Hair. It's been called our crowning glory, a symbol of our youth, and in some cultures it even represents fertility. For women all around the world, it's also an expression of beauty, confidence, and personal style.
Unfortunately, for a growing number of women -- up to 30 million in the United States who suffer with hair loss -- the words "bad hair day" take on a whole new and much more serious meaning.
"Hair loss not only robs a woman of her sense of style, but oftentimes her sense of self-esteem and her security -- it can be very devastating," says Michael Reed, MD, a New York University Medical Center dermatologist who specializes in female pattern hair loss.
Whether your loss is the result of the aging process, hair damage, trauma, illness, or a genetic form of balding known as female pattern hair loss, the good news is there are a variety of medical and natural treatments that can help.
On the downside, Reed says it's clear that most treatments take a significant amount of time before results can be seen -- often up to a year or more. And it is during this time, he says, the period of waiting and "not knowing" if a treatment will work that most women find it difficult to cope with hair loss.
Hair Loss, Loss of Self-Esteem
"Suddenly, hair becomes the most important part of their appearance and even their personality -- it's not only the first thing they notice about other women, it's the only thing -- and it can end up causing a great deal of anxiety," Reed tells WebMD.
This, say other experts, can be especially true, if a woman has relied on her looks as her calling card, or even if it represents a good portion of her identity.
"If a woman is tied up in her physicality, if her sense of self-worth and self-identity are defined by her physical self, then hair loss is going to have a much more traumatic effect than it would on a woman whose persona is much more wrapped around her intellect," says psychotherapist Lauren Howard, CSW, a specialist in women's mental health issues and an active participant in the Alopecia Areata Foundation.
If you are someone whose looks have played an important role in your identity, Howard says there's nothing wrong with that and you shouldn't compound your problems by feeling guilty that you care so much about your hair.
"If you are concerned about your appearance, don't feel shallow about it, or ashamed of it; give yourself permission to care and to feel bad about your hair loss, then get a handle on the situation and do something about it," says Howard.
Psychiatrist Shari Lusskin, MD, holds a similar philosophy and says women with hair loss should not be embarrassed about feeling bad.
"Unlike other physical problems that can affect your looks, like being obese, for example, losing your hair is something you can quickly and easily do something about, and you shouldn't feel so embarrassed by your problem that you don't take advantage of what can be done to help you," says Lusskin, director of reproductive psychiatry at New York University Medical Center in New York City.
Lusskin says you'll feel a lot better if you take a proactive self-help approach.
"If hair loss bothers you, don't run from it, investigate all your options, both medical and over-the-counter treatments, and in the interim, until they start working, look into temporary solutions -- wigs, hair pieces, hair extensions," says Lusskin.
Howard agrees and adds that women who are concerned about their looks really don't need to suffer.
Don't Feel Bad About Feeling Bad
"If you really find you can't cope with the change in your appearance, there is nothing wrong with wearing a wig -- it's a very good and logical solution, particularly if you are waiting for a treatment to kick in," Howard tells WebMD.
Reed says that while most women he treats are reluctant to try a wig or hair extensions at first, in the end, he says, many find it is the best solution, particularly if their appearance is key to their sense of well-being.
"In many instances a wig can give a woman back her confidence and her self-esteem; it's not the best solution, but at least she feels she can face the outside world without being judged harshly, and that can be important," says Reed.
Lusskin believes it's all about finding your personal comfort level and being true to yourself.
"While some women may benefit from allowing themselves to be seen without a hair piece -- often finding that a very liberating experience -- for others, hiding their hair loss through the use of wigs or hair pieces is the right answer. It's really all about being true to your own feelings about yourself," says Lusskin.
While experts report that most women do eventually accept and make peace with their hair loss, for some it can become a serious psychological stumbling block. In this instance, worry and concern over appearance can become a pathological obsession that invades all areas of a woman's life.
"If you are losing sleep over your hair loss, if you are continuously ruminating over the problem, if it affects your appetite, or if you are consistently feeling sad, blue, hopeless, or especially helpless, all because of your appearance, then you are seriously affected by your hair loss and should consider talking to a mental health professional," says Lusskin.
Often, she says, the problem is a matter of episodic depression, which can be easily treated. If left untreated, however, not only can it continue to make you feel bad in many areas of your life, the stress and the worry may make your hair loss worse.