A Bad Hair Year

April 03, 2006

Just as the job market in English was gaining steam in November 2004, my hair began falling out.

As a woman who took pride in her long, thick brown hair, I was used to losing a few strands here and there. But now hair was everywhere -- in the drain, on the pillow, all over my clothes. I nervously laughed to myself and thought, See how stressful the job market can be.

Because I had so much hair, losing some of it was scary but all right. I just sort of fluffed up what was left of it and went to my interviews at the annual meeting of the Modern Language Association that December.

When I got back, I went to the doctor, who advised me to reduce my stress. (Clearly my physician had never gone on the job market in the humanities.) She ran some tests and diagnosed me with "alopecia areata." According to the American Academy of Dermatology, alopecia areata is a "disease that causes loss of hair on the scalp and elsewhere" and is "associated with an alteration in the immune system." The immune system attacks the hair follicle, although researchers are still trying to determine the exact cause and cure.

In the midst of my "hairmare," I was fortunate to obtain a telephone interview with a department in my field in the spring of 2005. At least I didn't have to worry about my hair during a phone interview.

When the department invited me for a campus visit a few weeks later, I was barely able to cover the bald spots using the comb-over method. In one uncanny moment during the campus visit, I met with a dean, a man who was totally bald, and wondered if he had the same condition.

My secret alopecia was exposed during the campus tour given by one of the search committee members. A strong gust of wind lifted my combover in slow motion, as if I were a child on a swing at the zenith of its arc, before gliding downward. My guide's face revealed -- for a split-second -- her surprise. Then, as quickly as it appeared, the look vanished and she continued with the tour.

I was grateful for her sensitivity and tact. For reasons supported by my dissertation committee -- including the department's inability to support my commitment to my research -- I regretfully turned down the job at her department when it was offered.

But doing so only increased my desperation, as it meant having to face another year on the job market without hair. If I had to wear a wig to a job interview, I worried, would the search committee be able to tell?

During a horrific three-week period last May, I lost almost all the hair that remained on my scalp. In fact, so little remained that I decided to shave it off. I watched the episode of Sex in the City in which the character Samantha, in chemotherapy, shaves her head. Then I buzzed my own until I didn't recognize myself in the mirror.

In despair I called my mother, and in her effort to be sympathetic she said something so awful that my friends and I took to repeating it as a joke: "That was the one thing you had goin' for you; you always had a thick head of hair!"

I took to wearing special head wraps and hats, and with that new look, venturing outside became an education in itself. A man approached me in a parking lot to wish me luck in my bout with cancer. Strangers in all kinds of public places would look upon me with expressions of kindness and concern. Sometimes, evangelically, I would try to educate them about alopecia.

However, in addition to those lessons of love I glimpsed the darker side of human nature. On my current campus one day, several female undergraduates sat at a restaurant as I passed by the window. They pointed at me and laughed. I walked up to the window, and stared back, shocked: Are these the students I am trying to teach? Do I have any hope of making a dent in their worldview? As they continued to laugh, I walked away, defeated.

Since those dark days I have been admitted to the secret society of women and men -- including some academics -- who also deal with hair loss as a result of alopecia, chemotherapy, or hereditary pattern baldness. I have made online connections with virtual strangers who have become my friends.

Many people at my home department encouraged me to continue applying for jobs even without hair. My dissertation adviser assured me that the alopecia would not prevent me from realizing my dreams. Fellow graduate students, faculty members, and even the head of the department reached out. A colleague went on a hat-making binge and gave me nine exquisite hats that inspired me with their attitude.

Last fall, oddly enough, my hair grew back on its own just in time for the 2005-06 job market. Initially it grew back shock white and then filled in with haphazard brown and black streaks. By December, I had a very unique-looking do that I'm sure some search committees interpreted as some sort of radical fashion statement.

Of my three conference interviews, one was followed by an invitation to a campus visit. By the time of the campus interview earlier this year, all my hair had grown back. It was an amazing experience to feel like I could pass as a woman with hair. However, the first night of the interview, I woke up in a cold sweat after a nightmare/flashback in which my hair was coming out by the handful.

Despite such nocturnal anxieties, the campus visit proceeded extremely well. I felt that I would be a good fit for the job and I hoped that the search committee would choose me. After the last interview session, I felt very comfortable with the department's faculty members, who had been hospitable and positive about my candidacy.

It was time to catch my flight. One of the search committee members drove me to the airport. He began to tell of his own health issues, and described how one of the committee members had gone through chemotherapy that year and had lost all of her beautiful long hair. With his words, I uncontrollably burst into tears, overcome with the memory of my own formerly long, brown, chestnut hair.

No crying in baseball, ran through my mind. I realized at that moment that I had probably blown any chances I had had for the job. I explained about the alopecia. "It just grew back in time for the interview in December," I sobbed. "It grew back this way, it's not a fashion statement."

At the airport, the committee member warmly shook my hand and thanked me for coming out. Afterward, remembering how I had cried, I cringed and told myself that the search-committee members wouldn't be calling, get over it, there's always next year.

Then they called and offered me the job. After negotiating, I accepted.

Now, a month later, my hair is falling out again.

As one of more than 80 different autoimmune disorders, alopecia challenges me to understand how my body can reject part of itself against my wishes. It taunts me to grow strong enough to accept myself regardless of the way I look. It makes me wish that I could reconcile my own body image with the intellectual notion that gender is a social construction. It has revealed strains of wondrous generosity and soul-crushing cruelty in strangers, family, and friends.

At every step along the way, alopecia continues to teach me about human nature and life's unpredictability.

Thelma Mathison is the pseudonym of a new assistant professor in the humanities who will start work in the fall at a large research university in the Midwest.