February 22, 2024



CNN
 — 

There are three important days in every bald(ing) man’s life: The day you realize you’re losing your hair, the day you realize you should shave off what remains, and the day you finally do. Growing bald gracefully is about reducing the gap between these milestones as far as possible. I learned this the hard way.

Before recounting my decade of denial and deceit, here are the bare-headed facts: I suffer from a type of baldness I call “the Prince William.” It combines an expanding circular patch on top (“the Friar Tuck”) and receding corners (“the Jude Law”). The two must eventually meet. Or, to put it another way: The bridge between my last strongholds of follicle activity has grown ever thinner, my hairline drifting apart like two continental landmasses. What once resembled Pangaea is now little more than a footbridge over the Bering Strait.

My mother was the first to notice this tectonic shift. “You’re thinning,” she observed, hovering over my then-25-year-old self at the family table. It seemed fitting that the woman who delivered me into this world should also discover my first sign of aging. After all, losing your hair is coming to terms with the possibility of looking like a big baby again. (Although my mom recently confirmed via WhatsApp that I had a full head of hair at birth. “I don’t do bald babies,” she added, unhelpfully.)

What followed will be familiar to men around the world. Realization is a creeping process of denial eroded by moments of shock and, later, resignation. Denial was believing that what wasn’t in the mirror (namely a birds-eye view of my head) didn’t exist. Shock was encountering a photo of myself, taken from above, and wondering, ‘Who’s that balding guy standing exactly where I was?’ Resignation was seeing an acquaintance across a bar, his greasy comb-over fooling only himself, and muttering to my wife: “Just don’t let me get like him.”

I almost did. Another five years would pass until I conceded defeat. I moved to Hong Kong and found a miracle barber who proved that coolness isn’t a hairstyle alone. A budding breakdancer (and bald by choice: hair is something of an impediment to head-spinning), he was adept at arranging my remaining locks in a way that maintained the illusion.

We had an unspoken understanding. But when I moved again last year, my attempts to explain his magic to new hair stylists became increasingly embarrassing. It felt like I was making them accomplices in my deception. “Just make it look… better?” I’d say, before removing my glasses and hoping what emerged would sustain me for another month or three. Successive barbers played along. But I, too, was fooling only myself.

Instagram’s algorithms discovered my situation and began populating my feed with clips of extreme toupée makeovers. Hints from loved ones were even less subtle — like when my wife returned from a work trip brandishing a gift, only to reveal a bottle of UV-protective scalp spray. Who said romance is dead?

In the meantime, I began making self-deprecating jokes and became more comfortable discussing my fate. Invariably, friends offered the same three condolences in reply: 1) That “at least” I can grow a beard, 2) that I have a “good-shaped head,” whatever that means, and 3) that, if I’m lucky, I might end up resembling the universal gold standard of attractive bald White dudes: Bruce Willis.

If you find yourself reassuring a balding man that he looks like Bruce Willis, I promise you he’s heard it many times before. It is reassuring, nonetheless.

As your hair thins, small clumps start sticking out in new and unexpected directions. Human hairs crave company — and when their neighbors depart, they don’t know where to go.

I’d spend cumulative hours trying to convince individual strands to stick back down. Then one winter morning, as I fussed over a group of errant strays, a moment of clarity: I had grown more insecure about my hair than what lurked beneath.

That evening I purchased clippers, took them to the bathroom and unceremoniously gave myself the only hairstyle I’ll have for the rest of my life. A full 10 years after diagnosis, male pattern baldness had secured its final victory. A chapter of my youth ended in a pile of limp offcuts on the shower floor.

My wife told me I look much better than before. But she has to say that. My editor meanwhile assured me that I look more “athletic,” (indeed, my streamlined form may have knocked a few seconds off my swim time). Other benefits, I told myself, include quicker post-shower drying, no money spent on haircuts and time saved getting ready each morning.

Soon after completing the deed, I sent a selfie to my friend Anton. “Welcome to the sexy zone, comrade,” he wrote back.

Anton was the first among my friends to go bald. While I had the luxury of holding out until aged 35, he was an angst-prone 18 when he first found clumps of hair on the pillow. The denial phase lasted only until his early 20s, when it was shattered at a theater workshop by a teacher who instructed the class to “tilt over until you can see Anton’s bald spot.” He then performed what Anton described as a “little tap on the top of my head.”

“I was like, ‘What the f**k?’” he recalled over Zoom. “I didn’t say it, but I felt assaulted. Not only because he tapped me on the head, but because I didn’t even know I was bald! That was the first I’d heard about it.”

He soon found looking at photos of himself depressing. He too was assured that “at least” he had a beard and a “good-shaped head” — again, whatever that means. Someone told him he looked like Jason Statham, who is just the British equivalent to Willis. For Anton, going bald was “a very lonely” experience, especially at such a young age.

“There is something especially isolating about something happening to you that is socially acceptable to laugh at,” he said. “There wasn’t a sense of anyone feeling anything other than, ‘Sucks to be you.’”

For the record, Anton looks great bald — and I’m not just returning his compliment. Unlike me, he’s got some muscle on him. As a boxing instructor, he suits the skinhead look. In a 2012 study, which I cite simply because I approve of the results, University of Pennsylvania researchers found that images of men with their hair digitally removed were perceived to be “more dominant, taller and stronger” when compared to the original photographs.

“Holding on to your hair is a lot less attractive than just getting rid of it,” Anton said. “You can look sharper. You just change the image of yourself in your mind’s eye, then you suddenly appreciate it for a different aesthetic value.

“It’s taken me 35 years, but now I’m very fond of how I look,” he added. “I got to a point where I realized any criticism of my appearance isn’t based on anything other than an impression of what other people might think.”

I am not massively worried about being considered less attractive. Nor am I concerned about looking older or being called a “slaphead,” as we’re disparagingly known in Britain. It’s the loss of identity I struggle with.

My hairless head will, forever more, be my distinguishing physical attribute. To strangers I am now, officially, “that bald guy.” Who ordered the lasagna? That bald guy at table seven. Where’s the bathroom? On the left, just past that bald guy. Does the queue start here? No, it goes back to that bald guy.

My fear that all hairless men look the same is reinforced by the fact that people keep saying I look like my dad. No one had ever noted this resemblance before. Now, suddenly, we’re like two shiny-headed, bearded peas in a pod. There is a certain poetic justice here, and I suffer regular flashbacks to the bald jokes I’d tell at my dad’s expense. He assures me he didn’t take them personally.

My dad started balding at 16. By the time he was my age, his naked head was competing with the mullets and perms of the 1980s. But he appears genuinely impervious to his baldness. “I can’t remember ever being sensitive about it my whole life,” he told me over Zoom. Maybe boomers just don’t like talking about their feelings, but I believe him.

“I wasn’t a cool or attractive teenager in the slightest,” he recalled. “But I managed to build up a good social life because I could make people laugh. I took a decision, fairly early on in life, that I’d only get anywhere if I relied on my wit, charm and personality. Baldness was pretty low down on my list of priorities.”

Whether he’s to blame for my hairline is matter of debate. Studies of identical twins have found that heredity factors account for around 80% of men’s predisposition to baldness, though the genetics are poorly understood. An old wives’ tale dictates that hair loss is passed down via the mother, and thus your maternal grandfather’s hairline is the best predictor of your own. There is no conclusive evidence for this, however, and my dad sees “no observable pattern” in our family (his generation included one Friar Tuck, one Jude Law and one full head of hair).

Lifestyle factors can play a part, and I often wonder whether my fate was hastened by eating trans fats and not sleeping enough, or by living in Beijing during some of its most grimly polluted years. But my hairline’s retreat was likely predestined. As such, I am at peace with it. Although I didn’t grow bald gracefully, I can still aspire to be bald with grace.

Anton’s advice for me and fellow newcomers to his “sexy zone” is as follows: Moisturize your head daily, shave it every few days and wear hats to protect against the sun and heat loss alike. If you have a beard, keep it groomed; if you’re muscly, be aware of intimidating people and disarm them with a smile. And remember, he concluded, the way you carry yourself matters more than what is — or isn’t — sprouting from the top of your head.

My dad’s advice is a little blunter: “If I were you, I would concentrate on developing your wit, charm and personality.”

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