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Going Bald: It’s All in Your Head

Bald men often feel ashamed and inferior. Here’s how to get over it.

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But the horror men feel at the prospect of going bald goes beyond mere fear of not being attractive to women, according to psychotherapist Gershen Kaufman, PhD. It also involves deep shame, which he defines as the emotional response to feeling inferior.

"Just about everybody experiences extensive body shame," says Kaufman, author of The 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 does a man get over the shame he feels about losing his 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 dysmorphic disorder (BDD) - the syndrome that plagues emaciated women who think they're fat, for example, and male body builders who think they're scrawny.

"By definition, these are people who look normal but believe they're unattractive, ugly - some even use words like deformed or disfigured," says Phillips, author of a book about BDD called The Broken Mirror. "Men with this problem may obsess about balding even though they have unusually full heads of hair. It's not vanity - it's a disorder that involves a distorted body image. These men don't want to look unusually attractive; they just want to look normal."

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