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My Stress-Induced Hair Loss Is Stressing Me Out

Photo-Illustration: by the Cut; Photos Getty Images

In January of 2020, I promised myself I would wear my hair down more. It’s not the saddest of my broken New Year’s resolutions (that would be “see more Broadway shows”), but it’s one I think about every day as I meticulously inspect my hair volume. As a matter of fact, could you hold the camera real fast? I want to see what it looks like from behind.

Yes, I am suffering from stress-related hair loss, making me the perfect mark for like 80 percent of podcast ads now. But when I went to the dermatologist a few months back, feeling certain she would understand and willing to try any experimental treatment she wanted, all she suggested was Rogaine.

That’s it. I was hoping she would offer me some goo or crystal that would make my head all tingly and magically fix everything. I mean, I’ve read seven thousand articles about “telogen effluvium” — the scientific term for when you experience something stressful and your hair fully cannot cope and just peaces out — but when I went to an actual medical professional, all she offered was the one product everyone knows about. At least she didn’t suggest trying to relax more. I made her give me a dandruff shampoo just so we could pretend we were hitting the problem on all fronts.

I realize I’m boring my friends when I ask them over and over if my hair looks thinner. (And on Zoom, how can they even tell?) Someone with a lot of hair complaining that it feels like less hair now: snooze city. I mean, so much else is going on.

But I just can’t stop thinking about it. About a month into the pandemic, I realized that the weight of my worrying would become unmanageable if I focused on everything that was awful. So I decided to channel that stress into one small thing at a time. Important note: This is not a therapist-approved coping mechanism. The other day I got really worried about a package coming. It came. Then I was like “Why was I so stressed out?” And my brain answered, “The fucking pandemic and all the senseless death.”

Instead of letting the despair crush me, I focus on my hair loss and what it means. So what does it mean?

When I’d go to the hair salon as a teenager, I was mortified by the idea of making small talk with someone for two hours while they did my hair. I was a teenager; even breathing was mortifying. But the stylists were always so nice. They would coo over my big curls and have other stylists come over to feel how thick they were. It made me feel good, aside from the literal pain of them pulling at my hair.

For a while, at least, my hair filled in where I couldn’t let my personality show. Big hair was who I was. And, if we’re being honest, I wanted “big hair” to be the narrative, rather than “fat teenager who can’t figure out how to dress because brands haven’t figured out plus size yet.”

Thinking about self-love feels like such a relic to me now, when we’re all barely holding on trying to survive the loneliness. But before the pandemic, I spent so much time overcoming feeling bad about my body and working to feel confident and beautiful in my own skin. I spent so much of my adult life trying to believe I deserved to take up as much space as my big hair. And oh boy, did the past year just take a big tire iron to all that progress.

It’s not like that newfound self-love is completely gone now, but it’s definitely on a side burner, simmering quietly untouched as I put on sweatpants to stare at a computer screen all day. And it’s easier to think about scalp volume than how sad and alone I look in all these hair photos.

And that brings us to the final cosmic twist. Now that my hair has thinned, it’s so much easier to control. I can wear it down more easily than ever. My curls fall into place with little effort and only a bit of styling. My hair finally started cooperating with me, and all it took was a constant feeling of hopelessness! Also, because I yearn for this to be a product story and not a depression story, let me just suggest: Garnier Fructis Butter Cream.

As much as I appreciate the good hair days, I keep worrying that it’s going to tip over; that the bald spots on my head which may or may not just be my “part” will become bigger and bigger and that I’ll somehow be too late to stop it.

So I guess what it all boils down to is a big question I’ve thought about in some way or other for 30 years or thereabouts (probably not as a baby): How much does my hair define me?

Did my big, bushy, uncontrollable hair represent some kind of vibrancy I can never get back? Have I wasted all my hair potential? Did my hair have its moment of greatness, and will I emerge from quarantine completely bald and with a shell of the personality I once had? And isn’t it entirely unfair that this is happening as the result of a tragedy and not just the passage of time?

Is the hole where my joy and exuberance and excitement about the future once lived a permanent bald spot, or will it all eventually grow back? And isn’t there just some, IDK, crystal or something that can fix this?

My Stress-Induced Hair Loss Is Stressing Me Out