Acceptance and Authenticity in Men’s Narratives of Hair Loss

Paul Hodkinson and Matt Hall


The Journeys of Hair Loss project (BA/Leverhulme) has been examining men’s experiences of pattern baldness through qualitative interviews with 34 men aged between 18 and 49. Below, we reflect on how hair loss acceptance discourses punctuated many of the men’s accounts, exploring the opportunities and challenges associated with such narratives.

Journey to acceptance?

While the nature of men’s hair loss journeys and the extent of their struggles varied, there were recurring allusions to particular stages and key moments. Most described distinct periods of hair loss discovery, some a stage of ignoring or denial, and many a longer period characterised by liminality or different forms of struggle. Nearly all outlined how they had also experienced periods of greater acceptance, often (though not always) at a later point in their journey.

Sometimes this took the form of a gradual accommodation, where struggle, worries and attempts to hide or reverse had receded amidst acceptance of the inevitable. For some, this entailed development of a positive reworked self-image that included exploration of other new aspects to their appearance alongside baldness (beards, hats, new clothing styles, fitness). For others, the importance of hair loss had simply reduced in their self-understanding as other aspects of their developing lives (such as family or work) had begun to take precedence. While sometimes expressed positively, gradual accommodation could have a more grudging character – fatalistic stoicism amidst an undercurrent of regret.

In other cases, hair loss acceptance was associated with dramatic, positive moments of appearance transformation and agency. This typically took the form of clippering or shaving the head, something often framed as a symbolic embrace of complete baldness and visceral moment of taking control – an end to periods of shame, liminality, hiding or anxiety. Amidst a fresh start in other aspects of life, David’s spontaneous decision to have his head shaved formed a pivotal moment in his journey where long-standing emotional burdens felt instantly relieved:

‘Psychologically it almost felt like a weight was like weighing me down… And I was like, I’m sick of this now. You know what? I have a fresh start. I’m going back home. I’m going back into a new job… It’s time to leave that life behind and just walk the street with the wind and not care… I went to the hairdresser on Saturday morning… I just said “shave it to the lowest level that you’ve got – just do it!” And I remember seeing the results and I was like… why did I not do this five years ago? It was just relief… That’s when the acceptance happened.’ (David)

Authenticity and acceptance pressure

However, the notion of acceptance could also take on a normative character, framed as a desirable and authentic response to hair loss. Here, comfort, control or confidence in going bald as a natural or inevitable (albeit unwanted) process became valued. As a result, men could, at times, experience pressure to perform acceptance, whether or not this matched up with their feelings. While the most overt way to signal comfort with hair loss was probably a shaved head, verbal acknowledgement through participating in jokes about their baldness, or playing down of emotional impact through displays of stoicism, also featured as fairly common strategies.

Conversely, easily discernible efforts to hide, arrest or reverse hair loss, along with serious conversation about emotional impact, risked conveying an inability to accept bodily realities. For Marcus, avoiding seeming uncomfortable with, or vain about, hair loss was key. He outlined how supportive talk with other men was difficult because, unlike other areas of male struggle, hair loss is not seen as a legitimate subject for such conversation.

‘I didn’t look at any solutions… The idea that I was vain enough to care or vain enough to do something about it for me would be worse than just being bald… I always just thought don’t, don’t appear to be concerned about it…

It’s not a thing that I think is something we are open about… Whereas especially these days, if somebody was to talk about depressive thoughts, anxiety, self- harm, these are all things that are accepted… But I’d never lump baldness into that… I think that maybe, it would be a bit jokey… I clearly think it’s something I can joke about ’cause I do it to myself.’ (Marcus)

Acceptance discourse and masculinities

Aspects of this acceptance discourse resemble traits associated with hegemonic masculinity, including stoicism, fortitude, courage and notions of control. A masculine lack of concern about the body and appearance also seems apparent. In contrast, uncertainty, vanity, struggle or needing help are rendered uncomfortable; disclosure of hair loss struggles to others was limited or difficult for many of the men, connecting with longstanding concerns about the impact masculine ideals can have on male support-seeking.

Yet there remains much more to the men’s accounts than a simple regurgitation of one-dimensional masculine ideals. For example, as Marcus’ comments illustrate, emphasis on the desirability of accepting hair loss did not necessarily preclude recognition of male struggle or support-seeking in a broader sense. The point was more that hair loss is (like some other forms of male experience) not seen as legitimate subject-matter for emotional difficulties.

Even among its most vociferous proponents, discussion of acceptance was often interspersed with recognition of struggle. This included hints of ongoing uncertainty, regret or imaginings of a ‘magic solution’, even among some who spoke at length about accepting and moving on. Adam reflected on how online hair loss adverts still could trigger moments of internal struggle, long after he felt he had fully embraced being bald:

‘Do you know what, I still would consider it!  You sort of almost go, ooh, just for a minute, you think (laughing) … what am I doing?  What am I doing?  I don’t need this.  I don’t need to have this, I’ve taken control of it. But yeah, it still… triggers me a bit when I see it.’ (Adam)   

It is also important to note that, in some cases, narratives of acceptance could be outweighed by counter-pressures to invest hopes and energies in hiding or resisting hair loss. This was particularly so for some of those who were younger, used to extensive hair or beauty routines, or whose sexual identity created a degree of distance from hetero-masculine norms.

Notwithstanding their connections with masculine stoicism and control in the context of this study, narratives of acceptance and self-authenticity in the face of bodily changes can also to be found outside the realm of hegemonic masculinities: it would be mistake, we feel, to reduce such discourses to the latter. In a particularly prescient example, research on women suffering alopecia areata shows how the hiding of hair loss was often associated with feelings of inauthenticity and shame, amidst admiration of a minority able to experience the ‘liberation’ of displaying their baldness openly.

Challenges and opportunities

While narratives of acceptance and authenticity can contribute to challenges for balding men, particularly where struggle, interventions and support-seeking become problematised, the stories of our participants illustrate how they can also enable positive possibilities. Notably, such discourses may form an important counter-balance to increasingly pervasive male beauty norms, to the pathologisation or medicalisation of baldness and to commercial pressures to invest the most extensive energies, emotions and resources into ongoing battles to hide, arrest or reverse hair loss.   

Reflecting of these personal journeys through hair loss, it is essential, we suggest, to pay heed to the complexities and nuances in men’s accounts, taking narratives of acceptance seriously, and identifying both challenges and opportunities they can create as part of men’s journeys.