The Rite-Aid held its Rogaine bottles hostage in an anti-theft box. It wasn't a thick plastic, but if I really wanted one, I'd probably have to invest in some decent-quality tools or ask a store employee for help. "Excuse me, would you mind unlocking this annoying plastic contraption so that I can spend $52.99 on a bottle of miracle-grow scalp chemicals that probably won't even work? And let's be discreet, please."
Not a chance. I walked out the automatic door.
It started when I was 25. My friend Steve pointed at my temple, laughing, "Look, you're thinning!" I stiff-armed him, but a shot of adrenaline coursed through my body. That night, I scrutinized my hairline in the bathroom double mirror. Was it happening?
Dark, curly hair was one of my defining characteristics, so much so that my friends would rib me because it could puff out into a white-guy afro. For a few days after Steve's comment, I was able to convince myself that it wasn't true—he was just trying to scare me. Over time, however, it slowly became undeniable: hair clogging up the shower drain, the curious sunburn on my scalp, less friction when I applied shampoo... I was balding.
If you don't struggle with hair loss, I have two things to say:
You're very lucky.
I curse you softly each morning when I look in the mirror.
Balding sucks. I still suffer an existential identity crisis every time I consider myself a bald man. However, having lost hair every day for the last six years, I've had a minute to contemplate the curiously bleak phenomenon that makes a scalp gleam radiantly in the morning sun.
The progression of balding is demoralizing. But is there a silver lining to a receding hairline?
I'm not sure, but here are a few realizations I've had through my slow, ongoing struggle with hair loss:
1. You certainly recognize your own mortality more.
As an active, healthy, fit former athlete, noticing hair loss was pretty much the first time it really hit me that I wouldn't live forever. Despite 25 years on a planet riddled with disease and ravaged by wildfires, I still subconsciously thought I was invincible. The realization shook me. I was actually—gasp—aging.
How could my genes have betrayed me? How long until the rest of my body's weakening faculties shut down forever like my languishing hair follicles? I stood in front of the mirror, watching a fast-forward movie of my body's decay, my hair going from gray to white to non-existent, my taught cheeks sagging into a pair of papery jowls, my semi-muscular chest and shoulders slumping south into a round paunch protruding heavily past my belt line… now it's clear that I am going to die, and balding is my memento mori each time I look in the mirror.
I don't like it, but feeling a step closer to the Grim Reaper motivates me to live well in the present. It reminds me to relish my relatively youthful skin while I still have it and to explore being alive right here and now.
2. You have to come to terms with your superficiality.
Sure, I know I'm vain—we all are. But losing my hair made me realize that I'm desperately vain, almost irreparably chained to our culture's ideals of traditional beauty. All through high school and college, I was a decent-looking guy. I never modeled clothes or whatever, but my appearance gave me confidence. It countered my social anxieties and reassured my ego.
How could I face important meetings and look slick on dates with a lame buzz cut that made my ears stick out? People would see that I was weak, that I was afflicted with a glaring imperfection at the topmost point of my being! I looked at hats through store windows with new interest. I rationalized toupees: They're the exact same thing as women's makeup, right? It irked me. I didn't want to live life without a perfect hairline.
The agitated thoughts made me realize the extent of my immaturity. Toupees... really? That's where my head's at? Acknowledging my profound vanity was necessary: a healthy first step. It's ultimately helped me work on moving beyond the anxious state in which my self-worth hangs precariously upon an impeccable appearance.
3. You learn that comparing yourself to others is useless.
I knew I compared myself to other people sometimes, but as I became aware of my balding, I suddenly felt physically inferior, especially living in a city like New York, where everyone is so damn beautiful it hurts. I found myself giving into insecurities I hadn't felt since middle school, trying to ascertain how far down the rung of appeal I was falling: Was I a 7 now? A 6.5? That guy on the 2 train—was I better- or worse-looking than him? A girl walking briskly across Union Square without noticing me—would she have looked if I'd had my college curls?
I gazed wistfully at pictures of Jason Statham, marveling at how he somehow managed to transcend the woes of hair loss with his square jaw and bad-ass celebrity. How could I still measure up to the levels of beauty and vitality that flowed past me daily on the city sidewalks?
I compensate in other areas, and not necessarily ones born of out of a deep well of self-love: teeth-whitening, experimenting with flattering facial hair, developing more beach muscle on my shoulder, dressing better. And while there's nothing wrong with having a little self-respect, I realize that I have to get off the hamster wheel of comparison. I have to be mindful that working out and picking out my morning clothes can become a desperate attempt to mimic others, an exhausting daily effort to reaffirm my relative self-worth in an endless and losing game.
A Healthy Struggle
I never tried the Rogaine: I don't like balding, but honestly, it's probably good for me. It's a necessary wake-up call, an opportunity to get over myself and realign my focus on character traits and skills that can actually last and even ripen with old age. Maybe the average person isn't as delusional and vain as I am (though I'm willing to bet many are), but maybe for people like myself, hair loss can be a positive affliction: a healthy catalyst for much-needed growth.
In my better moments, I don't worry so much about my hairline. Sometimes now when I look in the mirror, it wakes me up a little bit from my fast-paced dream. It wakes me up just for a minute to the realization that life is so much more than the shapes of our faces, our rank among the masses, and the hairs upon our heads—and for that, I'm thankful.
Jonathan Warner lives in a New York studio smaller than your bathroom and enjoys riding motorcycles in the rain. He writes regularly on his blog The Scrap Journal to try to keep sane between outdoor adventures. Catch him riding the 2 Train late in the evening or connect with him on Instagram @jparkwarner or Twitter @JParkWarner.