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I am 17 years old, standing in the shower in my Karachi home, when a chunk of hair comes loose. My initial reaction is shock, and then I think: Oh, finally. I’d had typhoid a few months before, and a friend who’d had it warned me of the inevitable malnutrition-induced hair loss. For weeks after, even if I only slightly touch my hair, it comes loose.
Fast forward almost 13 years later. No disease has wracked my body. But my hair starts falling again: curls, clumps, tangled in my brush and in the drain. There is hair everywhere — on the dresser, the rug, my pillow — just not on my scalp.
It was the summer of 2015. A record heat wave had killed over a thousand people in Karachi. I was utterly thankful to not have a job that required me to be outside and do manual labor, and that the erratic power supply in my home at least operated a fan. I wore baggy harem pants and a T-shirt to go outside, the only clothes relatively presentable and airy enough to withstand the heat. My hair remained in a topknot.
One evening that summer, I went out to meet some friends. But as I unrolled my hair from its topknot, it was a literal shadow of its former curly, even at times (with a spray of dry shampoo) voluminous self. Over the past few weeks, I’d been losing hair but had assumed it was just because of the heat. But in fact, my hairline was positively receding; my hair was nothing but a handful of limp and weak strands.
I had just turned 30. Thirty. My 67-year-old father still had most of his hair; he blow-dried and applied hair spray to it every day (a routine he’s had for decades, possibly making him responsible for the depletion of the ozone layer). My mother’s hair at 42 — her age when she died — was positively lustrous.
So how did I get here? I’d always had thin hair, but plentiful amounts of it. My hair had survived curling irons, the ‘90s hair mascara trend, multiple rounds of hair dye, straightening irons and blowouts and even being singed by a lighter held too close to my unkempt hair.
Yet something had happened, and my hair was falling, falling, falling.
I wasn’t just embarrassed. I was ashamed. Hair loss didn’t happen to people my age. I was convinced I’d brought this on myself. I blamed years of yo-yo dieting, hormones, the heat, being overweight, the fact that I lived in Karachi, with its bacteria-filled water supply. I was a cliché, the person staring longingly at other women’s hair, strategically brushing my hair to cover bald patches. Every time I had to send my author photo around — a picture of me happily posing with my big hair, taken just a year before — I felt like a fraud. This isn’t what I look like anymore.
Maybe I’d imbibed the cultural stereotypes — hair is a woman’s crowning glory, the images of Indian film actors I’d grown up watching, swishing their long, shiny hair — or how hair played a role in memories of my mother. One of my favorite photos of her is taken on a sunny day, her hair cut short in the 1980s style, framing her face. My sister and I are sitting next to her, our heads covered in tight, black curls.
Because hair isn’t just an appendage. It is part of our identity. It’s often the first thing we notice about a person; it forms our first impression of their personalities. We leave our hair down at the end of the night, we put our hair up for work and interviews; we spend so much of our lives obsessing about grays and texture and examining strands for split ends. Even the legendary Cosmopolitan editor Helen Gurley Brown admits in Sex and the Single Girl — her treatise on how single women should live, date, and decorate — that hair is “every girl’s mortal enemy”. (Her stylist advises her to pull on her hair to make it grow.) The most powerful moment of How to Get Away With Murder is a scene in the first season when Viola Davis removes her makeup and takes off her wig, revealing her natural hair, stripped bare of the notions of conventional beauty. Hair reveals who we really are; the hairstyle we adopt is who we want to be. So when your hair starts falling out, don’t you lose a part of yourself, too?
I felt like I’d lost confidence in who I used to be, and how I’d used hair my entire life: let down for vanity, put up to show I couldn’t be bothered, straightened to establish control, to transform the way I looked. But hair loss feels like being on the speed track to old age; a preview into a life of comb-overs and buying spray-on hair cans. It signified a failure to control something so basic, something that I had done on autopilot for as long as I could remember. The thought of what I would look like if I lost all my hair was terrifying: a cross between Ross’s bald girlfriend on Friends and forced seclusion. Bald men are often referred to as sexy, but women with thinning hair are most decidedly not.
But I knew I had to stop wallowing in self-pity. I had none of those problems — I wasn’t entirely bald, I didn’t have a terminal illness — I was lucky, even. I’d cottoned on to the problem and I could afford to fix it.
I had money to spend on myself. I had access to the internet and the best haircare freelance writing checks could buy. I could even wash my hair in mineral water (which I tried once, and gave up because it’s not very comfortable to wash your hair while pouring a plastic bottle of water over your head).
People raved online about Kerastase’s Densifique treatment. And so one morning I pitched up at a high-end hair salon, hoped I wouldn’t run into an acquaintance, and got hold of a silver box of 30 vials carrying the precious liquid, the shampoo and mask. All of this combined cost well over my monthly rent. But I thought I had to make this “investment” in my hair — even though I was burning with shame at how much money I was spending.
It was just the start, though. After Densifique failed, I tried everything from protein treatments ($10 and above) and Olaplex ($58) to just not brushing my hair for fear it’d break.
Hair was my priority. I didn’t care about clothes, or my skin. I started eating more salads to improve my diet and by extension, I hoped, my hair. I was putting money into food instead of clothes. (Thanks, Marie Kondo, for ridding me of my impulse-buying habit!) My doctor prescribed a higher dosage of Vitamin D. I used the Olaplex at-home treatment every few weeks, sleeping with it in my hair, Kim Kardashian-style.
But I couldn’t spend more money. My savings were almost decimated, thanks to an unplanned house move and months of salon appointments. Whenever I’d come across the dust-covered Densifique box, my heart would fill with regret — and middle-class guilt.
Haircare, I realized with every debit card charge, is a matter of privilege. From the expensive haircuts, the hair mask and conditioner and shampoo and vitamins, and the iceberg lettuce I could eat instead of McDonald’s to using the same hair treatment as one of the most famous women in the world — all of this was only possible because I had money. Having disposable income – and an education — allowed me entry into the city’s best salons, the ability to try and toss a product, to test new fixes.
The only upside in this expensive, sorry saga is that hair loss set me free from the trappings of hair straighteners and blowouts. I don’t even travel with a straightener anymore. It’s ironic that our hair is first damaged by popular notions of beauty —poker-straight hair is professional and presentable; natural, curly hair is not — and then the same beauty industry tries to sell us expensive fixes that put is into spirals of shame and debt. Rinse, and repeat.