Losing My Hair Taught Me to Love the Rest of My Body

“You have such beautiful hair!”

Those words always echoed around me as I grew up, from teachers, family friends, even strangers. My mother told me I came out of the womb with a full head of dark curls and my hair never stopped growing since then. I spent all of elementary school with locks that fell far past my shoulders, the envy of all my female classmates. Though, upon getting a bit older, especially entering a torrent of bullying in high school, a new illness reared its ugly head and threatened to take away my locks.

fall 2011, several months before my diagnosis

Medical journals often times label Trichotillomania as an impulse disorder, with urges one to pull out hair from their head, eyebrows, eyelashes, and other parts of the body. When I entered high school, I was already dealing with a skin excoriation disorder where I would pick the skin on my legs and arms until there were open wounds and holes sometimes a centimeter deep into my body. I noticed that this habit was working its way to my hair, something I was relatively shocked by. I had always been bullied about my weight, the way I dressed, and my bodily harm scars, but my hair? Never. That was something I was always proud of.

For me, it started out small with the occasional over-plucking of my eyebrows or pulling a few strands from my scalp every now and then. I credited it to me just being fidgety or nervous or concerned about my appearance. I was admittedly shallow and rarely left the house without a full face of makeup. I went to a high school where appearance was everything and beauty was king. Where “best hair” and “most stylish” were more sought after superlatives than “most likely to succeed.” I liked the attention I got from being pretty, but when my disease got stronger, my will to keep up my appearance got weaker.

SPRING 2013, ONE MONTH AFTER My FIRST “BIG” CUT

My sophomore year of high school was a rocky one, a year full of torment from classmates, as it was the year I came out as gay, and one where I struggled with medical issues beyond my control. I was losing weight, but not in a good way. I was feeling weak and uncomfortable  at almost all times. My body was becoming a grade-A failure and I did not like it one bit. I used to possess such an air of confidence, but the tremendous strain of high school life drove me crazy.

I should also note that my sophomore year of high school was the time of my first attempt at suicide. I had felt my body was reaching its breaking point, especially after one instance I will never forget. I had English class the second period of the day and, as a writer, I relished getting to go to a course I enjoyed that early in the morning. It was almost a way to set up my day positively. Something about sitting in a fishbowl discussion distracted me from my now-crippling hair pulling tendencies. I was guilty of pulling my hair out in class, but never to a very large extent.

One day, I was feeling particularly depressed, and managed to take not one, not two, but three enormous fistfuls of hair from my scalp, physically ripping it away, and just throwing it onto the floor of my classroom in the middle of an exam. The sound of the follicles pulling away from my head were so strong in the silence, and I would run my fingers across my scalp and feel tender bald spots now with little bits of blood. I was told by a classmate that the next class period, my teacher went to the back of the room where I sat and picked up each fluffy ball of my hair himself and tossed them in the trash. That day, I knew I had to make a change.

WINTER 2015, BACK AT My ORIGINAL LENGTH

My mother is a hairdresser, so it’s not like I took a pair of clippers straight to my head and started shaving. I told her how I had been feeling and how bad my Trichotillomania had gotten, and she sympathized, chopping off roughly ten inches of my hair into a chic curled bob. I thought it would get better and, for a while, it did. My hair grew steadily, I was applying new coping mechanisms, and the bullying, while still present, was a little more tolerable. I felt like I was returning to my old self.

I took great pride in the fact I could grow back a head of hair so quickly. I also found a perverse enjoyment in being overtly more feminine than others, grouping these traditional constructs of female beauty with my desire to be prettier than those around me. I gained back a lot of my weight, but at least I still had feminine features, I thought. Now my hips and chest were larger, my waist was more contrasting, and, thanks to the magic of estrogen birth control pills, I looked more like a woman than a little boy. My hair was longer than it was at the start of high school and my Trichotillomania was in remission. It was a joyous occasion and I believed I had broken that habit for good.

When I got to college, I decided to cut my hair for the sake of convenience. Nothing super short, just something that would not require much effort. I knew that I had the drive to succeed in school, and I had the confidence that people would find attractive in me. Through my first year of college, I had many sexual partners, some of whom I barely remember the names of. I was so engrossed with how good my body was looking that I forgot to show it any respect.

By the end of my spring semester, I was drained. I had no drive to do anything, no motivation to look good. I was lucky if I got out of bed and got dressed. I gave up on makeup. I didn’t even own my own brush. I had been reduced to a shell and lost all hope that anyone would take me seriously as a person. That’s when the pulling got to an extreme level. By the time my hospital stay was over, my entire scalp was plucked away, and there were noticeable grotesque holes in my head. As someone who doesn’t shave as well, I would enjoy pulling out the hair on my legs, chest, and stomach. I would rip out my pubic hair while showering and remove my eyelashes during the times I actually put on makeup. My eyebrows gradually shrunk down to being only about an inch long, and my face and head became a patchwork that barely matched the rest of my body.

When I reentered the real world, I made the conscious decision to shave my head. Not a haircut, but full-on clippers all over. I wanted to purge out all of the negativity I associated with my hair pulling and wanted to start fresh. After getting rid of all that hair, I was noticing daily that I wasn’t as antsy or nervous or twitchy. My desires to pull out my hair were tremendously low, considering there was very little hair left to pull at.

I started to dress myself well again, for I knew looking good helped my self-esteem. I noticed at that point that it wasn’t a pride thing, it was a confidence thing. In making myself look professional, formal, beautiful even, I was giving myself a happiness boost. I once again started experimenting with makeup, learned how to draw on a killer fake eyebrow while I waited for mine to grow back, and managed to rock the buzzed look with a chutzpah I did not know possible.

two weeks after shaving my head

Since then, I have gotten so many compliments about how much more comfortable I look in my own skin. Yes, I still deal with weight issues and scars that will never go away. I still tower over most girls in height, and get self-conscious about my body hair. But I learned that the only person’s opinion of my appearance that matters is my own. Plus, having super-short hair came with its own new set of privileges. I experimented with seven different hair colors over the course of three summer months, something I could never get away with if I had long hair again. I’ve gone from bright red to blue to magenta to baby pink to silver and lilac to blonde to rose gold and back to pink again. I have probably gotten the compliment, “I absolutely love your hair”, every time I’ve gone out in public since shaving it.

There’s something so empowering about making such a drastic change to one’s appearance. I had always thought myself to be this ultra-feminine creature, one that couldn’t bear the thought of all of what I thought made me beautiful. For the longest time I thought I was Samson, my strength captured in my hair, the pulling being a way for me to sabotage my power. Now I realize, I am beautiful with or without hair.  Trichotillomania is not a curable disease but, like most chronic illnesses, it can be treated with the right steps. Don’t let anyone take away your sparkle. Your character is not in your hair or your clothes or your makeup. Your character is deep in your soul.