Male pattern hair loss, or balding, in layman's terms, is something that some 50 percent of men and a quarter of women will experience to vary degrees by the age of 50. It is also, in my experience, the most traumatic minor trauma that a dude is likely to endure in his lifetime (and I imagine it’s even worse for women). It's funny: I used to shave my head on a weekly basis for almost the entirety of my teenage years but when I began noticeably receding aged 22 it filled me with terror.
Let me first clarify: I had a buzzcut. There is a big difference between cropping your hair and shaving it down to the skin with a razor. And there's also a big difference between doing so willfully and being assaulted by faulty genetics, especially at such a young age. Not only was it a vulgar, quantifiable reminder of my passing youth and inherent mortality, but from an aesthetic perspective it was just downright ugly. There is the odd human being that can successfully style out a hairless head, but most people look like they're suffering from a degenerative disease. There's something both tragic and pathetic about the sight of a shedding scalp. There's a stench of death about it; it's an undeniable sign of this human shell slowly wasting away like expired fruit.
My own balding, it should be noted, was a fairly mild case: there was a bit of thinning at the front of my hairline, the corners gradually rose into a widow's peak but I was hardly a Jude Law case. Not that this consoled me at all: nothing can console the balding apart from a reversal of their degeneration. Reflexively I grew my hair longer and longer in an attempt to disguise my shameful decline but then, at the age of 26, I decided to stop kidding myself and go get a hair transplant.
I would’ve done this sooner but, like many people, I had wrongly assumed that a hair transplant would make me look like Donald Trump. Obviously no self-respecting human being wants to resemble The Donald in any way, so I did what I could to disguise my follicle deficiency without medical intervention. But in the subsequent years people who’d gone through with the procedure were becoming more visible in the public eye and their hair looked nothing like that wispy abomination that sits upon Trump’s head.
Liverpool Football Club manager Jurgen Klopp is a prime example: he has a luscious head of hair that can draw a whimper of envy out of men with even the thickest of scalps. It’s hard to believe that he is afflicted by balding. Staying in the realm of football, Chelsea and former Italian national team manager Antonio Conte has as well. Towards the end of his playing career he had begun to look like a naked mole rat that had been kicked around on a barbershop floor. These days he could pass for a walking Head & Shoulders advert. The wonders of medical science have clearly advanced to the point that it’s possible to completely overcome the balding process.
You’re probably wondering how a hair transplant works. Basically, healthy follicular units (clusters of one or several hairs that grow out of pores on your head) from the back and side of your head (parts of the scalp that are immune to balding in most people) are torn out using a medical punching device that looks a lot like a tattoo gun, then later inserted into tiny, needle-made incisions on the top of your head.
Essentially it feels like tearing out little chunks of flesh from one part of your head and stuffing them into tiny little pores on another part of your head with incredible force. They’re inserted at a very precise angle that will grow naturally, fusing with your scalp as they heal and, within a few months, grow out normally. To achieve a convincing level of thickness, each transplant needs to be carried out twice at intervals spaced between 10 and 12 months apart at the very least.
The procedure starts with the surgeons assistant shaving at least the donor area of your head and drawing out your new hairline with a marker. You’ll then have a needle filled with anesthetic jabbed into the donor area, which hurts, and then you’ll be placed face-down on something similar to an operating table so the surgeon can remove all your donor follicular units before setting them aside in a petri dish for the second part of the procedure. You don’t feel very much due to the anesthetic, but I was hyper-aware that I was having hair follicles torn out of my scalp and there was quite a bit of bleeding. It’s not pleasant, but then neither is balding.
Once all the follicles have been harvested (this can be between a few hundred and up to 3,000 in a single session) you’re sat up and then they’re jammed into tiny incisions in the transplant area. All in all, the process takes up to eight hours, usually. A bit of pain begins to set in towards the end of it, at least it did for me, then later you’re left feeling sore and swollen and looking like you’ve been attacked by some sort of flesh-eating parasite. You’ll feel incredibly itchy for several days afterwards as you scab and the only relief you’ll have is spraying the transplant area with saline solution several times a day. But this, in my opinion, is a small amount of fuckery to endure compared to awkward pain of going bald.
The success of a hair transplant depends on a number of factors: the ability of your surgeon, the healthiness of the follicles in your donor area and how severely you’ve gone bald. If you’re completely bare, there’s a greater area to cover and you might not have enough donor follicles to do so convincingly. It should also be noted that extracted follicular units are spaced apart to avoid leaving you with unsightly bald patches at the back and side of your head. It might thin your hair out a bit, but the way that human hairs grow makes it completely unnoticeable to the naked eye. You could, in theory, remove all of the follicles from your donor area, but transplants are far more successful in people who’ve only thinned out, or have a receding hairline, rather than those that have gone completely bald. This is why it’s advised that it’s better to get a hair transplant done sooner rather than later, but there’s also the risk of further balding so you might have to go back for multiple sessions over the course of your life.
Hair transplants don’t come cheap. English footballer Wayne Rooney is said to have paid $40,000 for his procedure. This is certainly the upper end of the price scale: Rooney has an unlimited amount of money to spend and his scalp was in a particularly severe state. But even relatively minor interventions conducted at highly-trained eastern European clinics for cut-priced fees will cost upwards of $2000. Some would say that this is a ridiculously high price to pay for vanity, and sure, that’s true. But what’s the alternative? Balding isn’t simply a body image issue: it’s a reminder that we’re withering away, creeping towards inevitable death. Part of the trauma definitely comes from the media and conventional beauty standards, but I think a sizable chunk is also a very primal fear of our own mortality.
I suppose that I could start some sort of fluffy, contrarian movement where men with receding hairlines get together in support groups, hold hands and tell each other that we’re still beautiful — a bit like the body positivity movement or all those women who argue that the body hair removal industry is a tool of patriarchal oppression, but that’s not my style. I think it takes a lot more mental effort to uproot deeply internalized beauty standards that we’ve developed throughout the entirety of our lives, or reconditioning the fear of death response, than it does to save up a few grand and put aside a few weeks of healing to get a hair transplant. I’ve quite simply got more important things to think about.
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