A few days ago, Ricki Lake shared a photo of herself on Instagram, showing off her freshly shaved head to highlight her journey with hair loss.
The US TV presenter explained that she has “silently” suffered with this secret for three decades and in a move to accept herself, has decided to share her struggles with the world.
As someone who suffers from alopecia areata, the medical term for this type of hair loss, this means more than I can possibly explain – but let me take a swing at it.
In September 2018, I was standing in front of the mirror in my flat, doing my hair and getting ready to meet up with a friend for lunch, when I suddenly noticed a bald patch on the middle of my scalp.
I had a severe panic attack, hyperventilated and spent the next hour sobbing on the phone to my best friend, before we took a cab to the hospital together because I was afraid that I had cancer.
However, the logical part of my brain knew that hair loss in relation to cancer is caused by chemotherapy, and that this was alopecia. Both my mum and sister also have it, so I am part of the 20% of sufferers with a genetic disposition to developing the condition.
In the next few months, I cancelled plans with friends, became shy in public spaces, was afraid to shower with hot water (even though this has no effect on alopecia) and was scared to have sex, in case the man I was with commented on my lack of hair. Or worse, pulled out more of it.
For those who don’t know, alopecia areata is an autoimmune disease where the body attacks the hair follicles. How much you lose is individual and there is no way to tell when or even if the hair will come back, though the odds are usually quite good if you lose one or two patches (I only had one, with full regrowth).
There are more severe versions, known as totalis, where you lose all the hair on your head, and universalis, where you lose all the hair on your body and head. None of these types are curable, meaning that the cells could attack my follicles again at any point in my life, or never – it’s impossible to know.
Ricki Lake isn’t the first celebrity to reveal her hair loss to the public. In an interview with Vulture, Oscar-winning actress Viola Davis described her experience, saying she “woke up one day, and it looked like I had a Mohawk. Big splash of bald on the top of my head.”
She’s joined by other big names like supermodel Tyra Banks, actress Neve Campbell and Little Mix’s Jesy Nelson, who also revealed that she was bullied because the hair first started falling out when she was just 13. There are many more and I love them all for their bravery.
The fact that Ricki chose to include a photo with her announcement means an even greater deal to me. I have come to terms with the fact that I am more than my hair, but I have yet to show the original photo of Keith (yes, I named my patch to better cope with it) to anyone apart from my closest friends and family.
I can’t even look at alopecia Facebook groups for more than a few minutes at a time without feeling anxious, because while I admire women who can openly show off their bald heads with pride – as they should, they are beautiful – I’m just not there yet.
Alopecia areata affects 10 in 15,000 people in the UK and people who have it are at a bigger risk of developing mental health problems such as anxiety and depression, as well as other mood disorders. Yet we don’t talk about the mental health aspect of hair loss enough, which is exactly why it’s so important that women who are in the public eye, do.
There are glowing adverts everywhere, featuring happy models with flowing heads of hair telling us that product X, Y, Z can help with regrowth. People joke about how it is the perfect opportunity to get a collection of wigs, but no one says: “Yes, it’s just hair, but this experience is also painful, stressful and can change who you are.”
By putting ourselves out there and by being vulnerable, we can normalise hair loss and lift the stigma, as well as remove the shame that is associated with being bald or having bald patches.
I hope that Ricki’s photo will help the next woman or man who is scared, feels alone or is worried that no one will ever love them if they lose their hair. They will.
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I hope that it will make it easier for people to share their own stories and that it will encourage them to ask for help and support, if they need it.
To Ricki, and all other brave women out there who are hairless and proud – celebrities or otherwise – thank you.