Nothing to fear but fur
Facing every man's greatest fear: the battle of the bald spot
Shedding new light on my couch pillow, the rising sun transformed its upholstered surface into what appeared to be a shabby dog blanket, sans dog. It confused me, because I don’t own a dog, so I had to believe either the sun was playing early morning tricks or a swarm of floaters in my eyes like the ones that often appear when I spend too much time without my sunglasses had just been released into my field of vision.
I squinted twice and rubbed my eyes: the mirage still lingered. Then I closed their lids like curtains: gone. I walked over to the couch and ran my fingernails across the pillow. A tangle of grey hairs caught under a fingernail, which turned out to be an exact match for the ones still left on my head.
I wasn’t losing my mind, just my hair.
This shouldn’t have come as a complete surprise. My father wore a rather obvious hairpiece at age 65 when he went out to meet the public, unlike my mother whose tresses as she aged transformed into a mass of ringlet silver. I scratched my head. Isn’t baldness strongly associated with the “X” chromosome, which is inherited from the maternal side of the family? Just my luck.
Unfortunately, MPB doesn’t stand for Medical Benefits Package, or even Monthly Basic Pay. It translates rather effortlessly into what I suspected: male pattern baldness, a medical condition doctors have labeled androgenetic alopecia, which must be a linguistic Latin trick to avoid frightening the patient by announcing that you’re beginning to look like your father.
I won’t drag you too far down the medical rabbit hole, which incidentally is not where hares hang out, but since I looked a few things up I hope it won’t hurt to pull a few facts loose.
Women also encounter baldness (FPB), but the cultural practice of growing longer hair may distract us from realizing losing one’s hair is really a genderless issue. Granted, more men deal with baldness than women, but women have traditionally resisted any fashionable trend like growing a beard, except in the case of P.T. Barnum’s bearded lady Annie Jones who became rather famous for doing so in the 19th century.
Other factors besides gender may also lead to balding, such as nutrition, stress and illness, which brings to mind chemotherapy. Iron or protein deficiencies may also occur, even an excess of vitamin A. But nobody talks about working for 30 years as a public school teacher. It’s worth mentioning that a hair-pulling disorder called trichotillomania is a mental difficulty that prompts one to pull out one’s own hair, a condition thankfully more common as an expression than a disease.
One more mental hairball for people – especially men – is a sensitivity about losing one’s hair. Like it or not, confidence and strength are socially linked to luxuriously thick hair, so the skull becomes more like a chia pet for a multi-million dollar hair loss and growth treatment industry, stoking sales by advertising even more uncertainty about one’s purported withering prowess and sexuality. Of course, entirely shaving one’s head is an economical alternative to living with a treatment addiction. The look has become more common and more fashionable than when “skinheads” first emerged in the 1960s as a working class statement from a subculture in London.
A more heroic symbolic association with baldness can be drawn from the American bald eagle which is not actually bald but still reigns as our nation’s emblem of masculinity. It’s a bird of prey with talons and an enormous wingspan. Referring to it as bald is simply a truncated translation of an old English word – piebald – which means white-headed. Once I watched a half dozen eagles not flying or swooping, but stooped and motionless over an open spot in the ice on a mostly frozen Mississippi River. At first, they looked to me like a group of old men assembled for an afternoon of ice fishing. Then I realized I was partially mistaken: they were eagles, but they were also ice fishing.
Perhaps the most lyrical words about baldness were first delivered in 1917 by a literary character named J. Alfred Prufrock, a dramatic monologue written and published by T.S. Eliot. The musings by this indecisive middle-aged narrator who is wearied by his perception of an age-induced diminished life are noteworthy. It’s a beautiful poem to read, but certainly not to emulate.
“Time to turn back and descend the stair,
With a bald spot in the middle of my hair –
(They will say: “How his hair is growing thin!”)
I grow old ... I grow old ...
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.
Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?”
More than 130 lines long, the poem can set the reader into a similarly sullen state of mind, but not me. Every time I read it I just want to go out and buy a puppy.
– David Feela
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