Once, when I had hair, I revelled in it joyously; I had a quiff that sat up proud like a duck’s bum, sometimes spawning a rebellious love-curl; my side-burns dropped to the bottom of my earlobes; my back and sides were ‘grade one tapered’; the rest, back-brushed in to a bouffant coiffure. I thought I looked cool. I most probably didn’t.
I had a red hair dryer, electric hair-clippers and bottles of lotions and potions on the shelf: blue hair gels, cold to touch, that would harden to hold my hair together; waxes and silky creams for shine; mousses for volume. Yes, it’s fair to say, my pallet was complex and I suffered for my art. Pride and vanity propped up the sculpted, caressed art-form on my head.
The turning point came in the summer of 1989 when I was 19. I was cycling with friends in the Valley of the Kings, in Egypt. It was so baking hot, we’d drink one litre water bottles on the roadside in one go. 50 degrees centigrade, that’s 122 degrees Fahrenheit; this was no place for big, bouffant hair.
I snuck out of the hostel in Luxor early one morning and found a backstreet barbers. I didn’t know the Arabic for “grade one tapered on the sides, and a one inch off the fringe,” so he just pedalled me up in the seat, put a cape around me, cut my hair unceremoniously with mechanical clippers, similar to the type found on sheep farms.
And that was was it. My bouffant strands lay on the floor of a barber’s shack by the Nile, while my friends mocked my one-inch-all-over crop on the train all the way up to Cairo.
It wasn’t the teasing that bothered me; it was something I noticed in the mirror; a small, inch- square patch of fine, transparent hair just above my right temple which felt slightly stingy to touch as if it was a light graze; it wasn’t a slip of the clippers; it was a sign of things to come.
In my final term at uni, my hair grew back with a vengeance; my quiff, bolstered with gunk, returned voluminously. Over the next few years, the clandestine patch enlarged and I moved my parting to the other side to comb it over craftily.
My hair thinned slowly and inexorably. When I combed it, strands uprooted gently without the pinprick of clingy resistance that healthy hair gives; it was as if they wanted to leave, to reconvene in darkened recesses in plug holes, on my pillow and on the floor.
In the next few years, the patch of thin hair doubled in size. I learned the name of this type of hair: vellus, the velvety hair found on the antlers of stags; I was happy with that comparison. It’s also found on babies’ bums; I wasn’t fond of that one.
My crafty-combing ensued. Sideways, forwards, diagonally, sometimes with whorls like isobars on a stormy weather-map. It wasn’t quite a combover, but it was a creative cover- up, of sorts. I’d avoid the seat in the restaurant under the spotlights; windy days were problematic. I sought special shampoos and sprays to arrest the retreat. Once again the bathroom shelf started to fill with lotions and potions, but, unlike in my teenage years, these were of defence not style or ostentation.
The strands continued to fall, not in clumps, but in fives and tens, steadily, like autumn leaves, my comb the rake. Getting a haircut became getting a hair cut without getting a discount.
The bald patch over my right temple, perhaps aggrieved and lonely, conspired with my left temple and over a period of months, they merged in a Stalingrad-like pincer movement, creating a single, bald patch behind a thin, lonely fringe. Where there was once a laboured quiff, now sat a tuft of hair resembling a small goat’s horn. My hair-loss was vindictive, seeking my humiliation too.
Crafty-combing no longer became viable. The coup de gras came when a third bald patch made a rear guard action unifying with the conjoined patch above my temples. They met; it wasn’t a good look; I was I left with sides and a fringe without benefit.
Going bald vexed me on so many levels, partly due to the vanity of my youth, partly due to the insecurity that I might never find someone who would fancy me.
Since ancient times, beauty and hair came together and hair was the frame for the face. In Renaissance art, a face’s ‘golden’ proportions were considered to be one third chin, one third nose, and one third forehead up to the hairline. Not having the hairline meant the final third was unbounded, continuing ad infinitum up to the crown and beyond. The face had no upper frame.
My favourite sportsmen of the 90s had extravagant hair: the flamboyant Andre Agassi, the Vegas kid who played power tennis in acid-wash denim shorts and David Beckham, Manchester United midfielder, England captain, global heart-throb.
A well-sculpted hairstyle, to me, exuded authority and gravitas. Neither the USA nor the UK has elected a bald Head of State in over 50 years, and the last time they did (Eisenhower and Churchill) the other candidate was bald too (Stevenson and Attlee).
Being bald meant you bore the brunt of the last bastion of acceptable political incorrectness. Office jokes, random shouts from van drivers. It was unacceptable to say “you were slim once, what happened?” but somehow acceptable to say “you had hair once, what happened?”
Making eye contact was at times disheartening, their gaze focusing a few inches above, like a magpie to my shiny top. Then there was the big unknown: when the inevitable would happen, what would be my head-shape? Oval? Dome? Bulb? Worst of all, baldness defined me. I was ‘The bald guy’ defined by not having having something.
The bald fight-back started at the dawn of the new millennium and it coincided with the peak of my angst. David Beckham, he of the hallowed locks, shaved his head completely in 2000; golden-balls turned billiard-ball. Others followed. I was bamboozled; why would men who could choose to have their hair long or short, cropped, curled or braided, corn-rowed or quiffed, actually choose baldness? I mean, on purpose, un-coerced, not even for a bet. It was a perplexing appropriation, yet for men like me, strangely flattering and encouraging.
Hollywood stars like Vin diesel, Patrick Stewart, Bruce Willis led the charge. The best footballers of the age, Zinedine Zidane and the Brazilian Ronaldo were bald. It became stylish.
To confound it all, my tennis hero, the hirsute Andre Agassi, embraced his baldness. He had been wearing a wig all throughout the 90s it transpired and the day before playing the French Open final in 1990, his toupee had crumbled in the shower; his brother put it together with hairpins and told him ‘just don’t move too much’.
So that was it. I got my razor and lather and shaved off the rest of my depleting hair. Soon it felt comfortable, liberating no less. No more lotions, no more pretence. Truth be told, I’d rather have hair than not for the hirsute have so many more style options and building up confidence took time to nurture, but soon a sense of being relaxed and assured in my own presentation prevailed.
I no longer feel that having hair adds a man gravitas; Napoleon tended to comb his hair forwards; Julius Caesar used laurel leaves in a wonderful eco-friendly pre-Christian wig. Gandhi, Gorbachev, Lenin, Churchill – history has been shaped by the bald. Sure there have only been fully-haired presidents of the USA for 50 years, but do their coiffures exude credibility and power? Two words to that: Donald. Trump.
Looking back on it all now, it seems like a storm in a teacup. How could losing hair have caused such angst? In perspective, it’s not like losing a limb or getting a disease. But at the time it felt like a rite of passage, the onset of middle-age at the age of 21, the loss of a part of my identity forever. But when I shaved it all off, my cares, my desires to have hair once again, seemed to disappear down the plughole too, once and for all. I realised my identity was so much more than that.
When casting for the new series of Star Trek, Gene Roddenberry chose Patrick Stewart for the lead role.
“Surely by the 24th century, they would have found a cure for male pattern baldness?” asked a detractor.
“No, by the 24th century, no one will care,” replied Roddenberry.
Some of us it seems, in the early 21st century, are already there.