When I was in seventh grade I made a bet. My friend Konrad insisted that his hairline would outlast mine and I insisted otherwise. His dad was bald, my dad had a full head of hair. It seemed like easy money. The bet amount was $20 (I talked him down from $100 because that seemed like an insurmountable amount at the time) and the age of determination was 30. I am not yet 30 so I have not yet paid Konrad a dime. I’m still holding out that he may lose his thick mane because well, mine is already toast.
Going bald in my early 20s was hard because I felt like I was being robbed of a large part of my prime, good looking years. It was like youth and irresponsibility were fleeing with every departed hair.
Once you’re a bald man, there are no more youthful mistakes. Balding was for dudes with mortgages—or so I thought.
Here are the steps I went through going bald in my early twenties.
Step 1: Hide it Like Crazy
The first step of this process is to pretend like everything’s fine, and depending on the person and pace of hair loss, this step can last a long time.
By freshman year of college, my hairline was noticeably receding. To compensate, I wore a collection of bandanas folded up and tied across my forehead ninja style. You’d be hard pressed to find a picture of me that year not wearing a bandana. But I never told anyone that I wore bandanas because of my receding hairline, because it wasn’t real to me yet. To me, the bandanas were something I wore because I ‘liked the way they looked.’
Other guys use hats. The really disillusioned ones don’t wear anything, but act very confused when confronted about their hair depletion. As a bald man, I imagine this is very confusing for our non-bald friends.
Tip to the Non-Balding: if you have a friend who is quite obviously hiding their premature hair loss, but they refuse to acknowledge it, let it go. If they’re like me, their mind’s eye is still projecting a self image of a fully haired, much more attractive self. They probably just need some time to say goodbye.
Step 2: Start Talking About It
I don’t remember the actual day it happened, but there was a definite point where I stopped hiding from the conversation about my hairline. I went from going quiet and unresponsive (I was kind of zombie-like to be honest) to actually acknowledging the fact that my hair loss was fast and inevitable. It’s weird how often it comes up in conversation.
It took about 3 years for me which is no coincidence because, by that point, there was no more denying it—I would be a bald man and soon. Mostly, my more bald buddies were the ones to bring it up. They would probe me about it and when I actually responded to their questions, I learned that there was a whole community of early 20s people silently struggling with the exact same thing. Once I was able to acknowledge the fact that my hair was doomed, it quickly became a much easier conversation.
Step 3: Become a Baldy
As one of my favorite sports journalists (bald) said about hair loss, “everyone makes the decision in their own time.” My time came when I was 23. The first time I shaved my head, I told my friends it was a joke so I had an out in case it looked awful. Also, that gave me a way to pretend it wasn’t an inevitability—just something I was doing for fun. Luckily, I looked in the mirror after doing it and thought I looked kind of awesome.*
The truth is that my wife and most of my friends all agree that the shaved look I use now looks way better than the very thin, very high forehead I was rocking at the end of college. I think most would agree that the decision to lose the hair can’t be forced. When a person is ready to shave their head, they’ll make the change.
If you are unsure about your hair status, I recommend trying out the shaved head thing. Do it for a 5k or some special event—make something up if you have to. If it sucks, then milk the end of your hair’s life and if it doesn’t suck, rock it. Be proud of your baldness. Or get surgery. Honestly I never looked into it because a) it would have required me to admit I was actually balding and b) it seemed expensive.
A Note About Identity: For all the joking, balding has actually been a really serious transition in my life and something I still struggle with daily. It would be a great detriment to suggest that this process simply requires the person to ‘get over it.’
Those who go bald in their early 20s must confront the process of aging in a very tangible, public way on a daily basis.
It’s hard not to be insecure about looking several years older than you actually are and no amount of friends saying, “you look good bald” or “must be nice not having to deal with hair” makes it any easier.
I think, if we’re honest, most of us are very conscious of the way we’re representing ourselves to the world. We dress in certain ways to present different parts of our personality, situation, or mood. When I golf I wear polos, when I work I wear work button ups, when I go to Starbucks I wear tighter jeans. So going bald is partially difficult because it feels like a part of that choice has been taken away.
I still felt as young as an early 20 something, but the mirror now showed a very clear sign that I was no longer in the prime of youth. Also, when’s the last time you saw a protagonist in a movie who was bald (and not super muscular or stricken with cancer)?
In the movies, bald guys are either creepy villains or jacked action heroes. I resonate with neither of those.
I’m (Not) Over It
After this whole post, you would think that I would be able to wrap this up neatly but the truth is I can’t. Going bald is not fun and I’m very much still in the process of coming to terms with it. But every year I become more ‘sort of OK’ with it.
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*I did not, in fact look awesome. My friend Sam had left a triangle of hair in the back of my head, which I would then keep throughout the remainder of a multi-day climbing competition we were about to take part in.