On hair, loss and self-acceptance: A personal account of living with alopecia, no longer hiding from reality

Tanya Maheshwari

I have had the ability to change the length, style and colour of my hair on any given day, without ever stepping into a salon. Some may call it a super-power, but the medical name for this phenomenon is alopecia.

For those who don't know, alopecia is a genetic disorder, characterised by a receding hairline and diffused thinning of hair over the entire scalp. In some cases, it leads to complete loss of hair on the scalp and body.

I've never had thick hair, but this never bothered me €" not until I turned 13 and had my first period. Soon, chunks of hair started falling from my head; they were on my pillow, in the sink, on my clothes.

We rushed to doctors, even changed doctors. They suspected regular hormonal imbalance, that girls sometimes go through at puberty. Then I was investigated for Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS), but that was ruled out. For six years, my family and I went on a wild goose chase: we tried every remedy suggested by any doctor, as well as hormonal contraception pills, Ayurveda, homeopathy, acupuncture, home remedies and €" in desperation €" hair transplant. It wasn't an easy decision, considering the cost and the pain involved. I have 150 stitches at the back of my head, as witness to this part of the story.

The diagnosis finally came: I had androgenic alopecia. After six years of telling and retelling my story to an ever-increasing list of doctors and medical practitioners, and a series of blood tests, my first reaction to this heartbreaking diagnosis was sheer relief. Finally, my family and I had a name for this roller coaster ride that had consumed six out of my seven teenage years.

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I grappled with self-esteem and social anxiety, and on some days, I still do. Once during the initial years, I was hosting a cultural show in my high school €" what would be considered a moment of pride for any student. I felt confident and happy. But later, when I saw the pictures taken at the event, it all went downhill. The photographer had taken some top angle shots of the stage, and all I could see in those pictures were my bald spots. I stared at my exposed crown; I had no idea it looked so naked. "This can't be me," I tried to convince myself. I wanted to disappear, to not be. In that moment, I did what I have always done when I was lost for answers: I went home, to my mother.

I was 16 then, and have come a long way ever since. I have gratitude for all the experiences, people and places which have seen me through a very difficult journey.

Three years ago, I moved out of India. My new environment gave me new insights and ways of understanding my own struggles with social anxiety. Here I discovered that there was a sensitive and sensible way to talk about hair loss and alopecia €" a way centered on building bridges rather than putting others on the defensive. People asked questions which were not loaded with judgment or worse, unsolicited sympathy. There were ignorant remarks sometimes, but they usually stemmed from innocent curiosity and not concern about my marriage prospects. No one raised an alarm about how my life was now completely futile, just because I didn't have hair. This was a refreshing break from losing hair over my hair loss! It certainly acted as a catalyst in my journey of self-acceptance.

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I realised that as much as I longed for the feeling of running my fingers through my own hair, there was a dire need to accept and embrace my reality. A few months ago, I went to a hair loss specialist and decided to get my head shaved. It turned out to be the most liberating moment of my life, thus far. I squealed with happiness as I sat in that salon chair. I was looking at myself in the mirror for the first time, and I had an epiphany: this is who I am, it makes no sense to hide myself. Being able to narrate my story is the next step towards self-acceptance.

In a world where appearances matter, baldness is hard on men and women alike. Jokes on people's appearances €" a sign of one's insensitivity, not wit €" can become the reason why they feel insecure about how they look, when in fact each one of us is trying to belong, be understood and accepted for who or what we are. All of us are battling varying and different social pressures, after all.

I'm grateful that I'm perfectly healthy and don't suffer from serious health risks. Who knows, soon you may see me in different wigs, types of headgear, or even bald €" and happy.

If you have a similar story to share with the author, reach out at maheshwari.tanya@gmail or her Instagram account

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