Demystifying Female Hair Loss

Because hindsight is always 20/20, I realize now that the issue began before that fall day when my hair was coming out in fistfuls. Until that day I had been blissfully ignoring the fact that slowly, over the past year, my hair had gotten thinner and thinner, to the point that one could see my blindingly white scalp through my bangs.

That day in November of 2013, when strands began coming out every time I ran my hand through my hair, I broke down crying to my roommate, asking her if she could sweep my bedroom floor because I was too terrified to see just how much loose hair had accumulated in dust bunnies and tumbleweeds. She did. And I silently wept, crawled into bed, cancelled my date with my new budding flame, and found the online world of hair loss message boards where women who were losing their hair, terrified and not knowing what to do, banded together in shame.

I asked my roommate if she could sweep my bedroom floor because I was too terrified to see just how much loose hair had accumulated in dust bunnies and tumbleweeds.

I was born with a full head of blonde hair, wild and in a mohawk. Growing up my hair would settle into a light brown color, wavy in childhood and getting increasingly curlier as I got older. And my hair was always lush and thick, sometimes to the point of annoyance. In middle school I stared in awe as my friend Kelly pulled her hair back effortlessly into a ponytail fastened with a smiley face scrunchie. If I wanted my hair pulled back it required a full ten minutes of brush gymnastics, finally secured with two industrial strength hair ties underneath the on-trend scrunchie.

In high school and college during the aughts, I flat ironed my curls to pin-straight perfection in an effort to tame the wild beast. Hairstylists would take razors to my hair in an effort to thin out whatever haircut I demanded. And so I still can’t pinpoint when my hair entered into this new phase. They say that your hair does indeed change over your lifetime—not just in color, but in density, strength, and texture. So perhaps it was inevitable. I just didn’t envision it happening to me at 29 years old.

First it was noticing more hair in the shower drain. My roommate couldn’t be the culprit, I thought, with her blonde pixie cut, so it must be mine. Then it was the heft of my ponytail as I realized it was thinner and thinner. But the real pain finally hit when I began running my hands through my hair and could pull out strands and strands of loose hairs. I freaked out.

Perhaps change was inevitable. I just didn’t envision it happening to me at 29 years old.

After falling down the rabbit hole that is the internet, self-diagnosing and determined I was dying, I made many doctor’s appointments. In all, over two months, I met with four doctors: a general practitioner, a gynecologist, a dermatologist, and eventually an OB-GYN specializing in polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS). And what I quickly learned was this: no one cared about my hair loss. It’s well documented that women’s health issues aren’t taken seriously by health professionals, and my experience was confirmation of that. I was certain that whatever was happening was serious. What was happening holistically in my body that was causing my hair loss? Doctors saw it differently. Hair loss wasn’t that big of a deal, they’d say, and any other symptoms I may have had (lack of appetite, low energy) were probably just stress.

The general practitioner, after running tests to check my thyroid and Vitamin D levels, pronounced me in good health. The gynecologist laughed at me as I asked if my change in sex life might have contributed to this. “You can’t lose your hair from having sex.” No shit, lady, but what about hormonal changes? She posited that perhaps I had PCOS and sent me to a specialist. The specialist too laughed at me and claimed there was no way I had PCOS as I didn’t have enough of the eight symptoms to warrant a diagnosis. But, I pointed out, two of the symptoms are opposites: hair loss and hair gain. So no one would have all the symptoms, right? She urged me to come back in six months. Why? I fumed as I huffed out the door. You told me nothing. I began wondering if whatever diagnosis I so desperately wanted would indeed answer my questions and point towards a solution.

In two months, I met with four doctors. What I quickly learned was this: no one cared about my hair loss.

The only doctor that took me seriously was my dermatologist, who listened to my concerns. She performed a skin biopsy, where she cut out a small piece of my scalp after warning me that whatever she cut out would forever be a bald spot. I walked around for a week with a stitch in my head, frantically combing my hair a certain way so no one could see the black thread. She eventually called back with a diagnosis—androgenetic alopecia. This, I learned, is merely a fancy word for hair loss. Caused by who the fuck knows, I mentally deduced from her babbling and non-answers on the whys and next steps.

During this time I struggled: not knowing what was wrong, how to act, or even what to say to people about what I was going through. When I did mention it to family members, they’d reply: “Well, it’s not like hair loss affects your health, does it?” I raged. Sure, it didn’t affect my physical health, but it damn well affected my mental health. Which is my health.  

All this time, as I was struggling with the part in my hair growing wider than the Mississippi River, I was also falling in love. Funny how life does that to you. I had met a man who would eventually become my husband. And as weird luck would have it, he was bald. I never let out a peep about what I was going through until one night, three months into dating, while at a fancy French restaurant, he asked why I was so silent. And it all came tumbling out as he sat there listening. Once I finished the confession of my deep shame, the first words he said to me were thank you. He thanked me for being honest and sharing my feelings. Then he told me that he thought I was beautiful, and that he knew, somewhat, what I was going through. Finally, having someone validate my feelings as real was like a weight lifted off my shoulders.

As I was struggling with the part in my hair growing wider than the Mississippi River, I was also falling in love. As weird luck would have it, he was bald.

It is now over four years later, and my hair and I have reached an understanding. I do not have the hair that I once had, but I have come to a peaceful acceptance of that. Per my dermatologist’s recommendation as the only clinically proven success to hair growth, I daily use Women’s Rogaine. At a hefty $25 per bottle, it doesn’t come cheap, and it doesn’t make bedtime sexy as I slather on foam to my scalp each night. And I’m not even quite sure it works, as I have lost all perspective of what my hair looked like before. But it does provide me a sort of mental peace as a proactive measure, which I’ve determined is worth it. I now walk around with a 24/7 ridiculous crop of stick-straight baby hairs growing skyward from my part and hairline.

The shame and silence doesn’t go away, however. Since those first discussions of this issue all those years ago, I no longer speak about hair loss with my now-husband. I fear the wind and the water, unsure of how they might reveal the true nature of my thinning hair. When women gush on and on about how everyone should stop shampooing their hair every day, I want to yell that they don’t understand what it’s like to wake up with foam-crusted Rogaine roots that make daily shampoos a necessity. I wish I had the strength to talk about this more openly and honestly with friends and family, but every time I’ve brought it up I see their eyes wander to my hairline and my cheeks get bright red as I imagine them judging with pity.

In American society we equate women’s hair with femininity—long, luscious locks is the gold standard of the desired woman.

I’ve also stopped frequenting women’s hair loss message boards. Every day, new women would join and tell their hair loss story. Their pain, at first a comfort when I began going through this, eventually became too raw for me to handle. They went through what I went through—not knowing, no one caring, and feeling shamefully inadequate. In American society we equate women’s hair with femininity—long, luscious locks is the gold standard of the desired woman. When you begin losing your hair you question that femininity, as though hair is what makes a women. Despite intellectually knowing this was bullshit, social conditioning is hard to completely ignore, and hair loss continually made me feel less than. What I did learn from my time trolling the internet for understanding was that a lot of women have hair loss, and none of us quite know how to deal with it publicly.

I still don’t know why or what exactly, if anything, happened to make me lose my hair. At this point I’m about to enter a new phase in my life as I look towards having children. Recently a friend gushed about how beautiful and lush her hair was during pregnancy and how sad it was when she had the dreaded postpartum hair shedding. She told me how heartbreaking it was to experience so much shed hair at the bottom of her shower each morning. I didn’t have the guts to tell her I already knew.

Photo by Niklas Hamann.

Kate lives in the Midwest where she is a librarian with too many hobbies and a brand new puppy.

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