Going Bald: It’s All in Your Head

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Sitting in high school biology, listening to the teacher drone on about genetics, I snapped to attention when she used Psychology of Shame. “I don’t believe I’ve ever met a human being who has not experienced some degree of shame about his or her body no matter how much it seems to match the ideal. There’s always something wrong with the body.”

Why bald men feel ashamed

Kaufman sees two reasons why men feel shame about losing their hair. First, in our culture, a lush, full head of hair on a man is considered attractive and masculine, and most men want to appear to be both.

The other source of shame, according to Kaufman, is linked to the embarrassment many people feel about aging. “There is tremendous shame about growing older, particularly in a culture that overvalues youth, as ours does,” he says. “Therein lies a great challenge – can we accept the fact that our body is changing?”

So how do men get over the shame they feel about losing their hair?

“The key is to tolerate and neutralize the shame,” says Kaufman. “I’ve spent the better part of my professional life helping people recognize, tolerate, and overcome shame. It’s an inevitable part of being human. Some degree of shame is normal and natural, but we need to find ways to recognize it, to live with it, and to be proud of ourselves in spite of it.”

Bald and proud?

Well, maybe not proud of it, but not disabled by shame either. That means recognizing the shame and making it fully conscious.

“You have to be able to say, ‘I feel badly, I feel foolish and stupid,'” says Kaufman. “And then you must let the feelings of shame pass without internalizing them as a global indictment. Only when shame becomes overwhelming or excessive does it become crippling.” Just for the record, Kaufman, a retired Michigan State University professor, has experienced shame, but not about his hair. “I inherited my mother’s hair,” he says, “and there’s no sign of baldness.”

Katharine A. Phillips, MD, believes a man’s shame over losing his hair can become a form of body image. These men don’t want to look unusually attractive; they just want to look normal.”

Coping with going bald: Don’t try to hide it

But what about those men who are not mistaken about their appearance – men who really do have thinning hair and think they look awful as a result?

“If a man really has obviously thinning hair or is bald, technically I wouldn’t give him a diagnosis of BDD,” Phillips says. “But many men who do have thinning hair are suffering enormously. As a clinician I would probably use treatments to help depression and to cut back on preoccupations. If you’re obsessing about your appearance, that’s a problem.”

If balding men are ashamed of the way they look, and they declare their shame by trying to disguise or hide their thinning hair, that’s a huge turn-off, according to image consultant Amanda Sanders of New York Image Consultant.

“I hate to say this, but nothing is less attractive than a man with thin hair who is trying to hang on to it,” Sanders says. “I seldom see anyone with a toupee or hair weave or hair plugs who looks fabulous. It always looks fake, and I think that’s a put-off. Women find it more attractive when a man has more confidence in himself, so a balding man should just embrace being bald.”

According to Sanders, if a man acts as though being bald doesn’t matter to him, then it doesn’t matter. And there’s even hope on the Hollywood front in that regard. Several film stars, such as Bruce Willis, Ed Harris, Samuel Jackson, and Sean Connery, project self-assurance by making no effort to hide their thinning hair, while Matthew McConaughey, the “sexiest man alive” in 2005, according to People magazine, appeared vain when he confessed to David Letterman that he was using Regenix to bolster his thinning hair (and probably getting hair transplants too, some doctors speculate).

And I have to agree that it really comes down to how you feel about it. My life became much more enjoyable after I stopped caring about losing my hair. The American essayist and aphorist Logan Pearsall Smith captured my experience perfectly: “There is more felicity on the far side of baldness than young men can possibly imagine.”