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why that stuff on our head is often on our mind
A few readers have requested a post about thinning hair, which got me thinking about hair in general. I remember sitting in an airport a couple of years ago waiting for a flight, fascinated by the parade of creative ways one might fashion the wildly diverse kinds of keratin protein that grow from our scalps. I mean, hair! It’s fun! And it’s important! For lots of reasons.
Before I get to the thinning issue, I want to mention an aspect of hair I was recently reminded of when I visited the Polonsky Exhibition of The New York Public Library’s Treasures. (Get there if you can!) The exhibit is like a high-end flea market: Lots to look at without an overriding theme except…treasures. Among the booty is a locket with a few strands of Beethoven’s hair. (Along with a handwritten, passionately-annotated score I found less impressive even though it seemed to convey far more about Beethoven’s character than his hair.) According to the library’s description of the locket, people—very intrusive and greedy people, IMHO—began to cut locks of Beethoven’s hair two days before he died in 1827. Then I found this Wikipedia tidbit: A lock of Beethoven’s hair [different from the one in the library’s, I think], cut from his head in 1827, was auctioned in 1994 through Sotheby’s of London. Research on the hair determined that the composer's lifelong illness was caused by lead poisoning.
Hair—attached and unattached to the head—possesses not only medically revealing information, but also magical and consoling properties cross-culturally. You may be familiar with the Victorian practice of keeping locks of hair in lockets, bracelets, and brooches as mementos of lost relatives or lovers. I think of these things as portable reliquaries (and hair keeps so much better than a finger!). If you’ve had children: Do you have a lock of their baby hair? If your children are grown and you still have this memento, is that weird? (Asking for a friend.)
Here’s a related essay I wrote for Seven Days magazine when my son was small.
One aspect of the young child’s haircut—how to get his hair trimmed without poking his eyes out—is relatively easy. But another—which has to do with a mother’s attachment to her child—is complicated by some intense and surprising feelings that sneak up long before it’s time for the first trim.
For example, about a week after my son was born, when I was still staggering around the house trying not, out of my exhaustion and my ignorance about babies, to inadvertently kill him, his baby nurse appeared in my kitchen holding up an unidentifiable but oddly repulsive object. “You want to save this, Mrs.?” she asked.
“What is that?” I said, making a cautious approach, trying to get a better look. Not too good a look. I could tell from where I stood that it was definitely something that was alive once, or… part of something alive. It was kind of soft and wormish-looking, with a piece of white stuff—oh, gauze—stuck to it.
My heart raced; I lost my breath and gripped the counter to steady myself. I knew I should have called in a specialist for the circumcision! Why didn’t I trust my instincts?
“It’s the last piece of the cord,” said the nurse. “You want to keep it?”
“Keep it? Well, keep it? Well, I don’t know,” I said, dizzy with relief. “Let me have a look at that.” She put it gently into my hand. If it were anything but what it was, I would have dropped it as if it had been a dead rat and run screaming out of the room. Instead, I stood there thinking, is this special to me? Can I bear to part with it? A long time from now, will it unleash precious memories of my infant son?
So pathetically confused was I by my maternal affections that I had to ask my husband’s advice. He looked at the thing in my palm and then deep into my eyes. “What are you, crazy?” he said.
In the five years since my son’s infancy, I’ve slowly regained some perspective. But when, at the event of his first haircut, I was faced with the decision of whether to save some of his hair, I didn’t need advice. I had avoided that rite of passage as long as I could. My son’s shagginess was past the point of cute, moving fast into déclassé. I had tried snipping off the hair that fell into his eyes, but suddenly, it seemed, it had taken on a weird shape: too square where I’d cut the bangs in the front, too round where I’d trimmed the back. It was time to get to a professional, and I girded myself for the change I knew was now inevitable. My son’s hair was losing the fuzzy texture and untamed shape that said Baby; getting a real haircut, he would be getting a new shape as well. He would no longer be Baby, but Boy.
What could I do but ask the barber to keep it long and save me the rest? Today I have a little blue envelope full of hair among a few (thousand, adds my husband) other articles of my son’s babyhood. Thin, blond, silky hair. It hasn’t changed, this hair-in-the-envelope, since the day it was cut. That’s the precious thing about it: unlike that decaying umbilical cord, the hair seems to stay alive, and so captures a baby for me who no longer is.
This baby who no longer is now has dark hair, which, to my astonishment, is graying at the temples. I’m not sure I still have that little blue envelope. If I do, I’ll keep it always because…well, you get it, right?
Back to the more practical subject at hand: Your hair. First, why is the condition of your hair important? Because it’s one of the most visible indicators of health and sexual vitality. Long, thick, full or flowing hair—like what you might have had if you were lucky in your youth—is a signal that your insides are equally hearty, that everything in there is flowing appropriately, too. When you notice that your part has widened, or when you can see your scalp through what now resembles a veil rather than a fur coat, that sinking feeling in your gut is hard-wired recognition that, in the Darwinian sense, you’re past your expiration date. In other words, we might recoil from a balding woman not just because she looks unfamiliar; it’s because she looks diminished.
Hold on to your hat before you read this disheartening statistic: Fifty percent of postmenopausal women have noticeable thinning of the hair on their scalp. After age 50, approximately the same number of men and women suffer from thinning. The reason is most likely loss of estrogen, which is protective of hair. You shed hair naturally every day, but the loss is considered significant if you start seeing thinning behind the hairline or a widening part.
The first thing to do if you notice thinning is to see a doctor, who can determine whether it’s the result of a correctable condition (for example, an overactive or underactive thyroid or low iron levels) or the side effect of a medication (such as for high blood pressure or depression). If there’s no underlying cause except age, you can try minoxidil (Rogaine) 5 percent. Thinning hair has a shorter anagen (growth) phase than normal; that phase typically shortens as we get older. Minoxidil extends the growth phase. Apply it to the scalp at least once a day; if in three months you see no difference in thickness, it’s not going to be effective. Minoxidil is a chronic maintenance therapy, meaning if you stop using it, it stops working. I have a couple of (female) friends who’ve used it and are happy with the results. There are several other treatments for thinning hair—depending on the cause—that have a decent track record, including prescription finasteride and platelet-rich plasma therapy. That’s why, if you feel your issue is extreme, you want to see a doctor who specializes in hair loss. Finally, if the issue isn’t extreme, there’s another non-prescription product I might recommend.
When I was beauty director at O, The Oprah Magazine, we did an experiment with several staffers (a few women and one man) who were unhappy with their thinning hair or receding hairline. They used Harlinikken Hair Regrowth Program every evening for several weeks and—startling to all of us—each one noticed a resurgence of hair growth. Though I don’t know how it works because the company’s spokespeople were tight-lipped, I believe their system is worth a look. You can book a consultation online at www.harklinikken.com.
As for styling, don't overload thinning hair with product, because that will weigh it down. Overcompensating—trying to create too much volume—results in wispy-looking, cotton-candy hair, so opt for a sleek style. And avoid parting your hair in the center; an uneven side part makes hair look fuller. Using a volumizing shampoo and conditioner can also help mimic fullness, as can coloring your hair, which thickens strands.
“Ask Val” answers your urgent questions, Vol. 19
Yes, you, in the aisle, having a violent mood swing?
Q: Since I hit my 40s, my hair has become more brittle and frizzier. Is it because I'm perimenopausal?
A: Way back when I was perimenopausal, as opposed to menopausal, which you have to be before you can graduate, as I proudly have, to postmenopausal...wait a minute, what was the question?
Oh, your hair. I started to say I liked blaming everything on perimenopause: my moodiness, my cocker spaniel's moodiness, the state of my complexion, whatever. But perimenopause is not a likely culprit here. (Other unlikely but plausible causes are hypothyroidism and a protein, vitamin, biotin, or zinc deficiency.) Low humidity and dry heat suck moisture out of the hair, making it brittle. As we age, our scalp can become drier, which can make hair drier, too; and when hair loses its pigment, turning gray or white, its texture often becomes frizzier. Your hair needs moisture, and the best way to restore it is with moisturizing shampoo and conditioning treatments.
Val Asks You
Don’t be shy! What’s your most vexing or intractable appearance issue? Send your beauty-related questions to email@example.com. If I don’t have a good answer, I’ll find someone who does.