Isn't He Lovely: The Body Politics of Male Balding

Cristen Conger
View profile »

black and white visual description of male pattern balding and hair lossWhen 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?

*Female hair loss is a relevant topic that deserves attention as well. I address it in a Stuff Mom Never Told You podcast episode you can listen to here.

Get Bitch Media's top 9 reads of the week delivered to your inbox every Saturday morning! Sign up for the Weekly Reader:

13 Comments Have Been Posted


I "accept" male pattern balding - that doesn't mean I find it sexually attractive and my libido can't be guilt tripped into finding it attractive. And I think Larry David is repulsive. Although more for the curmudgeon routine than anything else.

Contrary to evolutionary psychology propaganda, women find youthfulness in a mate just as attractive as men do. Mystery solved.

Baldness, my butt

So why should how sexy you (or even "general you") find a guy matter when he's out in the job market? Or in non-sexual social settings? Baldness should just be baldness, not some sort of sign of fundamental character flaw.

It is and it isn't about women having standards. Standards are fine. But what those standards ARE, in either gender, are often the product of the society that we've been soaking in all this time. Message are everywhere saying that bald guys are unsexy and shlubby, baldness is awful, yadda yadda ew bald guys... so yeah, that'll sink in and manifest when we're making our own decisions about who we'd want to get with.

(And if we reversed all the gender pronouns and the appearance aspect involved, there'd be much more carping. I don't think it'd fly too well for a guy to come in and declare that he can't be guilt tripped into finding a fat woman attractive, and also Rosie O'Donnel is repulsive, with a sprinkling of it being all about finding mates.)

What she said.

Wholeheartedly agree with Lampdevil! If a man had stated that he couldn't be "guilted" into finding a fat/skinny/black/etc woman attractive, we would be jumping down his throat faster then you could blink! No one is saying YOU have to find it attractive, but putting down a whole group of people for something they CAN NOT HELP is just hurtful and mean, which is the opposite of what the author is trying to do.


That is a shallow perspective. You seem to be persuading us its your libido when reality it's your attitude towards superficial characteristics. Your missing a lot of opportunities to find a person who you are likely to be compatible with.

On a personal note, my

On a personal note, my boyfriend is balding, and has been since he was in his 20s. He doesn't believe in hiding the inevitable, so he usually buzzes his scalp and goes about his day, sans chapeau. I have had only a few comments directed at me about his lack of locks (by a female friend, ironically, who's much older husband had a full head of hair). My mate will tell you how losing his hair has been detrimental to his life. It has meant less employment opportunities, hurtful comments from fellow employees and strangers, not to mention a long stretch of living the single life (before he met me). Thank you for these great set of articles! Seeing how cultural and societal beauty standards effect both sexes is a huge step in the right direction!

Love my bald man

I have been with the same man for 5 years now and he was going bald when we met at the young age of 19. it has never been an issue for me, not once. but it is for him, he wears hats almost everyday. and he gets made fun of all the time by our friends, but i wouldn't change it at all. he is dead sexy either way.

I dated a great guy for

Word Association: Common,

Word Association: Common, Bruce Willis, Dwayne Johnson, Ben Kingsley, Joey Lawrence, Yul Brenner, Billy Zane and (this is how rumors get started) I suspect Johnny Depp. All dead sexy, hair or no. This is a relevant issue, as my male friends attest often. I would like to have read a better analysis ie) your mention of it being more acceptable for black men and the backlash against PEOPLE who embrace baldness.

Seems like this article didn't go much further than the typical pop culture approach to baldness: "what's the big deal", which is invalidating to people for whom baldness is part of their self-concept.

Byproducts of Maturation

I think male pattern balding IS treated as a common byproduct of maturation. That is, with the same revulsion and "why don't you just fix it?" attitude that greets wrinkles, grey hair, age spots, and loss of muscle tone, to name a few.

Oh man, the big B word. It

Oh man, the big B word. It makes me laugh, but in a flitting eyes kinda way.
I'm 24 and my hair is starting to noticeably recede. I laugh about it now, and actively point it out when it seems appropriate (or funny).
It does hurt. It literally feels like slowly losing a part of your body, similar to if your toes were falling off one-by-one over the years. Seriously--I would say "mutilation" is not too strong a word to apply to the sensation. It's a process more traumatic than most men will ever let on. And a trauma made worse by cultural attitudes towards it, wherein balding is most commonly regarded as a punchline and larf, and usually at best as a silly bit of neurosis for men who were probably ugly anyway.
Should there be task forces, sensitivity training, and academic analysis? Nah. Like I said, I laugh about it myself. I knew it was coming, and I've prepared myself. But I'm a young, sensitive guy who already has some problems getting women to let their guard down around me. The last thing I ever needed was to feel like there's a "deadline" to find someone and settle down before the skin on my head becomes too pronounced.
I suppose all I'm really saying is that men really do have significant, consuming body image issues, too, which are nearly always disregarded, if not out-right mocked. We're good at acting cocky and assured, but believe you me, it's almost entirely an act. It hurts to have any feature of your body regarded as any kind of joke, no matter who you are.

Another interesting post!

I'm really enjoying this series. There's an episode of 30 Rock that illustrates this issue I think, perfectly (and hilariously) when Jack Donaghy asks Pete to wear a wig because it makes him look more confident and it briefly changes Pete's "manhood."

Hair loss is really a problem

Hair loss is really a problem of everyone. Thank you for sharing this information to us

Add new comment