For the past few years, the men in my life have been quietly melting down over their hair — or lack thereof.
There’s the ex who’s suddenly, sheepishly sporting a military-style cap in every Instagram photo. The cocky acquaintance who looks a little deflated now that his once-self-heralded “panty-dropping ’fro” is more of a sparse, combed-forward Weird Al–like do. And, while I’ve rarely heard my guy friends hint toward body shame in the past ten years, aside from beer-paunch and short-man jokes, I’ve been privy to quite a few hair-related discussions lately. “What I do is, I shave my widow’s peak back a bit, so it doesn’t look like I’m receding that bad,” one friend said to another. Another buddy relayed a story of being humiliated by a homeless man who called out, “Hey, baldy, how ’bout some change?” A third will beat everyone to a punch that no one was about to throw: “How threatening am I? I’m the bald dude at the bar!”
All of this is fascinating to me! Not because I’m interested in egging on a balding man’s fears, or judging his sex appeal — as a woman, I am too familiar with that kind of unnecessary scrutiny. What I am riveted by is this rare and forthright display of male insecurity.
It isn’t very often I get a window into not just one man’s, but my entire generation of men’s vulnerabilities. Women have been thinking about — and talking about — aging and how we maintain our looks from the moment the first girl in our fourth-grade class filled out her Esprit T-shirt and the rest of us stared at our chests every morning, waiting for something to happen. While young men were inspecting the contents of their underpants, trying to figure out what was going on in early puberty, too, I’m not so sure they’ve since faced an age-related biological shift that has required such painstaking examination, or at least evoked such candid conversation, until now.
Part of me feels sympathetic toward my thirtysomething male cohorts who are suddenly thrust into self-consciousness. The other part feels vindicated in seeing men struggle a little bit with the pressures that plague women their entire lives. Is it possible that I’ve reached a phase of adulthood, for however briefly it lasts, when men are actually more paranoid about their looks than women are? And if so, is it okay if I revel in it a little bit?
“Balding sucks,” explained my husband, “because just when you get your shit together, your life’s in better financial order, you’re building a family, you’re more comfortable with yourself, not really thinking about appearance stuff anymore, then you start to lose your hair. It’s humbling.”
My husband and I are the same age, and like him, at 37, I have never been more personally and financially secure. However, in many ways, I’ve also never felt physically better. Unlike when I was 22, lived on Taco Bell, and thought running was for suckers, I now incorporate live foods into my diet and exercise three to four times a week. I don’t have kids yet and I don’t stay out late like I used to, so I’m able to get at least seven hours of rest a night. I’m in this precious crux where so far I haven’t been overrun with wrinkles and gray hairs, but I do have dozens of years of experience in figuring out which clothes, hairstyles, and kinds of makeup look flattering, while generally giving way less fucks than I ever did about what people think. I may just be faring better in the self-confidence category than my husband is.
It’s not that my husband isn’t technically, or at least in my eyes, in his prime; it’s just that his ego wasn’t prepared for such a sudden, lasting blemish to his looks. I, on the other hand, have spent the past 20 years getting accustomed to small, constant biological shifts. It seems that coping with superficial obstacles and repeated pressures as a woman has strangely paid off — in that I’ve become both more resigned and more resilient to them. What’s remarkable is that women, through the ages and the age markers, have rarely felt less uneasy about their beauty than guys do.
“In my dad’s time, a dad just had to look like a dad, or a boss just had to look like a boss — and a bald, fat boss was the stereotypical norm,” one friend told me. But for the generation suddenly thrust into manscaping, metrosexuality, and Marky Mark’s Calvin Klein ads after a decade of no-questions-asked ’80s machismo, new standards apply. Studies suggest that men today are more stressed out about balding, beer bellies, and flabby pecs than their predecessors. Google real hard and you’ll notice A-listers like Matthew McConaughey, Ben Affleck, and Chris Martin are (mysteriously) sporting much fuller hairlines than they did in their early and mid-30s. Even the world’s once-most-eligible bachelor, Prince William, has been subject to age-related fearmongering trend pieces, which suggested he had to lock down a bride at 28 before his “youthful looks begin to fade.” (Despite the panic, today’s completely bald dude probably has little to worry about: He still does better in business than a man with a full head of hair, because he evokes more strength and dominance; and he does all right in the romance department, too — well, at least better than a thinning-haired man but not as good as a thick-haired one.)
“It all goes back to boning,” a friend says plainly. “Hair loss is the first undeniable sign that you’re getting older, and we’re afraid no one will want to have sex with us anymore if we get old and lose our hair.” If you looked up privilege in the dictionary, you might find the following example: having lived nearly four decades before feeling ambushed by a threat to your sexuality.
So far, the men I know at 34, 37, 39 are fighting aging, subtly and less subtly: purchasing Propecia; growing out their front-fringe peninsula; considering an extended out-of-the-country trip or training for some extreme-fitness event, the 2015 urban man’s equivalent of a Porsche and an armband tattoo. Meanwhile, I may not necessarily be in Zen-like acceptance about my bodily changes, but I do not need to have an existential life crisis. My girlfriends and I have conversations about what we don’t or won’t do now that we’re older, but none about how we look older — we already spent our 20s fretting over our bodies and it was exhausting. Despite all the smooth foreheads and 25-inch waists I see on TV, I know zero women my age who have gotten Botox or a firming nip or tuck. And yet as aware as I am that I’m not doing too shabby for 37, there is enough background noise (“Tone up those chicken-wing arms!”) that never lets me forget that all my smooth sailing could change in an instant. I have never had the luxury of taking my sex or my power — or any symbol of it — for granted.
Maybe that’s why I’ve found some strange comfort in men freaking out about going bald: Finally, dudes are getting a taste of impermanence and instability! There are enough situations in my life where men have leverage over me — at work, in legislating what I can do with my reproductive organs, in any instance where size and physical intimidation matter — and if I can get a leg up in the confidence department, I’ll take it. Because I wouldn’t be surprised if, by tomorrow, all my thinning-man peers will have figured out that they can just shave their heads and return to their lives of bone-able, uninterrupted dominance.