Follicles for Algernon: One Man’s Struggle with Male Pattern Baldness

I started reading Beta Dad's blog earlier this spring with a post memorializing the fall of Saigon and his wife's family after their escape. Since then, I'll admit to being a little in awe of the guy. If you look at his profile, it gives some basic facts--stay-at-home dad (to baby twins!), mid-forties (still in good shape), does a little carpentry (he's building an addition to his house), teaches part time (yeah, college level English Lit and composition), traveled the world (Russia of all places?)--yet it comes across with a casualness that belies Beta Dad's truer persona of being sensitive, intelligent and manly all at the same time. What's more he manages to so with the same hint of self-effacing humor George Clooney is famous for. (His post today demonstrates that). Beta Dad's embodiment of what I consider to be an example of modern masculinity comes, at least, in part from his father who I have likened to that guy in the Dos Equis commercials. ("Stay thirsty my friends.") Oh, and did I mention Beta Dad also is one of the regular contributors to author, Jeremy Adam Smith's site, Daddy Dialectic. In layman's terms, the guy's too cool for school. See for yourself.

Follicles for Algernon: one man’s struggle with male pattern baldness

I’ve gotten to the point in my life where, like a lot of men, I need to make a decision about my hair. The options, however, are limited. I guess it would be more accurate to say that the reasonable options are limited. I could always go for something like the look rocked by one of the cashiers at my local Home Depot: kind of a William Shakespeare thing, curling under at the jawline, with the few remaining wisps on top swept back like the gossamer wings of a dragonfly. Or I could spend hours each day maintaining an elaborate comb-over like the guy who sits in the old K-Car filled with newspapers and plastic hangers in the parking lot by the tennis courts.

It’s easy to laugh at these guys and their ill-conceived or simply insane attempts to deal with hair loss. In fact, bald guys are always easy targets for comedy. But it’s not so goddamn funny when you’re as self-absorbed as I am, and during your formative years relied on your handsomeness to fill in the gaps where your talent, skill, intellect, social instincts, and common sense failed you.

I was a major playa in grade school, with my long, flowing tresses and cavalier attitude toward cooties. I thought it would always be thus. Middle school was trickier due to my hormone-induced rage and refusal to be civil to anyone who didn’t share my enthusiasm for punk rock. By junior year though, I had modified my look and my attitude from angry freak to charming rogue, and the ladies dug it. All was right with the world.

But just as my spotty teenage complexion was clearing up, the whorl on the back of my head began unfurling, leaving openings where bits of scalp would glint through if proper dosages of Dippity-Do and Aquanet were not artfully deployed. There was plenty of raw material on top to create a calculatedly scruffy cascade over my forehead, but a heavy downpour or high wind would reveal my advancing widow’s peak; and heaven forefend I should be brightly backlit, because the outline of my very skull would become as visible as if an X-ray had been beamed through my melon.

During my third year of college (after a young lady I was dating said she couldn’t marry me because I was losing my hair, in response to which I was all first off, sister, ain’t nobody talkin’ about marryin’ nobody around here, and second of all, I have just as much hair as Sting), I invested all my hope and a goodly portion of my beer money in the new and wondrous snake-oil known as Minoxidil. After a year of treatment, my scalp was noticeably moister and shinier, but alas, the density of my mullet continued to wane.

I realize that it’s kind of funny, in a pathetic way, to imagine a twenty-to-thirty year old man muttering oaths at his image in the mirror while applying styling products to the small handful of fuzz on top of his head, especially when so many people—probably most people—have far graver matters to worry about. But think about how seriously we take the emotional damage people (especially young women) endure based on body image issues. And for most people, it’s possible to do something about their bodies. No diet or exercise could make me grow hair.

And if by chance I managed to go for more than a couple hours without thinking about how shitty my hair looked, some smartass buddy of mine would be sure to remind me that I was going bald. Thanks, pal. That is some * fresh* comedy material. Never saw it coming. (Actually, if someone would have tracked my various anxieties on a CAT-Scan or some other machine with electrodes that makes squiggly lines go across a screen, I think my hair-loss would have registered as a constant presence with occasional spikes, rather than something that came and went.) As with many aspects of male culture that I don’t really get, ribbing someone about their appearance, presumably to help promote the growth of the masculine force field against insecurity, did not have the intended effect.

I never spoke openly about my hair anxiety back then (still don’t, really, except for right now) because it seemed vain, frivolous, and downright unmanly. I sometimes complained to my mom in a lighthearted way that belied the depths of my misery, perhaps in search of sympathy, or maybe to make her feel guilty for not passing on the good hair gene from which every male in her family who came before me benefited (her dad died from a heart attack before he was fifty, but—Man!—what a head of hair!). Mom would say, “What? Who cares? Women don’t even notice stuff like that. I’ve never heard any woman talk about a guy’s hair.” I would allow myself to believe that she wasn’t just trying to make me feel better, and it would comfort me for an hour or so.

It also didn’t help that my dad’s prodigious mane just became more impressive as it silvered with age. The only culprit I could find in our family tree was my paternal grandfather: bald as an egg before he was forty, and perhaps partially because of that, compelled well into middle age to beat to a pulp anyone who challenged his status as toughest man in Havre, Montana. Although I was proud of almost any likeness I had to my folk-hero grandpa, I shook my fist at my family’s gene pool for giving me the head of a prizefighter and the disposition of a public accountant.

But a few years after I graduated from college, there was a glimmer of hope. Some observant scientist realized that men who were on the drug Finasteride for a prostate condition were developing luxurious coifs of Bon Jovian proportions! They re-branded the elixir as Propecia, and I started gobbling the little testosterone-inhibiting tablets like Mike‘n’Ikes. And lo, how my hair did thrive! At the very least, anyway, it stopped retreating.

Most men who take Propecia don’t feel any side effects, but a few guys will experience any number of a wide range of sexual problems including impotence, erectile dysfunction, or erections that last “indefinitely”(!). Oh, and they might grow breasts. But I ask you, wouldn’t a thick, luxurious pelt be worth those minor inconveniences? I thought so.

I didn’t experience any more sexual abnormalities than usual while taking Propecia for the next six years or so, and my cup-size mostly held steady, fluctuating just a bit when I gained or lost weight. My self-confidence increased, and space in my brain was freed up for other obsessions by the knowledge that even if my hair would never look like Johnny Depp’s circa “21 Jump Street,” it would never be any thinner than Sting’s.

Pre-Propecia, I probably spent ten hours a week cursing and lamenting my shameful condition. During the Propecia years, that particular strain of self-loathing was nearly eliminated. Even if my hair looked like shit, I knew that it was not going to get any worse.

While Propecia doesn’t present much risk for men who take it, any contact with it by pregnant women—even simply touching a broken tablet—is extremely likely to have devastating effects on the baby’s reproductive system. So when it came time to get to the business of having some babies, we couldn’t even risk keeping the stuff in the house. My hair had to take one for the team. Imagine a kid with the toxic mixture of ambiguous genitalia and his dad’s self-absorption and insecurity.

Once you stop taking the magic pills, your hair rapidly returns to the state it would have been in had you never started. Thus, the first months post-Propecia were like a cosmetic Flowers for Algernon: I was witness to my hair’s inevitable decline, and there was nothing I could do about it. But surprisingly this did not send me into a shame spiral. Perhaps because I was over forty, and hoping to be a father soon, baldness seemed more appropriate. Now, four years since I quit taking Propecia, and a year after the birth of our twin girls, my hair looks like I’m in the midst of a rough bout of chemotherapy.

Although I’m not presently obsessing (much) about it, I still need to face the fact that my hair looks like shite. When my duties as stay-at-home dad allow me to leave the house, I usually throw a baseball hat onto my ravaged pate. But when I prepare to teach every Monday and Wednesday evening, I’m confronted with a patchy, wispy mess that probably embarrasses my students to witness. To “style” it seems a farce, but to leave it unkempt produces the effect of a disheveled wino.

I know what you are thinking. Take it down to the wood. If the hair offends thee, shave it off. My wife thinks this drastic solution is unwarranted, probably because from her perspective, several inches below my chin, it doesn’t look that bad. I could go back on Propecia, but I’m not crazy about taking hormone-tampering meds if I don’t have to; and—who knows—we might want to try for a couple more sets of twins. But the prospect of a cleanly shaven head troubles me. I would feel vulnerable, like a naked mole rat cowering from the sun. I’m also not sure about how aesthetically pleasing the shape of my head is. I’m afraid I would look like a fish-fleshed alien.

In writing this, I didn’t mean to ask for advice, but I guess that’s partly what I’m doing. I really just thought it would be interesting to explore the crazy amount of anxiety I have had throughout my life concerning—of all things!—my hair. So there you have it. Instead of pursuing a “career” or fighting for a “cause,” I spent my twenties and thirties seething about the inequity of a world in which I was denied reaching my handsomeness potential by matters beyond my control. I suspect that other men share my anxiety. At least I hope they do, or else I really look like a narcissistic douche bag. And a balding one at that.

You can follow Beta Dad on his blog as well as at Daddy Dialectic. I highly recommend it.

One other thing I highly recommend is helping in the fight against the painful and potentially deadly autoimmune disease Juvenile Myositis. Please take a moment to vote for the CureJM Foundation as they are in the running to receive a $250K grant from Pepsi to fund research in putting an end to JM. And if you could, please share with your Facebook friends and Twitter followers. It's a simple click, click.

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