When I started dating a bald man, the first questions my friends fired my way about him had nothing to do with his background, employment or interests. Repeatedly, they’d bypass the pleasantries and skip straight to his hair: So, is he really bald, or does he choose to shave his head? How long has he been bald? Could he grow hair if he wanted to? And after I would explain that, yes, he shaves his head, and, yes, there are active follicles up there, they’d typically marvel at his bravado for willfully joining the bald club. I wonder how their responses would change if he had advanced male pattern balding and thus had no choice in the matter. But even more than that, I wonder why his baldness is such a big deal.
Male hair loss*, after all, isn’t uncommon by a long shot. Here’s a quick global snapshot:
About a third of all men are affected by male pattern baldness by age 45. The condition’s social and economic impact is considerable: expenditures for hair transplantation in the United States alone exceeded $115 million (U.S.) in 2007, while global revenues for medical therapy for male-pattern baldness recently surpassed $405 million.
Men have gone bananas over thinning hair for centuries, symbolically associating it with losing virility and youth. Gersh Kuntzman, author of Hair! Mankind’s Historic Quest to End Baldness told Salon about how ancient Roman men would rub hippo fat on their scalps to ward off hair loss and paint “hair” onto any bare patches. Also, think about the number of clearly balding or completely bald male politicians in office. Having a hard time coming up with names? Probably, considering that they’re an uncommon lot. Then again, the public tends to judge politicians harshly based on their hair choices in general, once prompting Hillary Clinton to tell a group of Yale students, “The most important thing I have to say is: Hair matters. Pay attention to your hair. Because everyone else will.”
I realize that a common male fear of balding isn’t news. But here’s a finding that grabbed my attention: For people struggling with body dysmorphic disorder (especially men), hair is one of the most affected physical features. Also, Kuntzman reported that academic studies have found gender differences in the perception of hair loss. Specifically, men tend to judge balding men more negatively than women judge them. By and large, it seems like men instigate a majority of the balding-bashing. Toupes, combovers, hair transplants, and treatments comprise a sizable male vanity industry, yet guys who get caught trying to fight heredity and preserve thinning hair are often derided.
Larry David and other prominent and proud bald men have figured out that the easiest way to fight male hair loss stigma is to simply embrace it. They can’t reclaim their masculinity by forcibly trying to regrow or offer the appearance of hair, since such preening is culturally considered a feminine ritual. Instead, David sees his baldness as a sexual asset of sorts. He said in an interview:
Women love a self-confident bald man. Anyone can be confident with a full head of hair. But a confident bald man—there’s your diamond in the rough.
There’s a racial element to this “to comb or not to combover” question that many men face as well. Culturally, black men can “get away with” shaving their heads, whether young or old. But why is that? What’s feeding the preconception that black men don’t sacrifice sex appeal and masculinity when they pull a Sampson on their scalps, while white, Asian, and Latino men tend to correlate dwindling sexual attractiveness to the depth of their receding hairlines?
The racial implications of the black man with a shaved head came up with Nivea’s ill-conceived “Re-civilize Yourself” ad that I mentioned in a previous post. Alex Chung commented over at Racialicious:
Why does Nivea think that the slow crawl towards civilization for a black man requires shedding an afro and facial hair? The problem, as many bloggers have pointed out, is that the ad relies on the trope of the savage black man, an idea as old as the nation that has only changed rather than disappeared over time.
Perhaps the broader social acceptance of black men with shaved heads traces back to a racist fear of black male sexuality, which the appearance of a shaved head may temper. Or, it could stem from that crucial factor of choice that I mentioned in the case of my bald beau. Consciously removing one’s hair—even today—is a mildly subversive act, and by that token being bald by choice can signal confidence and empowerment. But that still doesn’t resolve the cultural fear of balding, particularly when it strikes at a younger age.
Today, why must so much still rest on the reproductive success of men’s hair follicles? If it happens to a third of all males, isn’t it time to simply accept male pattern balding as a common byproduct of maturation?