With Barbies and Disney princesses, from a young age we’re told long hair is a fundamental part of female beauty and in turn, our worth. But in reality, there’s more to being a woman - and feeling desirable - than what’s on our heads.
Last week model Emily Ratajkowski came under fire for saying hair is “a fundamental part of beauty, femininity and identity” while ‘Stranger Things’ actor Millie Bobby Brown said shaving her head was “so empowering”, adding “you don’t need hair to be beautiful”.
In light of the contrasting views, we spoke to five women who’ve experienced hair loss about coming to terms with their new look and rediscovering what makes them beautiful.
Mandy Vallender, 52
“I first began to lose my hair in October 2015 due to alopecia. It began with a small sore patch on the left side of my head which developed in to a patch of dry and flaky skin. A few weeks later in the shower I noticed that the ‘dry’ patch now felt bare and realised that my hair had started to fall out.
“When I first lost my hair I was obviously devastated. I wanted to hide away from the world and everyone. I felt embarrassed and very self-conscious. Over the next few months the patch grew and I developed many other smaller patches over my head. The bigger patch finally spreading as big as a hand. I felt that I couldn’t go out as I felt ugly in a world that perceives beauty in a narrow and defined way.
“Coming to terms with my hair loss was a very difficult journey, but with the support of my husband, my family and Alopecia UK, I found the strength and courage to talk about it and not hide away.
“To me, femininity is an outward expression of your feeling of self-worth and belonging within your community.
“I took control of a situation that I felt was trying to destroy my life. I did this by shaving my hair off! My husband did his too and we raised £1500 for Alopecia UK in the process, which I felt was my way of saying thank you to them for the support and advice I had from them along my journey.
“Now I shave my head every week to 10 days, as if I leave it any longer when I look in the mirror, I don’t see ‘me’ anymore. ‘Me’ is me with no or very little hair, this is when I feel ‘beautiful’ and strong.”
Alex Petropoulos, 32
“I started to lose my hair in February 2017 after starting chemotherapy for breast cancer on January 26. My hair was falling out in clumps, so I went to get my head buzzed because I couldn’t wait to be rid of it all as the hair in your bed, on your hands and in your face was horrific. It was after it got buzzed, which actually felt kind of fun to do, that I realised that I was not as okay with being bald as I thought.
“I started to notice that it completely ruined my self confidence. Without hair, there was no way I could ever feel sexy. I tried wearing scarfs but never felt comfortable. Then on my birthday in mid-Feb I was out in town wearing a scarf – I felt constantly self-conscious that people were staring at me like I was ill - so I said ‘fuck it’ and stopped in a costume shop while I was out and bought a bright red wig. I even asked them if I could wear it out so the guy at the shop helped me put it on.
“All of sudden people were staring, but because I looked so wild, not because I was sick. And from then on I only ever wore crazy wigs – bright blue and purple bobs were my favourites! And I loved it. It made me feel fun, and full of life.
“I still have a very short hair do, and while I’ve been comfortable in public without a wig for several months now, it’s taken me a very long time to feel sexy.
“I’ve finally come to a place where I actually love my look, but it meant getting to a place where I felt like I had control over it. It’s just long enough that I’ve started spiking it up in a punk rock kind of way and think it finally reflects my wild side again – like the bright wigs – and that’s what makes me feel sexy. The more I can feel like I look like the crazy me, the more I know I look fly.”
Julie Williams, 33
“I lost my hair when I was 14 due to alopecia areata, which means that I have patchy hair loss all over my body which comes and goes. I was devastated when I lost my hair, I didn’t know anyone else this had happened to and I was terrified as I didn’t understand it.
“I didn’t want to stand out and be bullied at school. I also felt guilty that I got so much sympathy for it, I felt like it wasn’t comparable to other illnesses. I didn’t understand at that age the complexities of the emotional response to a condition such as this.
“Femininity to me is about embracing your true self and feeling good about who you are. I also think it is about being a female more broadly - supporting other women and championing each other, that is what makes other women really beautiful, the internal beauty which people see so much more than outward appearance.
“The women in my life who are the most beautiful are that way because of who they are, not what they look like physically. The women I admire the most are strong, confident, survivors of life.
“I’ve learnt to work with what I have - partly in terms of my looks - I love makeup and I have a nice range of wigs for when I fancy having some hair on that day, but also in terms of being so much more than my hair.
“I run a support group for Alopecia UK and knowing other women who have alopecia has made me so much stronger - because these women are all strong, beautiful women and they inspire me. Losing my hair has given me so many experiences and connections that I would not have had if I hadn’t had alopecia.”
“I lost my hair in 2005, three weeks after starting chemotherapy for breast cancer. At the time I was very upset. Although I had expected it, I didn’t think it would all fall out it but it all went.
“The hardest thing was that I didn’t want everyone to know I had cancer. For me it was personal at the time. I was aware people would assume I had cancer. It is hard enough having treatment and losing your hair, but knowing that people were able to make assumption based on the way I looked was hard. I felt like I had lost my privacy. People stared and that was scary and invasive. A bald head doesn’t define my personality, and cancer doesn’t define me. Society sees women with hair loss and tend to assume cancer.
“I think femininity is about having a strong, assertive, confident personality and being an attribute to our society. It’s about role and contribution in society.
“I look on the positive side as being a cancer survivor. I have used the experience to help, empathise and support others through their treatment. I became more confident not wearing the wig over time. More confident talking about my experience and what I was going through.
“If I were to go through it again, I would go without a wig and I would take photographs – I wouldn’t feel embarrassed like I did. I would be more confident as a means to be an advocate and champion of beauty from the inside. It doesn’t matter what is on the outside.”
Carly Barratt, 37
“I originally lost my hair when I was 11 due to alopecia. I discovered a bald patch the size of a 10p and more patches appeared. This happened on and off for around 10 years. It was tough as a teen and I hid away. I hated myself, I thought I looked like a monster and had all the mirrors in the house covered up. I missed lots of school and was never confident in the years that followed.
“I had a full head of hair from the age of 22 until 35 when I discovered hair coming out again and patches appearing. It devastated me. I was a single mum just thinking about dating again. I didn’t think any man would ever want me or find me attractive without hair.
“When you read books or magazines or watch TV and films, the way being feminine is portrayed is largely by a lady’s hair and the clothes she wears, even down to body shape too. I always thought that I had to live up to the image portrayed for me to be attractive and fit in to what society says was feminine and beautiful.
“But I started thinking about the positives to no hair. By this point I had lost my body hair too so no shaving my legs! If I was going to wear wigs then I was going to have some fun, I could change my hair style and colour 10 times a day if I wanted! But most importantly I decided that I needed to learn to love who I am, not what I am. I realised that my hair didn’t make me who I was, it was just an accessory.
“By having no hair my features became stronger, people commented on my amazing bone structure and beautiful eyes as they weren’t hidden by my hair. As much as I didn’t feel feminine or beautiful when I looked in the mirror, I looked in that mirror every day and told myself I was beautiful until I started to believe it.
“It’s not been an easy journey, it’s cost me a fortune in new clothes and make up (and wigs!) to figure out who I was but in the end I realised I was me all along and now I’m the best version of me I’ve ever been.”