The Biggest Side Effect of Trichotillomania Is Shame

It begins when I enter a new school, and at first I am hardly cognizant of it. The sensation is a subtle prickle beneath my scalp, like built up pressure. The discomfort is alleviated when I pull out strands of my hair. Sometimes I catch myself doing it, but mostly I am unaware of it. It’s an absent minded habit, like biting your nails or tapping your foot. This goes on without issue until members of my family start finding my idiosyncratic curls when they sweep the floor; until I need to start parting my hair differently to conceal my hair loss. I am sent to a mental health professional and diagnosed with trichotillomania.

The biggest side effect of trichotillomania is shame. With the help of mental health professionals I was able to reduce the frequency of my hair pulling, but this didn’t mitigate the shame I felt. As my hair began to grow back, I was left with uneven hair. Some patches were long enough to fit into a ponytail, and others were not. I was at a loss with how to style my hair. I can’t even begin to count the nights I spent crying in front of the mirror wishing I was “pretty” and “normal.” My shame was exacerbated by the lack of representation of people with trichotillomania. The only time I had ever seen my disorder portrayed in the media it was used as a cheap body horror ploy in a book called The Merciless, which certainly didn’t make me feel seen.

In refusal to live with my shame, I opted for a big chop. Mulan style. In preparation for the chop, I made a mood board of cool ladies with buzz cuts. Kathy Acker, Sinead O’Connor, Adwoa Aboah. This was before Millie Bobby Brown became a sensation, and before Emma Gonzalez revived it as an emblem of female defiance, and so it felt quite radical. As a femme lesbian, I’d finally have something markedly queer about my appearance. Though I live in New York City, a longtime haven for queer artist types, I still worried about facing homophobic violence. With that said, the prospect of getting comradely gestures of acknowledgement from older queer women excited me.

My friend cut my hair on his terrace on a humid July morning. It was early, and I was dizzy with adrenaline. I hacked off most of my hair with a pair of kitchen scissors before it was short enough to buzz off with clippers. In fifteen minutes I went from having a dense thicket of curls to a quarter-inch of fuzz. The transformation was astounding. The refreshing sensation of air on my skin replaced the tension I had grown so accustomed to. People at school told me that having short hair made my eyes pop and made them notice that I have nice high cheekbones. For the first time in years I felt comfortable with my appearance.

But even more common than the compliments was one overwhelming question: why did you do it? What made you shave your head? This question put me in the position of having to decide whether or not I would disclose my personal experience with trichotillomania to near strangers. For a while, I deflected or gave vague responses. I’d say, “I wanted too,” or “why not?” If the inquirer kept pushing I’d give the canned response of, “it was too much work to take care of my curls.” It dawned on me that even after shaving my head I had not freed myself of shame. If I had not been holding on to shame then I’d have been able to truthfully answer people when they asked about my hair.

Perhaps it’s really nobody’s business why I cut my hair—that’s fair—but I’ve made it my business to educate other people about trichotillomania. I want their first exposure to the condition to come from a person who lives with it, because what’s the alternative? A misinformed horror novel like The Merciless? Nothing fights stigma and shame like open conversation, so when people ask me why I cut my hair I now tell them the honest truth. Not a single person has regarded me with judgement, and if they did, I wouldn’t take it personally. There’s no reason to be ashamed of something you didn’t choose for yourself.

My buzz cut gave me the confidence to fight against shame. Had I not done it then I’d almost certainly still regard trichotillomania as an ugly secret unfit for public consumption. I’ve shaved my head a few more times following the initial chop, but now I’m finally letting it grow. I have opened myself up to growth.