My global adventures with alopecia
I’ve had alopecia for most of my life. And as a person who loves to travel, my bald patches have seen more than their fair share of weird and wonderful places.
A lot of the time, I need to wear a headscarf: not only to deal with the intense heat and as sun protection, but to protect myself against the reactions I get when in transit with a bald head.
Good, bad and pretty damn ugly, I’ve had very different reactions to my international hair loss. So I thought I’d share the more memorable ones here.
Emma’s ‘not a doctor’ disclaimer
Hi there, I’m an alopecian, I’m not a doctor! Any advice I give is based on my own research and personal experiences. This site is, however, reader-supported. When you buy through external links, I may earn a tiny affiliate commission. Learn more here.
I went on a trip to Malaysia with my sister soon after graduating from a Masters course in Edinburgh. The stress of my course, and writing a thesis all summer, had led to large clumps of my hair falling out.
I still hand longish curly red hair, which had always been my trademark. But now I had a receding hairline, with smooth, bald skin spreading inwards from the nape of my neck and from my temples. I could cover it with a stretchy headband – but it made travelling pretty tricky.
Every time I’d fall asleep on a bus or boat journey, I’d awaken with a start, hastily fixing the headband back in place. I found my biggest challenge, however, when I did my Advanced Scuba Diving course a week into our trip. I didn’t feel ready, at that point, to bear the bald…so I wore a Buff bandana for the entire thing!
As we dove 30 meters below the water, I could rest assured that my bandana was securely held in place by my goggles.
I’m sure people wondered what the hell was going on – or maybe they didn’t wonder anything at all – in either case, they were too polite to ask. And for the other times during that trip, the friends we made along the way just thought I was a girl who really liked headbands.
It may have fit with the whole backpacker vibe – but it caused me a lot of unnecessary anxiety around hiding my true self.
A mixed bag, but an interesting one.
In Bali, market ladies laden down with cabbages giggled and tried to pull off my headscarf as I sat with them in the back of a bemo. When I used gestures and pidgin English to explain that I’d nothing underneath they unleashed peals of surprised laughter, then contented themselves with pinching my cheeks and holding my chin. Which was really quite comforting.
The local guys in Lombok were less impressed. It was like they were personally offended by my bald head joining a surf lesson and pleaded with me to “grow it back. Then you’d be so sexy”. Erm… sorry but it ain’t that easy, guys – even if you’ve got great treatments to hand!
Still, Indonesia is where I found a wonderful healer and a medicine man who helped my hair grow back, temporarily at least. That trip also gave me the confidence to come clean about my alopecia for the first time and was the starting point of Lady Alopecia. So those harsh reactions had a positive outcome!
The Burmese love a good laugh, especially when it comes to foreigners, and my alopecia was a constant source of entertainment.
The stares and points were a bit disconcerting at first but once I knew there was no malice involved, I got used to it. The warmth and joy that define so many of these people stopped me from getting upset over it. As did their continued fascination with holding my chin. (What IS it with my chin?!)
During Myanmar’s annual Thingyan Water Festival in Mandalay, I learned to embrace my mohawk for the first time abroad… decorating it with flowers to make it more of a style choice than a condition I couldn’t help.
It was nerve-wracking, baring myself in this way, but it made me a lot of friends. Although one creepy drunk guy did lick the entire side of my head with obvious relish and without invitation. Bit too far, maybe.
By the time I reached Vietnam, I was used to being openly stared at, cheered at and laughed at. So it came as somewhat of a surprise to find that I pretty much blended in in the place that would become my adopted home: Hoi An.
Maybe people here have had their fill of strange tourists with stranger looks parading around the place – or they’re simply too busy to notice.
In any case, it was a relief to walk down the street and not be bothered by curious mamas like in Bali and Myanmar. (I did miss the chin holding, though!)
I’ve tried a couple of treatments here: like a form of acupuncture that resembled electric-shock therapy. And a strange herbal bath in Ha Giang, which was both very relaxing and quite uncomfortable… considering that I’d met the old woman who tenderly washed my bare head and shoulders only seconds before.
What Vietnam has taught me most, though, is to be prepared for people asking me outright what happened to my hair. Vietnamese people are very straightforward, with none of the reservations I’d be used to from back home.
It was a challenge, at first – but once I saw how most people were curious and some wanted to help in some way, recommending this or that herb, I eventually let my guard down.
I began teaching yoga here – after a while I launched a Yoga for Alopecia course, too. My bald head became known throughout the town and, for the times I still needed to cover up, I started building a collection of colorful headscarves to match my mood that day.
Now I make and sell these headscarves, right from Hoi An, Vietnam – and it’s safe to say this place is where I found the true potential of life as an alopecian!
When I visited Japan for a month, I found a similar experience as to in Vietnam: that I was able to go about my business undisturbed.
Not that people didn’t notice – at this stage I had a teeny tiny bit of hair bunched in the centre of my head like some sort of unfit Irish samurai – but they were far, far too polite to make a big deal about it.
I probably could’ve walked around with my right boob hanging out and no one would’ve said a thing! ’Tis the Japanese way.
Tokyo was a little different. Again, most people didn’t take notice as they’re waaaay too cool to notice a mere mohawk attempt like mine. But I did stay with a lovely Couchsurfing host who mentioned my ‘very cool hairstyle’ in her review. And in the crazy kitsch district of Harajuku, a drag queen in pink fluffy feathers pointed at my head before giving it a thumbs up.
High praise indeed.
‘Are you from India?’ ‘Are you Muslim?’ ‘As-salaam alaikum!’ These questions and greetings were directed at me on a daily basis in Sri Lanka. As a female foreigner, I was going to be stared at anyway. As a strangely tall, massively bald female foreigner… well, who needs a cricket match when you’ve got this spectacle?!
Luckily I’d had time to warm up to stares in other countries. Because the stares in Sri Lanka were even more blatant. And the people there definitely had a more hands-on approach.
As I ate rice and curry one day, the auntie running the show stood behind me, chatting animatedly and playing with my few curls in fascination. There was actually something really lovely about this disregard for personal space!
Still, after wearing my head out and proud a few times and having every group of people stop talking when I approached, burn wordless holes right through me as I passed and burst into laughter after I’d gone, I resorted to the safety of a bamboo headscarf for a while.
In any case, it was far too hot and too dangerous to not have that layer of protection!
Unfortunately, my turban style did not get me any less attention. Hence all the India/Muslim-related questions. I couldn’t win!
After a few months there, and some time at a meditation center (which also helped me accept my hair loss) I learned to take less offence to being confronted so often.
People were just curious, after all, and their interest came from a place of kindness. Plus, Sri Lankans possibly have the most luxurious hair of anywhere I’ve been, which is why I must’ve been so alien to them!
So after all these reactions I get globally, what’s it been like in Ireland, my home country, since I announced my alopecia to the world? Again, a pretty mixed bag – usually depending on the amount of alcohol that people around me have consumed.
Walking up Dublin’s bar area of Camden Street on my way home, I would get stares, ‘wows’ and the occasional high five. Randomers came up to tell me how beautiful/funky/inspirational I was. Or I’d just blend in with the other city people trying out an alternative style.
But I also got a crowd of teenage boys shouting: ‘Fuck off, you dyke!’ as I nervously tottered to my Christmas night out with the girls – one of the first times I wore my bald look in Dublin and certainly a memorable one.
Later that evening, my best friend looked on in horror as a drunk guy weaved his way over to stroke my head in amazement. ‘How do you not want to punch him?!’ she exclaimed. Used to this treatment from my travels, I simply explained that he was curious and it really didn’t bother me.
Another time, a guy sent over a bottle of wine to my sister and me, coming over moments later to say it was because I was ‘doing a massively brave and ballsy thing’. I hadn’t asked for the attention – but hey, I didn’t mind cheersing to my condition that day!
I used to think I deserved whatever reactions I got. That if I’d made the decision to stand out, I had to be ready for any downfall that statement would make.
I don’t think that now. I think we should all be entitled to dress how we like, work at what we like, love who we like without other people getting a say. We are our own independent beings and we should be granted the basic freedom and respect to simply live our lives.
Of course, that’s not always the case. I can’t control how other people react. But mindfulness has taught me, I CAN control how I react to those reactions, if you get me.
I can choose to let them crush me. I can get angry, defensive, reactive in return. Or I can accept that someone else has that opinion; it doesn’t make it true. I can try and love myself, just as I am. Or at least be present with what’s going on rather than wishing it were another way (which, trust me, gets exhausting!)
Good or bad, I’m sure the reactions I get to my alopecia still affect me on some level. But I’m not going to let them stop me travelling, being myself or enjoying my life – wherever I am in the world.
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Alopecian. Yoga Teacher. Copywriter. Here to share information, offer support and show people the adventures that can lie in hair loss. I’m proud to have alopecia and I want to help others embrace their baldness, too!
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