Later this summer I expect to have my last haircut. Oh, it isn’t that I plan to die. But I have just about gotten to the point where there isn’t going to be enough up on top to justify going to a hair stylist, at least not for anything more than the trim around the ears that guys get when they have lost all but the sides and backs of the hair on their heads. In other words, I’m where I first feared I was going to end up almost 47 years ago.
I was barely 20 when I first noticed that my hairline was receding. Until that point, I’d never thought of myself as a candidate for male-pattern baldness; although, if I’d studied the genetics of the matter, I would have had cause for concern. My maternal grandfather had gone bald in his early 20s, and the gene for male-pattern baldness passes from the grandfather through the mother to the child.
In those early years, I fretted terribly about how miserable my life would be if I got bald before I got married, fearing that no woman would love me if I didn’t have a full head of hair. On my 25th birthday, based on my own entirely unscientific studies of my receding hairline, which were aided by no small amount of paranoia on the subject, I grimly accepted a friend’s prediction that I would be bald by the time I was 40, if not sooner. But when I got to 30 and still hadn’t lost all that much more over the previous five years, I relaxed a tad in my fear. (It helped that the woman of my dreams had fallen in love with me and that my brother was losing his hair much faster than I was losing mine; although why that latter point gave me comfort, I’m not at all sure.)
At forty, I still had a decent amount on top, enough to comb it out with a part on the side. About five years later, I started using Rogaine, and a few years after that, I added Propecia to my regimen. I hit 50 with a bald spot in the back of my head and a decidedly receded hairline in the front, but I still was able to comb what was left to a part and, all things considered, I was pretty mellow about the whole issue.
At sixty, I decided that the Rogaine wasn’t really doing much for me and the side effects of the Propecia (don’t ask) had convinced me to drop that remedy. But still, there was enough on top to allow me to feel that I wasn’t going to be totally bald after all.
And then finally this year, after turning 66, I started losing much more hair much more quickly than I had for all those years of my fretting on the subject. And now, even with the little tricks my hair stylist tries to employ, I am facing the reality that I really don’t have enough on top to justify combing it out, let alone parting it on the side.
And so, there you are: the true tale of a guy who lived for the better part of five decades with a fear that finally is coming to reality. Narcissistic in the extreme? Perhaps. Or maybe just the natural reaction of a guy who was never going to grace the cover of GQ and who grew up in the age of ads showing hirsute men catching the attention of all the pretty girls.
In any case, I’m struggling now with the ultimate decision, that being whether to just give up the charade and have my stylist clip what’s left real short or to keep going with what little I have until I end up with a few scraggly threads that don’t cover anything.
And then there is the matter of Angelina Jolie. Ms. Jolie was also cursed with bad genetics, but in her case, hair loss was not the concern. Rather, she was genetically disposed to develop breast cancer, her mother having died of the disease at the age of 58 after fighting it for a decade. When her doctors informed her that she had an 87 percent risk of developing this potentially lethal disease, she made the decision to have a pre-emptive double mastectomy. And, having undergone the surgery, she revealed her decision and explained her reasoning in a remarkable OpEd essay (“My Medical Choice,” New York Times, May 14 edition).
So, you are probably asking, what do my life-long fear of going bald and Ms. Jolie’s fear of contracting breast cancer have in common? Precious little, I’m sure. But her courageous decision caused me to reassess my tale of cowardice, which is pretty much how I view the many years of fear I lived with and even how I view the petty decision I am faced with now.
I suppose there is a similarity in the way society views men’s hair (at least when they are young) and women’s breasts. The Samson story at least suggests that male-pattern baldness has never been viewed as an asset. And while the size of women’s breasts have been variously regarded from the flapper era of the 1920s to the Playboy image that was most in vogue in the 1960s, they appear to have always been linked to sex appeal.
But the similarities surely end there, for losing one’s head of hair is never a terminal disease, while contracting breast cancer all too often still is. And the “cures” for male pattern baldness, be they of the pre-emptive variety (Rogaine and Propecia) or the surgical (transplant and skin grafts) are not employed to save the life of the afflicted guy. Options such as the one Ms. Jolie chose, on the other hand, involve such potentially severe psychological trauma (not to mention the physical) that facing the decision alone must require tremendous courage.
I have only the greatest respect for Angelina Jolie’s decision and for her forthrightness in revealing it to the world. Her candor, and most especially her courage, humble me and make me realize yet again how much greater the burden is on the women of our race than the men.
And now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to comb my hair.