Nicky Park

Editor of Life & Style.

What is it like for a woman to lose her hair?

For a woman, her head of hair can be a symbol of her femininity, her sexuality, her sense of self. So what if it all fell out? Nicky Park talks to three women who have lost their locks.

Nic Russell, Anna Reeve and Helena McAlpine. Photo / Supplied, Stephen Tilley, Supplied
Nic Russell, Anna Reeve and Helena McAlpine. Photo / Supplied, Stephen Tilley, Supplied

Nic Russell

"I was diagnosed with aggressive stage 3, Her 2+ breast cancer when I was 31, and faced a double mastectomy, followed by a gruelling 6 months of chemotherapy.

"From the outset, losing my hair was inevitable, but in the grand scheme of things, after losing my boobs, I did not find it that daunting. Always having a short pixie hair cut probably helped- I wasn't about to lose long luscious locks of hair.

"My two-and-half-year-old daughter, Kenzie, was already going through chemotherapy for an aggressive bone cancer and had lost not only her hair, but her ability to walk.

"Kenzie had found it quite traumatic losing her golden locks. It was so hard as a mum hearing her cry 'no my hair, no my hair' as her hair fell out in clumps. In many ways I felt helpless, all I could do was shower her with love, hugs and kisses.

"In a way, when my hair fell out, it helped Kenzie, as I looked the same. My son Conor was also very accepting of it, as he had become used to his sister with no hair.

"I chose not to wear a wig so Kenzie and I could own our baldness with pride (kiddies don't get wigs). Conor and Kenzie enjoyed playing with the wig more.

"I remember very tender moments with Conor too, where he would lay or sit beside me, and rub my head.

"Baldness became the new normal for us.

"Nine years on from my hairless days, I've gone back to my pixie cut.

"Our hair is often seen as one of our defining features, and it can be a very challenging experience when that changes - not by choice. Looking different from others can be a challenge, but women are stronger than they believe."

Read more: NZ woman shares pics to remove mastectomy mystery

Anna Reeve:

Anna Reeve. Photo / Stephen Tilley
Anna Reeve. Photo / Stephen Tilley

"When I was seven all of my hair fell out over a fortnight.

"My mum thought I was chopping my hair like I did with my Barbie dolls. There were chunks missing and it was uneven. That theory came to blows when my eyelashes came out, then my eyebrows, followed by all the rest of the hair on my head and any body hair I had.

"My dad was a pilot and had left for work when I had hair. He returned a few days later to a bald daughter greeting him at the door. I don't remember it, but apparently he burst into tears at the shock of it.

"After a bunch of visits to doctors and dermatologists I was finally diagnosed with Alopecia Universallis - an auto-immune disease that makes my body attack my hair follicles so that they lay dormant and don't produce any hair.

"Basically my body is at war with itself and refuses to do what it is meant to do and produce a glorious mane.

"I have now had absolutely no hair on my body for the past 20 years. It seems bizarre to me when I think about it in that block of time. So much has happened and my thoughts and my feelings toward my baldness have changed so many times.

"When I lost my hair I was devastated. I didn't understand what was wrong with me. I didn't like being different to all the other kids at school, I didn't like being called a boy and I most definitely didn't like the bullying that plagued me into my mid-teens.

"One thing happened when I was a teenager that made me the strong woman I am today. I was scouted by a modelling agency. I was gobsmacked and was sure once they found out that I wore a wig they wouldn't want me on their books. I was wrong. I was a shy girl with no self-confidence - with or without wig. Most of my bookings came from being bald. I began to realise that you didn't have to be a conventional beauty to be beautiful. I learned to love myself and appreciate that everyone is unique.

"I think big part of healing for me was finding the perfect wig to wear when I wanted to have hair. I started wearing Freedom Wigs when I was about nine and they have just got better and better. They are made in Dunedin and are sent all over the world. They are made specifically for you using a 3D mould of your head so they stick to your head through vacuum technology. You can cartwheel, go to the hairdressers, drive a convertible, work out or surf without worrying that your hair will fall off.

"I'm happy and confident with my baldness, but I do like to wear my wig every day. I look at it as though it is my hair and not a wig, it's another part of me, just like my baldness is, and to be quite frank I can't be bothered with the stares, whispers and questions I would receive constantly in the street if I was bald. Who has time to bother with all that?"

Helena McAlpine:

Helena McAlpine.
Helena McAlpine.

"The first thing you think about with people with cancer is no hair, skinny and weak. When I was diagnosed I was under the thought that I was going to survive so it was only a passing thing. You lose your hair, so what, it's just f**king hair, it grows back. I didn't care that much at all.

Read more about Helena's story: 'I just don't want to die before I've got everything done'

"My hair started to fall out on the way to New Year's Eve in Gisborne when I was 30.

"It was literally getting whipped out through the window as we were driving down through the gorge.

"People were pulling out handfuls and it was all a bit of a gag. We knew it was going to happen. When I got back from Rhythm and Vines we just pulled it out, and started shaving it in to rock star 'stylie' haircuts.

"I guess I was in a place, surrounded by friends, who were all a bit weird and crazy anyway.

"I can remember at one point looking in the mirror, getting a bit freaked out, and one of the girl's came to me and went 'what's the problem?'.

"Back in Auckland I got heaps of positive feedback about having a good shaped head. It was more the loss of my brows and lashes that was confronting. I got mistaken for Hollie Smith's dad one day.

"It started growing back white, thick and curly. I looked like Shirley Temple.

"While I dealt with it well, a lot of women in chemo with me struggled with the loss of their hair, especially the older ladies who associated their hair with their youth and femininity. Younger girls tend to struggle because of standard beauty rules.

"My nine-year-old daughter wanted to cut her hair off as well. Some strangers would ask why I shaved her head, some asked if I was doing it for attention. And I got hit on by a lot of by chicks.

"I never wore a wig, purely because I know I have a tendency to get drunk and leave s**t places. Could you imagine that? I was actually going to have a tattoo on the back of my head that read 'if you can read this, s**t I've lost my wig'. We used to draw funny faces on my scalp, it was just an extension of the silliness we were experiencing in our lives."

What you can do: The Pantene Beautiful Lengths campaign is looking for women with long, healthy hair. They want you to donate your ponytail so it can be made in to a human hair wig for women who have lost their hair as a side effect of cancer treatment. For more info and to find out how to make the cut visit the website here. Or, if you want to donate your hair to people who have lost their hair due to permanent medical loss send a message to Anna via Facebook.

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