The most well known measurement used in classifying the level of hair loss is described as the Norwood Scale. The Norwood Scale ranges from a level one, which is little or no hair loss, to a level 7 which is severe baldness where only a rim of hair remains. Where you lie in the Norwood scale can help you decide which hair loss options work best.
For so many of us losing your hair is losing your identity.You only realise just how much of who you are is bound up in your self-image and how much your hair is a vital part of that self-image, when your hair starts to disappear.
But you are not your hair. You are so much more than your hair. Whether you embrace baldness or embark on the journey of doing your best to keep a full head of hair, if you can understand and manage the relationship between your hair, your self-image and your identity, then you will feel more in control and you will make better decisions.
I wish I’d known what I know now.So how does this identity thing work and how can we manage our identity, our self-image and the attendant emotions to keep our hair loss from ruining our lives?
Our ‘identity’ is who we think we are. We construct our identity from a series of personal choices made over our lifetime with regard to who and what we associate with. Let’s take a few examples and construct a dummy identity for ‘Joe’.
Joe (26 yrs) loves rock music and so associates himself with other rock fans and with rock musicians. He emulates their style of dress, wearing his beaten up leather jacket everywhere he goes and sports a bandana whenever he can. He has grown his hair long and lets it hang loose and flowing. He loves animals and has a black Labrador called Black Sab(bath). He volunteers in the RSPCA shop at the weekends. He works as a graphic designer and enjoys composing ‘soundscapes’ with his electric guitar for a hobby. He belongs to a music group that composes and performs soft rock and electronica in his local area. He’s a gentle man and believes that chivalry is a dying art, one that he intends to revive.
So already we are getting a picture of ‘Joe’ and starting to see how he is creating his identity (gentle bloke, lover of music and animals) and his self-image (how he portrays who he is to the outside world through what he wears – leather jacket and bandana – how he wears it and how he conducts himself). Let’s add another piece to the jigsaw.
Joe’s hair is receding. He is a victim of male pattern baldness and at age 26 is class III on the Norwood scale. His bandana covers the receding hairline. He does not know whether the hair loss will worsen or not.
Now, we tend to identify ourselves in relation to others who share similar interests or attributes. Whether or not you identified with Joe the music man and animal lover, you certainly will identify with Joe the hair loss sufferer. We don’t know how Joe feels about his hair loss, whether he sees it as a threat to his identity and self image or whether he embraces it, but nevertheless we identify with his plight and he just became ‘one of us’.
However Joe is not merely a man losing his hair. He has many other attributes, interests, and values that make up who he is. He is not his hair, though his hair is one of the ways he expresses his identity and personality. He chooses to wear it long because that expresses his rock music associations. However he also expresses those associations in other ways too.
Hopefully this is making some sense. You are not your hair or your lack of hair. You are a rounded person with many qualities, attributes, values, beliefs, interests, etc. that have nothing to do with your hair. Your hair, how you wear it and how you style it, is an expression of who you are, but it is not who you are.
This is an important distinction to recognise. I didn’t even know, let alone get, this distinction at 20, when my world was upside down and my emotions in turmoil. I thought my hair was who I was. I would have done anything, almost at any cost, to preserve my hair, my identity and my image.
I did do many things which I would not have done if I had firstly separated my image and my identity, and realised that Spencer aka Spex was more than my hair. I would probably have taken the same path, but with more forethought, even more research and less desperation. Because while you cannot control hereditary male pattern baldness you can, and do, control and choose your identity and your image.
You do not have to let your hair loss dictate who you are. Who you are is your choice. How you choose to express who you are is your choice. Your image is your choice. Hair loss changes your options, but it does not have to change you – unless you allow it to.
Identity and self-image – So if identity is who you choose to be, and is defined by who and what you choose to associate with, then self-image is how you see yourself and how you choose to express your identity to the outside world. There is also a difference of course between how you see yourself and how the outside world sees you.
Your image is also determined by your choices. You wear certain clothes because they convey an image you want to show to the world. Equally you wouldn’t be seen dead in other things because they give off entirely the wrong image. Your hair obviously is part of that physical image and when you start losing your hair, it can seem like your whole image is disintegrating. This was definitely the case for me.
And we have a choice: embrace the thinning hair by changing our style, or shaving it all off, or decide to do our best to keep what we’ve got. Either way we are making a choice of physical image.
The outside world of course may see us quite differently – and that we cannot control. We can manage our reactions and responses though. However, other people won’t see us anything like as negatively as we see ourselves.
Our physical image is also just a part of the overall jigsaw. We also have a verbal image (the sound and tone of our voice, our accent, our speed of speech, the language we use) and a kinaesthetic image (our feelings and emotions and how we express them; are we shy, moody, gregarious?).
So when you actually start to consider all the different facets of your ‘self’ and your image, your hair is really just a small piece of the whole jigsaw of your life. So why does it affect us so deeply?
Well, it affects us so deeply because throughout history ‘good’ hair has been one symbol of strength, virility, power and youth. Biologically we are determined to find the ‘fittest’ partner to mate with – fittest meaning the one most likely to produce strong and healthy children – because, until very recently in our history, our survival depended on creating healthy offspring who would look after us as we aged. Deep in our biology we are programmed to seek out the ‘perfect’ partner. For men that meant a good mother for his children (or a series of good mothers as the wider he spread his genes, the more likely they were to survive). For a woman, that meant a man who was strong and would provide for his offspring until they could provide for themselves.
Certain criteria came into the mix and good looks were certainly one of them, though bear in mind that good looks have trends too and beauty is certainly in the eye of the beholder, so there is no fixed measure of what ‘good looks’ actually are. Facial symmetry has been researched as a factor in attractiveness, but there are no definitive conclusions. Various research studies have suggested that body size and shape are more important than hair in the attractiveness stakes.
Attraction is usually physical first though and then the other attributes come later. So our huge concern with our image has come about biologically and historically through a fear of not being able to keep our gene pool going. And this is why our emotional responses are so strong. Losing hair taps directly into our biological fear that our genes will not survive. There is plenty of evidence that baldness does not stop you from getting the girl, and does not stop you from being powerful, virile, sexy or youthful. But somehow that evidence gets diluted in our universal obsession with image and our perceptions of what is attractive.
This is to help you understand how our fears and emotions around hair loss get wired into our brains and seem so difficult to control. I was blown away when I learnt about this, but it made so much sense!
As we live our lives experiences mould us. Connections are made in the brain and connections are broken. Some experiences stamp themselves so firmly on our brains that nothing will dislodge them (particularly those which activate the emotional centres of the brain); others are changed more easily. Experience is sculpted through the pattern of connections between brain cells (neurones), and these patterns are constantly in flux, which is a good thing otherwise we could never retain or change thoughts and behaviours as we do.
Some connections are more hard-wired than others and at a deeper unconscious level. The centre of the brain that controls this is the amygdala, storehouse of our emotional memories, part of the limbic or emotional system. We take in information through our senses – sight, hearing, touch, taste and smell, and this information reaches the amygdala before it gets to other parts of the brain. If what you have sensed is linked with danger, the amygdala springs into immediate action forcing you to react.
The amygdala does not however concern itself with rational analysis; it merely acts on gut feeling on the basis on information provided. As we know gut feeling is hard to ignore. Lagging behind comes the further information from the higher brain centres in the cortex, which is based on a more cerebral (rational) analysis of the incoming sensory information. Hence we jump when startled even before we analyse whether what startled us was of any real danger.
However under the logic of evolutionary survival, danger is not something to be constantly relearned, so the wiring of the amygdala is particularly strong. And of course, danger does not have to be physically life threatening. Any fear which we have developed – e.g. of being emotionally hurt, of getting it wrong, of what other people think of us, can be seen as danger by the amygdala. Its purpose is to ensure we survive and to protect us, so it will react to avoid anything that threatens us.
If we perceive losing our hair to be a threat to our survival, then the wiring that connects hair loss with fear, anxiety, panic and even depression, can be very strong indeed!
AND there many more connections from the amygdala to the cortex than vice versa, (think multi-lane highway versus single track country road!) so while the higher brain centres can exert some control over their emotional colleagues, the emotional brain has a much greater potential to over-rule the higher brain. Explains a lot doesn’t it! There is a reason why those emotions and feelings run so deep and so strongly!
When you put all this together with trying to find your feet and establish your identity and your image as a young man, it’s hardly surprising that hair loss can hit us so hard.
There is hope though! Even before you start down the track of trying to manage or disguise your hair loss, you can help yourself with techniques to manage those emotions and to get yourself into a more positive and resourceful mental state.
Essentially all mental and physical training is based on setting up the brain cell connections to achieve the result you want. Hence visualisation is such a powerful tool and recommended by all sports psychologists because it stimulates the desired cells to wire together. All the techniques that performance coaches use (visualisation, affirmations, positive self talk, goal setting etc) are to weaken old patterns of thinking and generate new patterns in the brain.
Undoubtedly you only notice the thinning hair of others when yours is also thinning. If you have a full head of hair you don’t notice the hair on others unless it suddenly changes. Before you noticed your hair loss, how much attention did you pay to other’s hair? Not much would be my guess. Neither did I. How much attention do you pay to other’s hair now? Lots!
Have you ever noticed that if you like a particular type of car, you see lots of them on the road? But you don’t notice the makes that don’t interest you. They are just cars. There is a particular part of the brain that manages this. It’s called the Reticular Activating System (RAS). Without getting too technical on this one, it’s the part of the brain that controls the activity level of the brain and determines what we pay attention to. So if a Porsche is your dream car, you’ll notice every Porsche on the road. If your hair is thinning, you’ll notice every other bloke with thinning hair and those with the head of hair that you covet. And you do all this unconsciously – i.e. you are not consciously aware that you are paying attention to these things, nor do you think ‘I’ll pay attention to xyz’.
There is also a saying that ‘energy flows where attention goes’, which means that we tend to attract what we pay attention to and we put activity and effort into things that draw our attention. You are putting a huge amount of energy into investigating hair loss if you are reading this. So we put most energy and activity into the things that our RAS is drawing our attention to.
Why is this important? Because other people’s RAS will be actively drawing their attention to what is important to them, which is NOT your thinning hair – unless they are losing theirs too.
One of the things we discuss a lot on the forums is this fear that we are no longer attractive with thinning hair; that we have become ugly, that girls won’t want to know. So yes, if a girl’s RAS is putting her attention on only men with a full head of hair then maybe you won’t draw her eye. But maybe her RAS has other more important criteria in looking for a mate. Maybe some of your other attributes or interests are EXACTLY what she is seeking out. Kate Middleton clearly wasn’t making her choice of prince on the basis of his hair. Enough said!
Because we are putting so much attention on our hairlines, we assume everyone else is too. They generally aren’t. Don’t hide your light under your thinning hair.
Mind your language – A huge amount of research has been done in the sporting arena on the impact of ‘self-talk’ on performance and direct correlations have been found between negative self talk and poor performance, and positive self talk and good performance. Most sports now have sports psychologists and coaches who work with the athletes to help them stay to focused, to let go of past experiences, and to control their thoughts and their internal chatter.
This also has relevance for us. The words that we use both to ourselves and to others can have a huge impact on how we feel: talking about ourselves as ‘victims’ or ‘sufferers’ of hair loss just exacerbates our feelings of isolation or lack of control. By using those words we bring more attention to our suffering and we feel worse and it becomes a downward spiral of despair. But even just saying in our mind something like ‘I am experiencing hair loss and I accept it; it is very common among men of all ages and I will not let it ruin my life,’ can help put us in a more resourceful state of mind. I’m not suggesting that we go skipping about pretending that all is fine, when it isn’t. However it is our own choice as to whether we beat it or we let it beat us.
As W.E. Henley wrote in his poem ‘I am the master of my fate. I am the captain of my soul’. At the age of 12, Henley contracted tuberculosis of the bone. A few years later, the disease progressed to his foot, and physicians announced that the only way to save his life was to amputate directly below the knee. It was amputated when he was 25. He wrote the poem from his hospital bed in 1875. He went on to live to 53, managing with one foot.
We cannot control everything that life throws at us. But we can control how we respond to it. We can let our hair loss control or even ruin our lives or we can become masters of our fate and captains of our soul.
Although this is a long and arduous lifetime journey, it can also be a positive one. If you take your time, do your research and read this book from cover to cover before making ANY decisions, then you can feel like more of a victor than a victim.
Just one more bit of psychology before we move on to put hair under the microscope.
Elisabeth K?bler-Ross, M.D. (1926 –2004) was a Swiss-born psychiatrist and the author of the groundbreaking book On Death and Dying (1969), where she first discussed what is now known as the K?bler-Ross model. This model has now been adopted as the general five stage process that everyone goes through when they experience sudden change or trauma. I include it here because I believe it is relevant to the trauma we experience when we first discover our thinning hair, particularly at an early age.
The stages are these:
Denial is usually only a temporary defence, but this first stage of discovery is a huge, huge shock, there’s no doubt about it. It’s the stage where you start checking your hairline every time you go to the bathroom just to see if it’s really thinning a bit. You might be checking the floor when you shower and thinking that there is an increasing number of strands to clear up. You might be asking discreet questions of friends and family members, while trying not to give away your reason for asking. Sooner or later you will realise the inevitable.
When you get to this stage you know that denial cannot continue, but now there is the maelstrom of emotion coming at you in waves and you are a pain to be around. All the implications of losing your hair hit you like a ten ton truck. You may resent people who aren’t losing their hair. You probably start trying to cover up the loss and grasp at any straw that might help stem the flow.
This and the next two stages are the most dangerous for making any kind of decision regarding treatment or restoration but sadly this is the time when most men will embark on the journey from which there is no return once started. If you are here, please, please, please, allow yourself to get through to the final stage before you make any decisions. Decisions made in panicky haste will end in regret and you very well might make matters worse.
Bargaining –”I’ll do anything to get my hair back.”; “I will give my life savings if…”
This third stage involves the hope that you can somehow postpone or delay the inevitable. In desperation you are very likely to make bad decisions, waste money, and be vulnerable to the predators in the hair loss industry who will promise you deliverance from your woe and then just add to it.
This is effectively a grieving stage. You are grieving all the things that you think you have lost. The certainty of your hair loss hits you. You may isolate yourself and remove yourself from your social circle. Hats become your new fashion accessory of choice. The best thing you can do is to give yourself some time and just sit with the emotions, a box of tissues and a punch bag. Confide in a friend who can be there to support you. Let the emotions flow through and out. Cry when you need to, punch the bag when you need to, rant at your friend. Just don’t bottle things up. If you can take control of this stage and help it along on your terms, then it will soon pass.
In this last stage, you accept your male pattern baldness. You may choose to live with it or try to do something about it. Many men will choose to accept their hair loss as part of life. After all it is a normal genetic trait and there are plenty of those traits that we can’t control (height, bone structure, handsomeness). We can either accept the genetic cards we are dealt or try to change the hand. Either way, the emotional storm has calmed by this stage and you are in a much better place to make the decisions that are right for you.
Whatever stage you are at, just try to research on through various means with curiosity and calm. The old adage ‘Act in haste, repent at leisure’ is so, so true when it comes to dealing with your hair loss!
Hair loss affects us on many levels; its psychological and emotional effects can be devastating to our self-confidence and self-esteem. We can feel anxious and isolated, feeling no one understands what we are going through and we can quickly enter a downward cycle of despair.
For me personally, hair loss affected more than my image it attacked my identity. I felt I was losing my self. I was struggling to accept myself! Thankfully, I gained key emotional support, with a life coach who gave me the opportunity to process my feelings and unlock the door to my own hair-loss obsession. It gave me perspective and the awareness to access the real me and realise I am not just my hair!
Please remember guys; you are not just your hair! Hair loss can easily become an obsession and strip us of our confidence when it doesn’t need to. I want to make your journey easier by sharing what’s helped me.
If you would like emotional support, please email me so I can personally refer you to the life coach I use, who has given me vital emotional support along my own journey.