We Are More Than Our Hair

My youngest sister started losing her hair  seven years ago — a single patch on her scalp that grew back with the help of some topical steroid foam. For about a year, we thought we were good. That it was just a one-time occurrence.

Then it started falling out again, and this time the steroids did not work. It didn’t take long until all of her hair everywhere, including eyebrows and eyelashes, was completely gone.

Did you know that September is Alopecia Areata Awareness Month?

Unfortunately, I don’t think many people do.

Alopecia areata is an autoimmune disease that results in hair loss of various degrees. It does not discriminate by age or gender and affects approximately 2 percent of the population — including more than 6.5 million people in America alone.

It’s not uncommon for a treatment to work once and then not work later when the disease returns. Or for a certain treatment to work for one person and not another. Alopecia areata is highly unpredictable and as of now there is no cure.

I have a feeling the lack of knowledge of alopecia areata is due to it not being a life-threatening disease. But self-image is just as important to the human race as physical health. Imagine suddenly waking up one day with patches of hair missing. If it’s the first time, it could be a scary revelation. If it’s not, it could be just as devastating — destroying the hope that the disease has disappeared for good.

My sister is one of the lucky ones. She can’t remember the time when she had hair. Bald is just who she is, and she’s all right with that. But there are others with this disease that are not as fortunate.

I remember meeting one lady who commended my sister for walking around without a wig or a head covering. She was unable to do that herself, even having dealt with the disease since her own childhood.

On the National Alopecia Areata Foundation website, they refer to alopecia areata as a life-altering disease. Your appearance is the first thing people see; it’s how they base first impressions. I know I’ve offered excuses and apologies for days when I’ve been too lazy to do anything with my hair. Why? Because I feel the need to, because we’re supposed to try and look our best, and just rolling out of bed and pulling my hair back or leaving it greasy isn’t necessarily my best.

Watch TV for a couple hours. Count how many commercials there are for hair products: shampoo, color dye, straighteners, styling gel, accessories, etc. There are a lot. And most are depicted in such a way that life seems tremendously better with the quote-unquote better hair. One in particular shows a woman in black and white and unhappy, until she uses a particular shampoo, then it’s all color and smiles.

Society has put importance on appearance — as children, we’re taught not to leave home without brushing our teeth and combing our hair. And we don’t just want to look good for others, we also want to look good for ourselves. Women and men alike spend money on hair products and hairstyles, to achieve the look they determine to be their best — the look that makes them feel good about themselves.

Yet, even with all this focus on appearance, the general populace is not aware of this devastating disease that fundamentally alters how others see you — and how you see yourself.

So what can we, as a society, do about this?

My answer is two-fold. First, spread awareness of alopecia areata. Share stories, hold events, fundraise. If we come together, there may be a time when a cure exists and no child has to worry about their hair falling out.

Second, and this will take substantially longer, change the way we view self-image. We need to be more like my sister and her friends, who also have alopecia areata. They don’t care that they’re bald. How they look doesn’t influence how they feel about themselves. We should strive to be the same.

For more information about alopecia areata and what the National Alopecia Areata Foundation is doing for cure and treatment research, visit naaf.org.