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How Pain and Courage Transformed Hair Loss and Made It Beautiful

Hair Foundation March 28, 2008
James L. Breeling

Hair loss is usually considered as having a negative effect on one's appearance. Scalp and facial hair (eyebrows, eye lashes, beard in men) contribute to the "self" that one wants to present to the world. (see The Psychosocial Significance of Hair).

The most common cause of hair loss is hereditary androgenetic alopecia, also called male-pattern and female-pattern hair loss (Click on Hair Science-How and Why Hair Grows). Other causes include a variety of physical, chemical, thermal injuries, and diseases that destroy hair follicles (See ISHRS: About Your Hair Loss and What Causes It). No matter the cause, hair loss is deemed something to be avoided, or corrected by medical or surgical treatment to make it appear that hair loss never occurred.

So, why is hair loss viewed as beautiful in some people? Why does hair loss in these people lift our spirits?

Pain, Courage and Chemotherapy

Over the past two decades, cancer patients, cancer survivors and the medical professionals who treat them have made hair loss a symbol of courage in the face of pain, debilitating disease, possibility of death and the side effects of chemotherapy. Patients who in the past hid from sight to avoid the feeling of being "freaky" because of hair loss due to chemotherapy, today proudly take part in marches organized to raise public awareness and funds for cancer research. Among the first to present hair loss as a symbol of the fight against the disease were breast cancer patients and survivors (see http://www.breastcancer.org). Cancer patients and survivors who proudly display their hair loss include those with a variety of soft-tissue cancers, bone cancers, and Leukemia. Children are cancer patients and cancer survivors, also, and similar efforts have been organized in their behalf by charitable organizations such as the Childhood Leukemia Foundation (see http://www.clf4kids.org).

Hair loss is a side effect of the chemotherapy used to treat cancer (See http://www.chemotherapy.com ). While the most visible side effect of chemotherapy is hair loss, other side effects include pain, weight loss, nausea, fatigue and loss of appetite.

When cancer patients and cancer survivors began to proudly present hair loss as a symbol of courage in their battle against cancer, the public increasingly accepted this symbol of courage manifested by the children and adults who faced pain and death and intended to survive.

Why Is That Beautiful?

Why could a bald cancer patient be considered beautiful? The answer is in the definition of beauty-and that is a question that has engaged philosophers for 2,500 years. In 2,500 years, the question "What is beauty" has provided many answers and definitions.

What Is Beauty?

No definition of beauty has remained consistently accepted through the ages. The culture of a philosopher was always a strong influence on how esthetic concepts such as beauty were approached. In Western philosophy, the earliest attempts at a definition that have come down to us were in the writings of the Greek philosopher Plato about 2,500 years ago. For the next 2,500 years, the question was addressed from the shifting cultural perspectives of multiple philosophers, down to our own time of the 21st Century (Click on The Importance of Hair Throughout History). Today's definitions still reflect the "ideal" concepts presented by Plato, as well as the "scientifically objective" concepts developed over the past 200 years. The fundamental difference between the "ideal" and "scientifically objective" concepts remains unresolved: Is beauty an inherent property not dependent on how it is perceived as Plato wrote, or is it a property very dependant on perception and comparison as it is defined "objectively"? Conceptions of the beauty of the human face and body have shifted over time and from different cultural perspectives, but a concept that has remained somewhat stable is that of "harmony of parts as seen in the whole"-for example, the "parts" of hair, forehead, eyes, nose, lips and chin when viewed in the whole make a beautiful face. An archetype of the "unity of parts" concept is the head of Aphrodite-the Classic Beauty-sculpted by the Greek artist Praxiteles 2,500 years ago (see http://artcyclopedia.com/artists/praxiteles.html.

In 21st Century terms, the definition most apt for application to cancer patients may be this:

  • Beauty has a high degree of esthetic value that may or may not include "prettiness", interwoven with powerful emotional elements such as pain, courage and fear. In painting and sculpture think of Michelangelo (see http://www.saintpetersbasilica.org/Altars/altars.htm), in music think of Beethoven as conveyers of beauty that stirs our deepest responses.
  • In contrast is the concept of "prettiness", an esthetic concept often mistakenly taken as a synonym for beauty. Prettiness is an esthetic value that gives pleasure with no discordant elements such as pain or courage. A change of hairdo may be "pretty", a popular song may be "pretty".
  • The definition of beauty potentiated by courage and fear was perhaps in the mind of Ernest Hemingway when he wrote of the tragic beauty he saw in the bullring, in the bullfighter who faced the bull and possible death with courage overcoming fear-what Hemingway called "grace under pressure".

    The Japanese artist Hokusai's "Great Wave" block print captures the fearsome power and beauty of nature in the enormous ocean wave breaking over three tiny boats where humans courageously fight to survive against almost overwhelming odds (see http://andreas.com/hokusai.html).

    How Does the Patient View Hair Loss?

    A patient who is experiencing hair loss as a consequence of disease and a side effect of chemotherapy may proudly present this symbol of courage, but may also have rational reasons to moderate the esthetic effect of balding. Reasons to moderate the effect may be associated with family, occupation or inter-personal relationships.

    If hair loss is due to chemotherapy, it is important for the patient to know that the hair loss will be temporary. Hair will grow back at the end of the chemotherapy treatment period, usually beginning a few weeks after treatment ends. The American Cancer Society offers comprehensive information regarding chemotherapy, its side effects, and how side effects can be ameliorated (http://www.cancer.org.)

    Patients should be prepared for some differences in the appearance of their hair at the end of chemotherapy. When hair begins to reappear after hair loss due to chemotherapy, the new hair may have a different texture or color for up to a year after chemotherapy ends. Hair will eventually return to its pre-treatment appearance.

    During the period between hair loss and regrowth, the patient may choose to take measures that disguise hair loss. Consultation with a cosmetologist experienced in managing hair problems of chemotherapy patients may be helpful. Interim measures between hair loss and regrowth include head coverings such as scarves, hats or caps. Wigs are a more expensive measure, but one that some patients may find attractive. A patient should check with his/her insurance plan to see if the cost of a wig will be wholly or partially covered. A patient who has adequate warning as to when chemotherapy is to begin may have a wig prepared in advance of treatment.

    The Proud Symbol of Hair Loss: A Major Victory in the War Against Disease

    The acceptance of a chemotherapy patient's hair loss as a symbol of courage in the fight against disease is a victory for all humanity. Hair is a salient element in the way we want to appear to ourselves and to others. Hair loss due to chemotherapy is now accepted as the appearance of a survivor and a champion.