. I started swimming when I was eight years old with all of the other neighborhood kids. We would show up for practice bright and early five days a week. I was never very good, but it was something that gave me joy. I absolutely adored swimming. I loved the way jumping into a cold pool felt on a hot summers’ day, and the way the smell of chlorine would stick on my skin for hours. To be honest, it didn’t feel like a day at the pool if my eyes didn’t burn from keeping them open under said chlorine water. 

That changed when I lost my hair, though. My hair was long and curly, a warm brown with slightly red undertones. It was my favorite physical feature at the time. Given the circumstances, I was understandably distraught when I lost my hair. It makes me chuckle now, thinking about how in denial I was about my hair loss. I insisted on wearing a wig under my swimming cap, just so I could feel more normal, despite the fact that with every lap I swam, the cap inched further up my head, taking my wig with it. Being in the pool with a wig was easy compared to what came in the dreaded changing rooms and showers. Being 13 is awkward enough without a balding hairline. I was never very self-conscious of many things, but having alopecia made me pick apart my appearance so incessantly that it more than made up for any other insecurity I would have had. After practice, when everyone would go into their respective changing rooms, girls would shake their (usually) long hair out of the caps… except me. I insisted on keeping mine on until I was home. I felt so uncomfortable with myself and I couldn’t let anyone see the way my head really looked, sparse and awkwardly placed pieces of hair poking out in every which way.

I only swam competitively for another six months after my hair fell out. Alopecia took something I loved so dearly and turned it into something I never wanted to go near. For the first few years after I lost my hair, I stayed away from pools, rivers, you name it. 

My relationship with myself and my hair loss didn’t really start to change until I had been bald for about 6 years and had given up basically all hope my hair would ever grow back (which does happen in some circumstances). Despite how uncomfortable I was with my personal appearance, I never hated myself. I hated the situation I was in. There was an anger inside of me for so long that has only recently started to dissipate. In its place exists a peaceful wave of empathy and understanding, two things I owe to my younger self. Having alopecia is never something I thought I could (or would!) celebrate, but here we are. Here I am. I love my bald head, and the lessons that have come with it. 

Despite having grown more comfortable with the reflection that looks back at me, I only started going to the pool without a wig, or any type of head covering for that matter, within the past two years. My relationship with hair is a little strange. It used to be the only physical feature that made me feel beautiful, and when I lost it the sadness was immeasurable. The comfort I found in wearing wigs quickly faded as it dawned on me that a wig would really get in the way of my favorite active pastimes. I knew I would probably have to learn to love my bald head, or at least live with it, if I wanted to do many of the things I enjoyed. 

Learning to appreciate ourselves through our perceived flaws will almost always be a challenge. Understanding that we all have our own insecurities we work through helps each of us develop empathy, and a better understanding of the individuals around us. It takes a lot of work to sit down and face what makes you uncomfortable about yourself, but be it a physical trait or otherwise, we all possess the ability to overcome it.