Sitting in high school biology, listening to the teacher drone on about genetics, I snapped to attention when she used male pattern baldness as an example of a dominant trait. My heart started pounding with fear - with bald men on both sides of my mother's family as far as the eye could see, I was doomed to have a chrome dome.
I remained anguished about the prospect of being bald for the next 20 years as my hairline retreated and my hair steadily thinned. Bald men seemed disfigured to me. I felt pity for them, so I tried to disguise my own condition by keeping my own hair clean and fluffed with a blow dryer. That hardly qualified as a treatment for baldness, but no other options seemed viable. I recoiled from the cost and the upkeep of a hairpiece. Minoxidil didn't seem to work very well. Hair plugs looked awful - one man I met looked as if he had been burned several times on the top of his head with a cigarette and each spot had sprouted a tuft of hair.
Like a man told he has a terminal illness, I worked my way through denial, anger, negotiation, and depression. Finally, I reached resignation - I would join the ranks of bald men - but I was far from resigned to the prospect.
Then, when I was in my mid-30s, I suddenly stopped caring about being bald. I felt as though someone had flipped a switch inside of me that turned off the shame I felt about losing my hair, and I never worried about it again.
But why do bald men feel shame? And how did I overcome the shame, embarrassment, and dread that baldness once inspired in me? And even more importantly, how can other men achieve the same blissful indifference to their own hair loss?
Going Bald: Understanding the symbolism of hair
As advertisements, Hollywood, and the behavior of countless men demonstrate, hair represents strength, power, and virility. Freudians used to argue that a man's hair symbolized his penis, so losing one's hair amounted to symbolic castration.
But when you get right down to it, men most dread being bald because they think they will no longer be attractive to potential sexual partners. The best advertisement for hairpieces I ever saw featured a smiling woman running her fingers through a man's hair. Above them the headline promised, "By the time she finds out, she won't care." That line zeroed in on one of a balding man's deepest fears - that he will no longer be considered a sexual contender if people can see his thinning hair.
And let's face it. Our culture has provided plenty of basis for that fear. A bald man in a movie has traditionally been either a fool or a villain, rarely a love interest. Every president in modern times had more hair than his opponent. (Gerald Ford? He was never elected. Dwight D. Eisenhower? His opponent, Adlai Stevenson, had even less hair on the top of his head.)
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."
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."