There are three important days in every bald man’s life: the day you realize you’re losing hair, the day you realize you need to shave what’s left, and the day you finally do. Graceful baldness is about closing the gap between these milestones as much as possible. I learned this the hard way.
Before I recount my decade of denial and deceit, here are the bare-headed facts: I suffer from what I call “Prince William” baldness. It combines a flared round patch at the top (Friar Took) and receding corners (Jude Law). Eventually the two must meet. Or, to put it another way: the bridge between my last strongholds of follicle activity is getting thinner, my hairline diverges like two land masses. What once looked like Pangea is now nothing more than a footbridge across the Bering Strait.
My mother was the first to notice this tectonic shift. “You’re losing weight,” she remarked, looming over my then 25-year-old self at the family table. It seemed fitting that the woman who brought me into this world should also show my first signs of aging. After all, hair loss is about resignation to being able to look like a big kid again. (Although my mom recently confirmed via WhatsApp that I had thick hair at birth. “I don’t make bald babies,” she added helplessly.)
What followed would be familiar to men all over the world. Realization is a creeping process of denial, eroded by moments of shock and then resignation. Denial meant believing that what is not in the mirror (namely, my head from a bird’s eye view) does not exist. Shock came across a photo of me taken from above and wondered, “Who is this balding guy standing exactly where I was?” Humility meant seeing an acquaintance at the bar, his greasy hair deceiving only himself and muttering to his wife: “Just don’t let me become like him.”
I almost did. It will be another five years until I admit defeat. I moved to Hong Kong and found miracle hairdresser who proved that coolness is not only about hair. An up-and-coming breakdancer (and bald by choice: the hair gets in the way of the vertigo to some degree), he knew how to style my remaining locks in a way that maintained the illusion.
We had an unspoken understanding. But when I moved again last year, my attempts to explain its magic to new barbers became increasingly awkward. It seemed to me that I was making them accomplices in my deception. “Just make it look…better?” I would say before taking off my glasses and hoping what worked out would keep me going for another month or three. Successive barbers played along. But I also deceived only myself.
Instagram algorithms detected my situation and started flooding my feed with extreme makeup clips. The hints from loved ones were even less subtle, like when my wife returned from a business trip waving a gift just to show off a bottle of UV-protective scalp spray. Who said romance is dead?
In the meantime, I started making self-deprecating jokes and became more comfortable discussing my fate. Friends consistently responded with the same three condolences: 1) that “at least” I can grow a beard, 2) that I have a “good head”, whatever that means, and 3) that if I’m lucky, I might end up becoming like the universal gold standard of attractive bald white guys: Bruce Willis.
If you find yourself convincing a balding man that he looks like Bruce Willis, I promise you he has heard this many times before. Nevertheless, this is reassuring.
As your hair thins, the little strands start sticking out in new and unexpected directions. Human hair craves company – and when their neighbors leave, they don’t know where to go.
Collectively, I spent several hours trying to convince individual strands to stick back. Then one winter morning, as I was messing around with a group of misguided vagrants, a moment of clarity: I became more insecure about my hair than what was beneath it.
That evening, I bought a clipper, took it to the bathroom, and unceremoniously styled myself the only hairstyle I will have for the rest of my life. A full 10 years after the diagnosis, male pattern baldness has secured its final victory. A chapter of my youth ended in a pile of limp scraps on the shower floor.
My wife told me that I look much better than before. But she has to say it. In the meantime, my editor assured me that I looked more “athletic” (indeed, my streamlined shape may have cut my swimming time by a few seconds). Other benefits, I told myself, include faster drying after a shower, no money spent on a haircut, and saving time getting ready each morning.
Shortly after filing the case, I sent a selfie to my friend Anton. “Welcome to the sex zone comrade,” he wrote back.
Anton was the first of my friends to go bald. While I had the luxury of surviving until I was 35, he was prone to angst at 18 when he first discovered tufts of hair on his pillow. The denial phase only lasted until his 20s, when it was destroyed in a theater workshop by a teacher who told the class to “bent down until you see Anton’s bald head.” He then performed what Anton called “a light tap on the top of my head.”
“I thought, ‘What the fuck?’ he recalled on Zoom. “I didn’t say it, but I felt offended. Not only because he hit me on the head, but also because I didn’t even know I was bald! This is the first time I’ve heard of it.”
He soon discovered that looking at his photographs was depressing. He, too, was assured that “at least” he had a beard and a “nice head”—again, whatever that meant. Someone told him that he looks like Jason Statham, who is just the British equivalent of Willis. For Anton, losing his hair was a “very lonely” experience, especially at such a young age.
“There’s something particularly isolating about having something socially acceptable to laugh at happen to you,” he said. “It didn’t feel like anyone was feeling anything other than, ‘It sucks to be you.
For the record, Anton looks great bald – and I don’t just return his compliment. Unlike me, he has muscles. As a boxing instructor, the image of a skinhead suits him. IN 2012 studywhich I’m quoting simply because I approve of the results, University of Pennsylvania researchers found that images of men with digitally removed hair were perceived as “more dominant, taller, and stronger” than the original photographs.
“Keeping your hair is much less attractive than just getting rid of it,” Anton said. “You can look sharper. You just change the image of yourself in your imagination, and then suddenly evaluate it according to a different aesthetic value.
“It took me 35 years, but now I really like the way I look,” he added. “I got to the point where I realized that any criticism of my appearance is based on nothing but the impression of what other people might think.”
It doesn’t really bother me that I’m considered less attractive. It also doesn’t bother me that I look older or that I’m being called a “chump”, as we are called disparagingly in Britain. I am struggling with the loss of identity.
My hairless head will always be my physical signature. To strangers, I’m now officially “that bald guy.” Who ordered the lasagna? That bald guy at table seven. Where is the bathroom? On the left, right behind that bald guy. DDoes the queue start here? No, it goes back to that bald guy.
My fear that all hairless men look the same is reinforced by the fact that people keep saying that I look like my father. Nobody had Always already noted this similarity. Now suddenly we are like two shiny bearded peas in a pod. There is a certain poetic justice here, and I regularly recall the frank jokes that I told at the expense of my father. He assures me that he did not take them personally.
My dad started going bald at 16. By the time he was my age, his bare head rivaled the mullet and perm of the 1980s. But he seems really immune to his baldness. “I can’t remember ever being sensitive to this in my entire life,” he told me on Zoom. Maybe boomers just don’t like to talk about their feelings, but I believe him.
“I was not in the least bit a cool or attractive teenager,” he recalled. “But I managed to build a good social life because I could make people laugh. I made the decision pretty early on that I would only get anywhere if I relied on my wit, charm, and personality. Baldness was at the bottom of my priority list.”
Whether it is to blame for my hairline is a matter of debate. Research of identical twins found that about 80% of men’s predisposition to baldness is explained by heredity factors, although genetics is poorly understood. The stories of the old wives say that hair loss is inherited from the mother, and therefore the hairline of your maternal grandfather is the best predictor of your own condition. However, there is no conclusive evidence for this, and my father sees “no observable pattern” in our family (there was one Tuck monk, one Jude Law, and one thick hair in his generation).
Lifestyle factors can play a role, and I often wonder if my fate was hastened by eating trans fats and not getting enough sleep, or living in Beijing during some of its dirtiest years. But the retreat of my hairline was probably preordained. So I’ve come to terms with it. Although I didn’t go bald gracefully, I can still aspire to be bald with grace.
Anton’s advice to me and others new to his “sex zone” is to moisturize your head daily, shave every few days, and wear a hat to protect yourself from both the sun and heat loss. If you have a beard, take care of it; if you are muscular, be careful to intimidate people and disarm them with a smile. And remember, he concluded, how you carry yourself matters more than what—or not—is growing out of the top of your head.
My father’s advice is a little sharper: “If I were you, I would focus on developing your wit, charm, and personality.”