More and more women have been speaking out about hair loss disorders such as autoimmune disease alopecia, or the permanent baldness that they experience as a result of chemotherapy drugs such as Taxotere. Many of these women are boldly showing the world their bald heads and discussing issues of acceptance, both self-acceptance and the hope to overcome the social stigma that is still associated with female baldness.
They are discussing the psychological consequences of their experiences. Movements such as “See Us In September” gave these women unity and encouraged open dialogue in public forums about the impact of living with difference.
Refinery 29 recently featured an article on female health conditions that result in issues with hair including alopecia, but also addressing women who experience issues on the opposite end of the spectrum, excess of body hair.
“Excess hair growth affects around 10 to 15 percent of women in most populations,” says consultant dermatologist Dr. Kapil Bhargava, and although the most common forms of excess body hair are due to genetics, “polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) is the most common cause of hirsutism,” which is male-pattern hair growth in women. Among the symptoms of PCOS, which include ovarian cysts, irregular periods and weight gain, the hormone disorder causes women to produce higher levels of male hormones called androgens (these include testosterone). These hormones produce excessive hair growth on the face, chest and back. The unwanted hair is often coarse and dark.
Other hormone changes, such as during pregnancy and menopause, can cause excess facial hair, as can obesity. Rare endocrine disorders, such as Cushing’s syndrome, can also disrupt hormones and lead to hirsutism. The article also mentions that malnutrition caused by anxiety or other disorders can increase hair growth over the whole body.
Just as medications can cause both temporary and even permanent hair loss as previously mentioned, they can also cause hirsutism. The disorder can be a side effect of medications such as danazol, used for endometriosis, or fluoxetine, the antidepressant sold as Prozac.
“As hair is non-essential tissue, it is incredibly sensitive to general health and is often the first part of us to display symptoms from metabolic, dietary or hormonal upsets,” says Anabel Kingsley, trichologist at Philip Kingsley.
Refinery 29 quoted a 2010 campaign for women with unwanted facial hair called “We Can Face It,” which surveyed 1,000 women. Two-thirds of those women said they felt “unfeminine” and 30 percent suffered from clinical depression.
“It’s as if their bodies have a mind of their own,” explains Dr. Vivian Diller, a psychologist specializing in body image. “Alopecia and hirsutism are very upsetting experiences to most women, but if they understand why they feel that way, that alone can help them manage their reaction. It’s a fear of being out of control.”
In the article one woman with PCOS shared her personal story of fear that she was ugly and undesirable, shame — feeling she needed to hide who she was even from those closest to her — and the journey to finally deciding to not let her PCOS affect her body image or relationships anymore.
Refinery 29 features some of award-winning blogger the Slumflower’s thoughts on her traction alopecia, which is caused by damaging hair treatments and styles. “I decided that I was just tired of trying to hide something that isn’t going to go away. The fact that I’m running away from it means I’m running away from myself. If I want to have a solid relationship with myself I have to also build a relationship with the parts of myself that I don’t necessarily like.”
“The emphasis on our physical appearances exists because we’ve been taught to attach our value to our appearance, so we hyper-criticise our bodies,” says the Slumflower, “but we also have a soul and energy, as well.”