We’re often our greatest critics. We see what others don’t: from laughter lines to love handles, to whatever other blemish might ruin our day.
Usually, people don’t even notice the imperfection causing us so much pain – they’re too caught up in their own insecurities to worry about ours! Of course, a shiny bald head, a large alopecia patch or a missing eyebrow might seem impossible to ignore…but are they really all that noticeable?
Yes and no. I’ve learned, through my own experience as an alopecian and from meeting others, that while I do notice people with a different look, it’s hard to tell whether or not it’s intended. It’s about their attitude, how they carry themselves.
And through this attitude, what’s different can suddenly become natural…and very attractive.
The Red Dzao (or Dao) ethnic minority is one of the largest in Vietnam. Having migrated from China around the 12th century, its people now live around the dramatic peaks and stepped ricefields of the north.
During a recent visit to Sapa, where I stayed at Topas Riverside Lodge in Nam Cang village, I had the opportunity to meet these women, and marvel at their unique style.
Dressed in red turban headscarves, intricate tunic shirts, skirts and leggings embroidered with flowers and small stars, they rocked the colorful layered look. They topped it all off with chunky silver jewelry, tassels and coins dangling from their red headscarves – so often, we heard them clanking along before we actually saw them. (Something which Mr Alopecia often says about me!) I was a big fan.
What I really loved about these Red Dzao women was their hair – or rather, their LACK of hair.
Although not every Dzao group sports the bald look, many of them shave their head, their eyebrows or both. One group (the Dao Quan Chat) are referred to as “Sơn Đầu”, which means “painted head” – because the women take things one step further and paint their bald heads before covering them with their traditional headscarf.
Traditionally, they shaved it all off as a mark of respect – as the story goes, a tribal leader once became ill after a meal. He believed it to be because hair had gotten in his food – so the women serving him balded up to prevent a repeat incident. And it became, well, expected of the ladies.
As these things go, it then turned into the fashion until nowadays you ain’t seen as beautiful until you’re bald!
Aside from the Red Dzao group, other international baldies challenge the idea that a woman’s attractiveness is linked to her hair. Like the women of the Samburu tribe, who I met when working at a small sexual health charity in Kenya over a decade ago.
Samburu women, plus their close cousins, the Maasai, both have their heads shaved as they enter puberty: to mark the passage from childhood into adolescence.
These women were strong, proud, badass and incredibly beautiful – probably even more so than they would’ve been with hair. They paired their fierce look with giant earrings and chunky beaded necklaces: ladies after my own heart!
Oh, and then there’s the young women of the Borana tribe, who live between Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia. They shave a patch from the crown of their head, Friar Tuck style, as they believe it’ll help them attract a better husband. I must say, I wore the same look for quite a while after experiencing postpartum hair loss…but I didn’t get a new husband. Mr Alopecia will have to do!
Did you know that Cleopatra was as bald as I am (and maybe you are, too)?! Having Alopecia Universalis would’ve saved her lots of time with the razor.
You see, both Ancient Egyptian men and women removed all their hair. Yep, every last follicle: tombs have been found with razors, tweezer ands knives for that very purpose. Cleanliness was of the utmost importance to people back then and, just like that Red Dzao leader, they believed hair was a sure-fire way to dirt, disease and all-around grossness.
Having gazed many times into Mr Alopecia’s crumb-riddled beard, I see their point!
So back then, upper-class women adorned themselves with elaborate wigs and headdresses; swapping them depending on the occasion. Just like modern-day popstars…or me, at a festival. Long hair wasn’t a signifier of femininity; fair from it. It was all about stripping things bare, then experimenting with different styles.
Well, it’s just that: a concept. A social construct that changes depending on where you are in the world and when you are there, too. What shapes this concept? The media, mainly. But it’s interesting to watch how quickly it changes its own opinion, and that of the public.
Nowadays, for instance, the Friends episode where Rachel persuades Bonnie to shave her head in the hopes of nabbing Ross back would be seen as…well, pretty cruel to alopecians. Would the writers get away with such hair-ist commentary? I don’t find it all that funny – especially considering how hot she looked as a baldie!
The infamous Will Smith slap and the media storm surrounding it attracted a lot of positive attention for alopecians. Then there’s the beautiful bald women of Hollywood to inspire us further. And although we’ve a LONG way to go before a shaven-headed lady will not just be accepted as ‘normal’, but as a person of beauty, we’re getting there.
It’s a hopeful thing, that the Western world may open its eyes to what’s beyond, what’s outside its preconceptions. That beautiful can be different. And that it’s an exciting time to be a baldie.
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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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