My hair is never a subject of discussion for better or for worse, so I cannot pretend to understand the stigma attached to being bald. But the stigma is very real and all around us.
The death of 22-year-old Santosh Kumar in Chennai following a botched hair transplant procedure is a case of medical negligence, but behind the tragedy is the socially-constructed insecurity about hair-loss.
According to his friends, Santosh’s hairline was receding from the front, and he was working towards looking better in general – by working-out and eating healthy. We cannot be sure if he was facing stigma over his hairline, but it certainly bothered him enough to get a hair transplant.
There are many among us who have been mocked, insulted and bullied by friends, and pressurized by well-meaning parents into doing something about it – and that ‘something’ ranges from painful and often ineffective medical treatments to miracle drugs from quacks.
When I was in school, there was a nice chap in my class, Sunder*. One would hardly notice him coming into the class. He was silent, mild-mannered and had a gentle smile. And he was bald. His smile masked his lack of confidence, which often showed in his grades. I refuse to believe he was academically incapable, he just lacked the confidence. And even on a sunny day when he managed to bear up, there were those horrible bullies, calling him ‘sotta’ Sunder. When I looked at the image of Santosh, I thought to myself, this could have been Sunder. I wonder where he is, and if he has managed to show the finger to the world and not be bothered about having less hair.
We could have known better as kids and not mocked him, but the bullying draws from what the world around us – the media, parents, friends and cinema – tells us about being bald: that bald is ugly.
As a friend who recently had to ‘do something’ about his hair loss puts it, there is an age when it does not matter, but when you are in your twenties, it does affect personal confidence.
You could be intelligent, good-looking and funny, but if you are young and bald, the stigma is strong enough for people to walk around you on eggshells while talking about hair. As it is, there are enough insecurities we have to deal with as regular men without six-packs, but the bald-patch which no make-up or clothing can hide, only makes life tougher. Wearing a wig makes it worse.
Often the first criticism comes from parents, not just because they notice it first, but they are worried. What will people say? Will my son get mocked? Will he get married on time? They mean well, but they worry enough to make the son feel insecure.
As they say, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. So the worry turns into deep research into hair-loss followed my medical procedures. Sometimes it works, often it doesn’t, so the son is moved on to other ‘treatments’. Those who finally get out of this embarrassing cycle and embrace who they are, are lucky – and family can play a huge role in it.
But beyond family, one big source of inducing shame in being bald is advertising and media. On radio, online and in newspaper ads, it is common to see ‘hair experts’ making you feel ashamed of being bald, only to offer their miracle solution which will solve all our problems forever.
Add to it, ‘success stories’ like Shane Warne, Himesh Reshamiyya (you may laugh, but he does have an impact) and AB De Villiers – who have had hair transplants and are proud of it.
What makes it more complex is that the stigma attached with being bald is not easily visible to those of us who have enough hair. When you are bald, the stigma jumps out and you start noticing how many people are wearing a wig or craftily combing their hair over their bald spots.
Over the years, we have managed to create some awareness about skin-lightening creams and weight-loss medication. Being bald isn’t a defect. It can be a symptom of a deeper health issue which can be addressed, but it is nothing to be ashamed of. Let’s get that before we lose another Santosh.
With inputs from Aditya Ramani