An Assault on Vanity, by Philip S.

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It starts in the shower.  You vigorously shampooed your curly brown hair.  You reach hands, perhaps individually, perhaps at the same time, to the showerhead.  Bubbles wash off.  Hands are normal.  Damp bones, elastic skin, fingers might have pruned a bit, but not like in a bath.  Shower hands.  Normal except.  Except.  That’s odd.  Except for five or ten healthy strands of curly brown plastered to the palm.  Slithering between fingers.  Clamped under a nail.  You lift hands back to the showerhead and watch for ten or fifteen seconds as each imposter snails off.  You catch the last and pull it tight.  It’s about six inches with, at one end, a bulb, its attachment point to the scalp, a keepsake from a previous residence.  Toweling off, you start wondering.  One or two is normal, but five or ten?  No, it can’t be.  No it isn’t. No. NO. NOOO!!!!!!!

This is a familiar narrative to many a male.  The older you are, the more likely you sympathize.  Approximately 50% of men experience significant hair-loss by 50.  And when it starts, it doesn’t stop.  After a month or so, the drain in your shower may have clogged.  Further investigation reveals a crusty mass of recently-unemployed curly brown banded together, voicing discontent the only way it knows how.

Androgenic alopecia, male pattern baldness, is a common condition shrouded in myth.  The most prevalent, the one I wanted to believe, is it’s inherited from the maternal grandfather.  Another assigns stress as the main agent.  Indeed, stress can expedite the process, but the role it plays is minor.  The real culprit is the one you can’t control.  95% of hair-loss results from genetics, and a person is 2.5-times more likely to experience it if his father was a victim.

Lurking in your blood, embedded in your cells, perpetuated by food and oxygen, the gene initiating hair-loss can activate any time post puberty.  Growing up, you fear the worst and hope for the best.  It’s a long way away though.  It won’t happen until at least 30.  It won’t happen, until it does.  Until you’re 19, in your Freshman dorm, on your knees, clawing to unclog the shower drain.

The first stage is willful ignorance.  At 16 or so, friends refer to your receding hairline.  But you don’t think much of it.  The body changes so drastically at that age that a hairline’s snaggletoothed corner doesn’t register.  You just hope to grow a few inches taller by the time college roles around.  Besides, your maternal grandfather died with a full head.  When a friend points to your slightly proceeded forehead, you size up the opponent and make a comment regarding either his weight, his performance in school, his mother, or the size of his genitalia.  Whichever lands the hardest.

Willful ignorance fades gradually into denial.  A few years pass and you’re 19, in the shower, hands covered in curly brown.  But your hair somehow looks the same as it always did.  Perhaps it’s normal.  It is normal.  Just one of those things nobody talks about.  Like how much money his parents make.  You know it can’t be normal, though, and, deep down, you’re wondering not about how it can still look the same but about how it’s possible you still have any hair at all.

Six months later, the fire alarm sounds.  You see smoke coming from under the bedroom door, and the knob is hot to touch.  You run to the window.  Phase three has officially begun.  Panic!  It happens suddenly, like how anyone who snaps an Achilles hears a pop.  You’re in a room with a gratuitous number of mirrors, or you see a photo of yourself from behind.  There, at the crown, is a lighter shade of curly brown.  It isn’t gone.  But the countdown has begun.  The prognosis is set.  Life is over in two years, three tops.

Tic-tic-tic

*

Why is there such paranoia attached to balding?  Why is it magnified if it happens earlier?  In a lot of ways minimal hair is practical.  It takes years before you need to buy more shampoo.  It dries in 30 seconds.  That five-minutes in the morning reserved for coiffing the perfect wave is instead spent eating breakfast.  Massaging hands through a shaved head renders the magnificent prickle.  Hair’s only functionality is to shield scalp from sun.  Beyond that, it’s just vanity.

Just understates vanity’s potency, though.  A person is so hyper-aware of physical appearance because of the premium attached to beauty.  The first thing a guy does when seeing a woman is determine whether he finds her attractive, and, if so, how she compares to others.  Women do the same, though usually more discreetly.  Critics omnipresent, everyone wants to impress.  Though tastes differ, certain characteristics are usually associated with a good-looking man.  Among them are height, jaw-line, and fitness.  Unfortunately, Marisa Tomei is an outlier.  Bald is not one of them.

When presented with the sparsely-populated inevitable, you panic because the end of being considered beautiful by conventional metrics is in sight.  It’s especially severe at a younger age for a few reasons.  Mainly, 18 through 30 is when beauty matters most.  Looking for a girlfriend or wife.  Interviewing for jobs and establishing a career.  At no other stage are higher stakes attached to first impressions.  It doesn’t matter, but it does.

Another reason it stings, especially at an early age, is it’s the first time you’re confronted with aging’s discontents.   A few days ago I was talking to a friend of mine who is now enjoying retirement’s commute between the golf course and afternoon nap.  He started balding in his thirties, and it didn’t faze him much.  What traumatized him, though, is getting glasses at 13.  He says it took years to accept.  I, of course, promptly told him I have 20/20 vision.

The social response to balding early is interesting.  It’s at the same time a sensitive subject and intrinsically humorous.  When I told friends about my essay topic, 4 of 5 stifled a laugh and then followed up with some iteration of, “You’re not that bald.”  But I was measuring their reactions more scrupulously than they my hairline.

Why the stifled laugh?  Precisely because it doesn’t matter, but it does.  It matters, but it doesn’t.  The stifled laugh translates to, “It doesn’t really matter, but thank God it hasn’t happened to me.”  It’s the exact reaction I had when my friend told me wearing glasses at 13 was traumatizing.  Luck, especially of the hereditary variety, is a source of pride.  One-in-six people still has perfect vision at 18.  I’m 25, and my eyes are better than those of most teenagers.  I’m awesome.

The fifth person, the one who didn’t stifle a laugh, was a member of Team Androgenic Alopecia.  He said I should write my first essay about a lighter topic.  Readers might find it heavy.  He’s noticed the reaction to balding early is either unsolicited consolation or poorly weighted ridicule.  It’s awkward to observe.  There’s no blue print for responding to potentially sensitive subjects.  It’s at the impetus of the afflicted to initiate banter or humor.  If you can laugh at yourself, a negative can become a positive.  Larry David made a career out of bald jokes.  With this essay I’m attempting something similar—leveraging insecurity as entertainment.

So what are your options?

The most extreme is a hair transplant.  But, even if he looks better, it’s hard, in my opinion, to respect a guy who takes the plunge.  Check out the epithets The Economist, one of the world’s most respected media outlets, uses in reference to former Italian President, Silvio Berlusconi.  The stigma attached to beautification surgery is it’s symptomatic of the overly superficial.  Especially for men.  Balding is a purely vain form of adversity, and the main challenge associated with it is to be able to accept vanity as, on the whole, not important, even though, oftentimes, it is.

The best option is to embrace it.  Jordan vs. LeBron is typically debated next to the subject-line “Greatest Basketball Player Ever”.  There’s a clear winner, though, when the subject is “Who Went Bald Better?”  Jordan shaved it and led with his smile and sparkling play.  LeBron has shifted his headband-placement for the last five seasons, using it to cover his hairline.  Sampras vs. Agassi is another comparison often made when talking about “Best 90s Tennis Player”.  Who went bald better?  Neither did it well, but, post-hairpiece, I’d argue Agassi did it better.

There are a few axioms for “pulling it off.”  One is that shaving it very low, or completely, is much better than the bushy horseshoe, or, worst of all, the horseshoe ponytail.  Another is that the taller and darker you are, the better you’re likely to look.

The most important axiom, though, is that people are less afraid of losing hair than of becoming “That Bald Guy.”  TBG is a loser, an uninteresting slob.  He’s out of shape, wears sweatpants, plays World of Warcraft, and probably watches a lot of porn.  Losing your hair is not something you can control, but becoming TBG is.  Overcoming vanity doesn’t mean eradicating it completely.  It means you do the things within reach.  You exercise regularly, dress well, develop sociable interests, and smile and laugh at happy hours.

Deterioration is an unfortunate symptom of growing older.  Everyone has his first painful encounter with aging, usually in his twenties.  Your metabolism might slow.  Hangovers last multiple days.  You enjoy talk radio.  Aging is scary, often traumatizing.  It doesn’t matter, except it does.  It matters, except it doesn’t.  Overcoming, accepting, and laughing about it is a form of maturation.  I remember when I thought I was safe.  When I thought hair-loss passed through the maternal grandfather.  I sectioned the bald into a category of “ugly except for the rare outlier, and, even though it’s not in a person’s control, karma must play a role”.  Perhaps I was right about karma.  Such callousness deserves reprimand.  If karma exists, this was a perfect place for it to manifest itself.  But I prefer not to think about karma.  I prefer to think people face challenges and become either better or worse based on how they respond.  Compared to other adversities, balding early is benign, afflicting neither health nor family.  It doesn’t matter, except it does.  It matters, except it doesn’t.

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