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Kuba Shand-Baptiste is a Commissioning Editor and Columnist for @IndyVoices, and a freelance journalist. Find her on Twitter @kubared. Here she discusses the shock of hair loss even when you see it coming…
I’ve always suspected I was going to lose my hair. It started when I was a kid. I’d pore over pictures of my mother in her twenty-something years – her short, afro cut with buzzed sides gleaming in the late eighties summer sun, not too much older than I am now, at 26-years-old – knowing that this now very much in fashion cut, was in fact her best means of coping with stress-induced alopecia.
Growing up, I learned how she carried that bout of hair loss – first, a small circle in the middle of her head, and later, a torrent of growing patches – with pride, decades before the resurgence of the natural hair movement. Gone were her regular, drawn out hair appointments at black hairdressers; gone too was her attachment to what she’d be brought up to believe should be one of the main sources of a black woman’s pride: her hair.
I was losing it, finally, like I’d always anticipated. So why did I feel so ashamed?
She’s shaved her head ever since, proudly denouncing the beauty ideals that cause so many of us to break our necks to grow our hair, and I’d always thought I felt the same. But it wasn’t until I was in the same position that I realised how much of those harmful ideas I was carrying around with me.
I discovered my hair loss while leisurely taking out my braids one evening. As I unfurled each kanekalon extension, I’d run my fingers through the hair that was left behind, separating it from its once braided form back into its full afro glory. But this time, handfuls of my own hair fell out with each discarded tress.
I placed a finger dead in the centre of my head and felt cold, smooth skin underneath, knowing full well what was going on, but far too scared to look. With one eye closed, I braced myself and lowered my head in front of my bedroom mirror, just long enough to see a patch around the size of a 50p coin in the middle of my scalp. I was losing it, finally, like I’d always anticipated. So why did I feel so ashamed?
It soon occurred to me that despite years of declaring to everyone and their mother that I was proud of my 4C afro hair, that I loved it natural and felt no pressure to return to the relaxed, dry mess it once was, none of that was quite true. While I did like my own hair, I coveted length, bounce, even perhaps a curl pattern that would make my edges easier to slick down.
All I could think was: “But I’ve spent so long growing it. Why would nature take it away from me?” A thought I’d assumed I was immune from, being the child of a woman who regularly let it be known that hair vanity had always been a nonsense to her.
Unable to look at myself, I wrapped my hair up in a towel and legged it to the bathroom, afraid that my housemates would notice my new deficiency if I didn’t try everything to conceal it.
After speaking to my mother on the phone, in a call that began: “Mum, how old were you when you first started to lose your hair?” I felt at ease. Just talking to someone who knew what this was like, gave me an immediate sense of relief and swiftly pushed the negative thoughts of texturism out of my mind. “If it keeps happening, I’ll shave it all off like you, I don’t care. It’s just hair”, I said. “I’m so proud of you”, she replied.
Just hair. Just hair, I reasoned in my mind, long after hanging up, trying to make it all less of a big deal than my palpitating heart was telling me it was.
Months later, after scrolling through alopecia acceptance Instagram pages and more talking to my mother, I realised that it really is just hair. Having it in abundance (which I never really did) did not make me a better or more attractive woman, and watching it fall out didn’t have to make me less appealing either, even if other people in my life and the wider world, did not agree.
I’m still grappling with whether or not to call it a day and embrace my own advice that “no one looks bad with a shaved head”. But in the meantime, I’ve learned more about myself than I would have if it hadn’t started to dissipate.
Who knew losing my hair could help me to gain so much?