In the tangled web of myths imparted upon women, hair, like weight, reigns as one of the criteria for beauty and femininity. From Disney princesses to Barbies, superheroes to pop stars, young girls are inundated with imagery of women with thick, flowing hair.
It happens so that before we even reach our preteen years, girls are imprinted with an almost mathematical equation for beauty: skinny + curves in the right places + long (blonde) hair = worthy.
But what happens when you unexpectedly begin losing your hair? How do you cope with suddenly being without what the Bible has dubbed a woman’s “crowning glory”?
Earlier this month, blogger and social media influencer Dani Austin confronted these issues on a public scale. The petite, bubbly content creator from Dallas, Texas revealed to her more than 285,000 followers that she has resorted to wearing wigs after experiencing significant hair loss that became impossible to hide.
After months of privately struggling, 26-year-old Austin ultimately decided to share her hair loss journey with her followers after she received several messages asking if she had done something to alter her appearance. In an emotional video posted to YouTube, Austin reveals it was her husband, Jordan Ramirez, who encouraged her to purchase her first wig. The 22-minute video, shows Austin struggling to manage the shame and embarrassment from losing her hair, magnified by the pressure she feels to maintain a picture-perfect image as a lifestyle and fashion blogger.
“As a woman, my hair has always been what makes me feel feminine,” Austin told Yahoo Canada. “As an influencer I have always tried my best to be transparent and real with my followers… I really contemplated and talked with my husband back and forth about every option on the spectrum to keep hidden what I was going through. I thought about everything from just not telling people I was wearing a wig to distancing myself from blogging altogether for a while. I let the shame of the situation make me feel like I was alone.”
Austin said she initially blamed herself for her hair loss, revealing that she attributed her former struggle with trichotillomania (trich), a hair pulling disorder, and years of bleaching, dying and wearing extensions as possible contributing factors to her current situation. Although she has yet to receive a formal diagnosis as to why she suddenly began experiencing hair loss, Austin noted that many medical professionals have attributed her hair falling out due to stress.
The video, which has garnered more than 400,000 views and counting, introduced Austin to an entire community of women who struggle with hair loss for a variety of reasons. In the United States, approximately 30 million women are affected by female-pattern hair loss. Whether due to genetics, emotional stress, hormonal changes or medication the American Hair Loss Council states that nearly 80 per cent of all women will experience noticeable hair loss by the age of 60.
“When I shared my story, I fully expected to be labelled as ‘the wig girl,’” Austin said. “What I didn’t realize was there are thousands of women experiencing the same hair loss as me. It was not just something that I as keeping hidden in shame but thousands of women were too for reasons ranging from trichotillomania, stress, alopecia, chemo...This was the biggest surprise. It was a hidden epidemic that no one seemed to be talking about. When I realized that, it changed from me trying to avoid the label of being the ‘wig girl’ to realizing that there is purpose in all of this...There is power in acknowledging our wounds and keeping them visible.”
Like Austin, my hair has been a source of comfort and frustration. I was diagnosed with trich when I was 10, the same time I was first diagnosed with an eating disorder. From an early age, I became skilled in trying to hide the growing bald patches that would appear, and wear elastic bands around my wrist to distract myself from touching my hair. Years later, as a teenager, my hair began to fall out on its own due to stress. I was so ashamed that I wore hats at home, avoided going to hair-dressers and would ask before I left the house for school whether or not you could see a patch of scalp.
For graduation, my mom took me to buy my first pair of clip-in hair extensions to wear to the ceremony and celebratory dance. Knowing I was afraid to have my hair styled, I waited while she spoke to the store manager and asked him not to say anything about my hair in front of me while he demonstrated how to clip in each extension to look natural. When the manager was finished, I swelled with pride looking in the mirror at the full head of hair while my mom cried silently behind me. It was like I had put on a cape like a superhero, or wrapped myself in a security blanket. It may not have grown from my head but it helped give me the confidence I needed to hold my head high and smile for photos come Graduation Day.
Extensions, hair-pieces, weaves and wigs have become more popular in recent years, thanks to the transparency of celebrities and beauty vloggers who experiment with different looks as a form of creative expression. Thanks to social media, beauty is no longer curated by traditional media outlets. Women with short hair, no hair, braids or grey hair are more visible than ever before as an antidote to long-held, narrow perceptions of beauty. Despite this and despite the progress we’ve made, hair loss remains something many women feel compelled to keep a secret.
For Austin, transforming the discussion surrounding hair loss and redefining femininity begins when women are able to show vulnerability with one another, both on and offline. In the wake of coming forward with her hair loss journey, Austin is committed to demystifying her online image, and celebrating her own “imperfections.”
“I’ve always said that social media is not enough,” she said. “Behind every blogger and follower is a real woman that is fighting some battle in her life. Too often we fall prey to the perfection that is presented to us in a daily feed from people only showing us the best of themselves… I was scared how this personal issue was going to affect me professionally but this whole situation has just made me double down on my original thesis that the most power is found in confession of imperfection on this platform.”
Whatever happens next, whether her hair begins to grow back or not, Austin says she is forever changed by the experience and feels a renewed sense of purpose to move away from curating her content to being unabashedly real.
“It won’t always make me look the best or be the coolest, but it’ll probably help the most females looking for someone to relate to. That’s the only type of ‘influence’ that matters to me,” she explained. “I’m all about sharing the good, the bald and the ugly.”