“We’re all born bald, baby!” – Terry Savalas
Emma Sothern (Lady Alopecia)
My name is Emma, I’m Irish and I’m 34 years old. I’ve had alopecia areata since I was 11. For the uninitiated, alopecia is an autoimmune condition where the immune system mistakenly attacks healthy hair follicles by mistake – in response to some perceived threat. And even though a lot of factors are at play in this form of hair loss – like genetics, hormonal imbalance and diet – the most common reason given is stress, or some form of trauma.
In my case, I discovered my first small bald patch around my 11th birthday. (Great present, right?!) I’d lost my mum to another autoimmune condition, called Lupus, just the month before. I was so consumed with grief for her that I didn’t grieve for my falling auburn curls, not initially anyway.
But then I watched that bald patch spread across the back of my head.
As a teenager, I’d spend a large portion of my day trying to conceal ol’ Patch with headbands and carefully arranged hairclips. But since I went to boarding school, a place with zero privacy, it was tricky, to say the very least. I felt so different to my peers. And I felt ashamed, like I was to blame for this condition I couldn’t seem to control.
By the time I was 25, I’d lost 80% of my hair and could no longer disguise it with headbands. Every gust of wind would make me panic, in case my remaining hair parted and people would see the bald areas beneath. So I bought an expensive wig instead – which gave me confidence at first, but I grew to hate how uncomfortable it was, how painful the combs were as they dug into my scalp and how little I felt like myself. I spent most of my early twenties spiralling into depression, becoming more and more detached from myself.
I felt like I was hiding who I really was – and lying to everyone around me.
So eventually, when I was 28, I asked my boyfriend to shave my head completely. It was, in equal parts, the most liberating and most terrifying thing I’ve ever done! He took electric clippers to my head, finished the job with a BIC razor and held a mirror up so I could see the new me. I felt giddy – at last, I was free! – but I was quickly brought down to earth by some horrible reactions, like people telling me my bald head “sickened” them or shouting “dyke” at me as I passed them in the street.
Still, most reactions were overwhelmingly positive. I went travelling soon after that big shave, began practising yoga and meditation and, over 2 months of, cheesy as it sounds, ‘rediscovering myself’, I came home feeling more comfortable in myself than I had in years. I think that trip was almost like immersion therapy – I jumped right into the deep end with my bald head and had to get used to being stared at! I’ve always been hyper-sensitive and prone to anxiety but that trip showed me a strength in myself I’d never thought possible.
Back in Ireland, I felt an obligation to come clean and share my story – and the response I got from my original Facebook photo (complete with bald pic!) was just incredible. Close friends, people I’d known in school, total strangers…all got in touch to say how I’d inspired them. Some even brought up their own hair loss issues and thanked me for giving them the ‘permission to accept it’!
It was a humbling experience. But I wasn’t done yet.
A year later, Lady Alopecia was born: a website I created to (hopefully!) support and empower others with hair loss. And while I do talk about potential treatments and offer lifestyle advice around reducing hair loss, my goal with the website is not to help people ‘fix’ it…but to learn to live with it. To find confidence and comfort in themselves, exactly as they are. Setting up Lady Alopecia has connected me with a wonderful community of fellow alopecians – people at varying stages of the condition, and varying stages of acceptance – and it’s given me a positive reason to be bald!
Here in my new home in Hoi An, Vietnam, where I work as a freelance copywriter and yoga/meditation teacher, I’m the happiest I’ve ever been…even with very little hair! If it grows back someday, great. If not, that’s ok, too. I know there’s so much more to me than my hair – or lack thereof. Just like I know there’s more to my identity than being ‘the bald chick’. Practising yoga, mindfulness and meditation are what helped me to accept this new normal and even to love the condition I used to hate. Some people nowadays don’t even blink an eye at my patchy head – they think it’s a style choice – and when I encounter the others, who point and laugh and take photos, I can breathe deeply and let it go.
I’ve recently launched my very first Yoga for Alopecia course, which I completed in December (the next one starts in February, 2021). It’s a four-week online course designed specifically for alopecians, to help them reduce stress and inflammation in the body but also to cope mentally and emotionally with this condition. Because while exercise itself has many benefits, it’s practices like meditation and pranayama (breath work) that truly changed my attitude to alopecia and how I see myself. I want to help others find the same acceptance, too.
Bringing together my two passions – yoga and connecting with fellow baldies – was the most uplifting thing. It reminded me why I’m on this path and perhaps why I still don’t have a full head of hair.
That’s not my purpose: nope, my reason for being here is to share my experiences, to inspire others to share their story and to offer simple ways for people to live more mindful, healthier and happier lives.
I’ve learned that I can’t control my alopecia, not really. But I can choose how I react to it.
So I choose to see it as a gift, for the experiences it’s led me to and the people it’s sent my way., I’ve also learned that the things we’re most insecure about can teach us a lot – they’re what make us different. And they’re what make us special. And that’s a beautiful thing.
Emma is a part-time yoga teacher, freelance copywriter and fulltime alopecian. She lives in Hoi An, Vietnam with her very hairy husband and is currently writing her memoir: Becoming Lady Alopecia. Check out ladyalopecia.com or follow her on Instagram: lady_alopecia