Helen Asher is a make-up artist and mother, who has recently suffered from alopecia. Here she discusses her journey and the approach she has taken to losing a part of her identity.
We become attached to our hair at a very early age, and many of us will remember our first hair cut as a strange and disorienting experience. It’s the first thing we present to the outside world, along with our faces, and parting with it can be traumatic even when it’s our own decision. It can’t be compared to clothes or make-up because it grows on our body, and it’s not as simple as a sartorial decision, however throughout recorded history we’ve used our hair as a medium to express our political identities, recreate society’s beauty ideals, or simply to signify social status.
With hair being such a significant part of our identity, what happens when that liberty is taken away from you? Hair loss (medically known as alopecia) is often dismissed as a cosmetic change in people’s appearance, and not seen as an actual disease, but the emotional strain it causes in the lives of those who suffer from it is something that needs to be talked about more often.
Beauty Papers: How did you first notice the change in your hair?
Helen Asher: A few months ago my son had surgery on his back, and I thought I’d breezed through it, but later I noticed chunks of my hair coming out. I used to have thick black hair down to my shoulders. I’d suffered tiny spots of alopecia in the past, and it had always been during stressful times, but it had always grown back. This time I noticed it was happening all over my head. I tried not to be too stressed about it, but you can’t help it when you actually see it in your hands, literally handfuls of it. I thought, “This is coming out, so let’s just take it a bit shorter.” I was distraught and I felt really unfeminine, and the more you think about it the more stressed you get. And that’s so counterproductive when it comes to alopecia, because the more you stress the more it’s going to come out. I work in the beauty industry as well; I do hair and make-up, which is ironic. I just put on a brave face.
I had this little moment recently when I took my dog out to Hampstead Heath.
I took her down to the scrubs and the hat came off, and it was like, “This is me.”
BP: How was it socially?
I was wearing headscarves and beanies to work. I only told my close friends about it. If people didn’t know me they wouldn’t think any different, in fact I’d get more compliments about my headscarf! Then I’d go home and wash my hair and more would come out. And then I’d be face to face with myself, looking at myself in the mirror, and just thinking, “Oh my God, I’m losing myself, my identity, my femininity.” It’s just trying to get used to looking at yourself in that solitude, in that big bathroom mirror.
BP: I guess the hair – the face – is what we immediately present to the outside world.
People judge when they look at you.
BP: Did this experience make you question the social codes that we impose on ourselves?
Completely. I’m not a vain person but when you’re having to face losing your hair, vanity totally comes into it. You can’t help it.
BP: But your personality comes through your facial expression.
Of course, but there’s nothing to hide behind.
BP: Isn’t that empowering in a way?
In the beginning I felt sorry for myself, but when I shaved it off last week, I came out from that ambiguity, that half way, and I felt really empowered. “This is it now,” I thought.
Maxine Leonard: Because you’re controlling it, it’s not controlling you.
Yes. I haven’t been brave enough to wear it out yet, but I had this little moment recently when I took my dog out to Hampstead Heath. I took her down to the scrubs and the hat came off, and it was like, “This is me.”
ML: It’s a confrontation with yourself. Because with other people, you’re preempting their reactions, but actually the confrontation is when you look in the mirror. It’s a personal journey.
Yes, and I tell certain friends that I lost my hair and they’re just like, “Oh, okay.” It’s really hard to put yourself out there. In the beginning I couldn’t help but feeling apologetic.
ML: I guess it’s a natural reaction when something’s really personal to you and people don’t react in the way that you think they should. A woman picking up clippers and rolling those clippers over her head… you didn’t choose to do that.
No, it wasn’t a fashion choice, it’s not because it’s trendy.
ML: It’s inflicted upon you and you had to find the strength to then own it and I think there’s a very big difference.
I had to find it within myself to just go, “Oh, okay, I’m good with this.” But I don’t have a choice but to be good with this. I had a friend who said to me, “If it was me, I wouldn’t leave the house.” I can’t do that!
BP: But that’s such a one-dimensional way of living your life. It’s not always about how you look.
ML: But we are about how we look, and it’s the first thing we’re judged on in society.
And hair is such a big thing. I know that when people look at me they probably think I’m a skinhead.
BP: Are you more interested in that culture now?
Yes, I Googled pictures of everyone.
BP: I wonder if women who consciously shave their hair do it because they want to let go of those guards. Hair and make-up can be an armour so maybe by deliberately making yourself vulnerable you’re actually reclaiming more power.
ML: It definitely is an armour, even a silhouette is an armour. Your choice of wardrobe and silhouette and the way you present yourself are all emotional decisions.
BP: It’s an identity thing but it’s not conscious, in the sense that I don’t think about every single sartorial decision I take, it’s natural.
It’s a part of you now.
ML: It’s a natural, conscious decision. But also a political one.
BP: It is political but you also act on your inclinations and how those inclinations are determined we may never know. It could be something to do with your childhood or the society you were brought up in.
ML: And in Helen’s case that’s been stolen away from her.
BP: So have you consciously changed your style now that you’ve lost your hair?
This is what’s interesting. Now I’m more –
ML: She’s using it as an excuse to buy some new shoes! [laughter] She’s bought herself some Grensons.
I feel like I need to fem up.
ML: That’s to do with sexuality, because as a heterosexual woman you want to find your mate. Most men have a single-minded approach, so when you remove that piece of jewellery and you have a cranium that’s bare, you have to have a very strong man with a very strong understanding of what’s going on. It’s expected that women have hair.
Long, thick, lustrous hair.
ML: Men need a little bit more education on that because what you’re exposing to them is something that’s not generally associated with women.
BP: And that has got something to do with the imagery and the physical standards that they have been served for decades. There’s this archetype about what women should be.
ML: So for you, as a woman suffering from alopecia, it’s a big thing to face these identities that we’re talking about, isn’t it? You not only have to come to terms with the person you’re staring at in the mirror but with how other people see you. Society has preconceptions about how we should look.
BP: And how do we change that?
ML: It’s been since the dawn of time. I was reading about Romans and the hair of Roman women – hair style was more important than the face. But also in the media what’s being sold is “aspiration”, “international hair”, “fabulous skin”.
The idea is that when you have great hair, you’re gorgeous and you’re wealthy.
ML: And these issues are not being addressed enough.
BP: But you can be powerful and glam without “trademark” hair.
This is what I am trying to own. I have two choices, I can either own it, or I can be insecure and apologetic about it.
ML: What were your thoughts when you were having your photograph taken for this shoot?
I felt very empowered and really honoured that you asked me to do it. And I thought, “It’s good to spread the word out there.” Because it could happen to anyone. I know women who lost their hair after giving birth. It can be traumatic. If there’s someone who reads this and identifies with it, that’s great. There are so many reasons why people lose their hair.
ML: We should talk about your son’s reaction when you were looking in the mirror!
My 15-year-old son came into the bathroom, and I said to him, “I can’t believe this is happening to me.” He grabbed my hand and said, “Come on Mum, out of the bathroom. You don’t need to look in the mirror. Just stop. It’s fine.” It was his way of saying, “You’re cool just the way you are.”
ML: You’re his mother, hair or no hair, that’s your identity. The label is not removed by a change in your appearance. Everybody’s reaction is so different and what’s nerve-wracking is that you can’t preempt people’s reactions, but it’s the small every day steps that you take.
A couple of months ago, I was feeling really bummed out about it, and that’s when I thought of styling it with a headscarf. I love going to clubs and dancing, and I thought, ‘I’m going to rock this turban out. Great.’” I’m just mixing it up. It’s just gradual baby steps of learning to own it. I’m fit, I’m healthy. It is what it is. I’m too busy to get depressed about it. I’ve got better things to do.