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From age 13 onward, I had a recurring fantasy that a fairy godmother would appear and grant me three wishes to change my appearance: pimple-free skin, longer legs, and Jennifer Aniston’s hair. As I aged into self-acceptance and beauty trends came and went, all of those wishes eventually fell away. But one thing I never let go of was the desire for a pretty hairline.
I had the “Matthews Hairline,” as we call it in my family. My hairline had a small widow’s peak receding backward into two deep divots of thin hair at 10 and 2 o’clock, all atop a tall wall of a forehead. God bless my mom; when I complained about it, she took me to the mall hairdresser, who gave me wispy, Britney Spears-style bangs.
I had some form of bangs for the next 16 years. They were thick, side-swept bangs in college, then blunt Zooey Deschanel bangs at age 24. They were cute but functioned as a beauty cage, mandating a fussy, high-maintenance lifestyle. I had to wash my hair every day to keep them from getting greasy. I always traveled with a hair straightener or dryer, even going so far as to get a cordless hair iron powered by a small gas canister for camping. After emerging from a body of water, I would scamper to my beach bag to get a brush to try to comb my bangs into place. I hated windy days. Hundreds of Facebook photos were untagged because of imperfectly arranged bangs or a dreaded side view of my forehead. So much forehead.
I longed to be a free and easy beauty. One day in 2015, I started Googling, convinced there had to be a makeup tutorial in the YouTube universe on fixing your hairline, and instead found an article about older women treating receding hairlines with hair transplants.
Apparently, hair transplant technology has come a long way since the infamous hair plugs of the ’90s. The doctor featured in the article, Dr. Robert M. Bernstein, pioneered a technique in 1996 called Follicular Unit Transplantation, in which naturally occurring groups of one to four hairs are transplanted together, yielding a totally natural look.
My hair wasn’t receding — it had been receded since I was born. But if older women could get transplants to fix a receding hairline, perhaps I could get my young hairline fixed as well. Perhaps Dr. Bernstein could be my fairy godfather. I made an appointment for a consultation.
Dr. Bernstein took a look at my hairline, peered at my thick scalp of hair, and declared me an ideal candidate. I thought I was clever for coming up with the idea to move my hairline forward, but “it’s actually quite common to change people’s hairlines,” he says. About 20 percent of Dr. Bernstein’s patients are women. Many are older with thinning hair that needs fixing, but others find him through friend referrals, or are referred to him by their plastic surgeons. (It costs about the same amount as plastic surgery, depending on how many follicular units are transplanted at $7 each. A procedure like mine can require anywhere from 1,000 to 2,400 grafts; that’s $7,000 to almost $17,000.) Because the procedure requires a donation of hair from the scalp and women tend to thin all over instead of on top of the head, “fewer women are going to be candidates for surgery than men,” he says. “If women are candidates, it’s fantastic; it can really change their appearance.”
With a marker he drew in an approximation of what my new hairline could look like. He could only bring it down a centimeter or so in the front — it couldn’t extend over the wrinkles that happen when I raise my eyebrows without looking fake. But he could fill in the offending temples and the sides of my forehead by about a half-inch. I had never even considered the sides! I was in.
I arrived to the office for my procedure at 7 a.m. on a Friday in January. It’s an outpatient procedure that doesn’t involve general anesthesia, just lots of sedatives. Reading the list of risks was bracing: It might not work at all; I might get folliculitis or an infection. My hair would grow in kinky and could take years to smooth out. I signed an authorization to pay more if more grafts were needed than what was estimated.
I was given Prednisone and Valium and then settled into a reclining medical chair facing a flat screen turned to a frenetic stock market channel, another reminder that this was an office that caters mostly to middle-aged men. An assistant started buzzing the back of my head, the teeth of the electric razor nipping my scalp. I fell into a light sleep. While I dozed, the area was numbed with a local anesthetic and Dr. Bernstein removed a strip of skin measuring one centimeter by about 20 centimeters from the back and low sides of my scalp and stapled the area closed.
(For men who have short hair, he can use a robot to remove the follicles one by one, so as to not leave such a large scar. This procedure is slightly more expensive and takes longer. I’m not ever planning on shaving my head, so I opted for the strip.)
By the time I woke up, tiny holes were being punched in my anesthetized forehead with a needle. It didn’t hurt. It felt like reverse pimple popping. Pop, pop, pop. Some assistants were bent over microscopes, gently dissecting and stripping my skin away from the donor hair follicles so they could be popped into the new holes. They spent the next four hours inserting 2,000 follicular units one by one — single units of hair in the front, units of two behind, and units of three behind that — while I watched Keira Knightley in Pride and Prejudice on the flat screen. (The assistants were pleased with my choice.) At 3:30 p.m., the assistants paused to assess their work. Bernstein visited, examined my forehead, and asked them to fill in some space he was dissatisfied with. He calls it “designing” the hairline, which seems right. It’s an art.
Feeling floaty and level on sedatives, I listened to a nice lady’s detailed instructions on post-op care: wash my hair three times a day with special shampoo, and no drinking or sex for a week. Yoga was out — it would stretch the back of my neck and damage the staples in the donor area. Also, no knit caps for the next 10 days because of the sutures, only silk scarves. I was happy I chose early January for the procedure because I could hide at home and blame the dreary weather.
I was handed a mirror, and I gazed at my forehead with low-key alarm. (Valium. It’s a great drug.) There was a very clear red outline of the new hairline studded with short black stubble. I could only hope that once the red swelling subsided and the hair grew in it would look much better, even though Dr. Bernstein had warned me from the beginning that I would probably want a second round of implants.
By Tuesday, I was easily able to cover my forehead with my bangs and use BB cream to cover the yellowish cast to my forehead, the last remnants of the swelling and bruising. I went in a week after the procedure to get half the staples out, and the rest 10 days after that. All that was left was a perfectly outlined thick area of stubble that was easily camouflaged by bangs.
In May, I had a dark fur in the shape of my new hairline that could be mistaken for baby fuzz. When I went in for a trim before Memorial Day weekend and showed my hairdresser the new hairline, he was thrilled and started plotting with me to grow out my bangs. They would rule my life no more. I spent my weekend upstate either letting the breeze play with my bangs, or practicing emerging wet from a lake and running my fingers through my damp hair with a carefree, sexy attitude.
The next February, I went for my one-year follow-up. Bernstein examined my hairline with satisfaction. “The texture of the hair will change, it will be softer and smoother. It usually takes about two years,” he said. “Also, the hair likes to read hair nearby to have that support, so when you come back to get that hair filled in, it will help it smooth out.”
He seemed convinced that I would want to schedule another procedure to fill it in more. And yes, it’s a little bit thin in the front if you look close, but I was — am — thrilled. The exposed temples have disappeared. My forehead is a manageable size. When I started growing my bangs out, everything became easier. I can go four days without washing my hair. I can wear all manner of hats without the bangs being smashed down and stringy. I can go camping or to the beach or to a desert festival and finally be the low-maintenance girl I always was in my heart.
I got married in April of this year, and my new hairline had grown in enough to let my hairdresser pull the new hair back on the sides into a loose half-up style. I got my bangs cut back in because my husband missed them, but it was an aesthetic choice done purely for the cute factor, not to hide anything. It was incredibly gusty the day of my wedding, so much that my veil smacked some of my guests as I walked down the aisle. And yet I didn’t throw out one picture of myself from the wedding because of disarrayed bangs.
In that sense, I didn’t just buy a beauty procedure. I bought myself aesthetic freedom, a carefree attitude, more minutes in my day that I could focus on living instead of ironing my hair and cringing at photos. And in that sense, it was totally worth it. My only regret is that I didn’t do this earlier.