CROWNING glory. The phrase says it all. A woman’s hair is more than roots and follicles and split ends; it reflects her self-esteem, her sense of femininity and sensuality.
For all the jokes about male pattern baldness, women’s hair loss is still a dirty little secret.
Gail Porter bravely went public when she lost all her hair as a result of alopecia – though her career never quite recovered. And when Naomi Campbell was photographed with bald patches – thought to be the result of years using hair extensions – the world’s media reacted in shock rather than empathy.
And when Ruth Christie, 24, a Forfar mother or two young girls, aged five and two, experienced severe hair loss following her pregnancies, it was so devastating it affected her relationship, her physical health and her mental wellbeing.
“I’ve always had quite fine hair, but had a lot of it,” she says. “Then, when I was pregnant with my first daughter, it really thickened up, but thinned out after I had her. I also put on about four stone so I decided to lose the weight really drastically – and lost it all in about three months. I did that by just not eating. I had no nutrition and so my hair just fell out.”
When she became pregnant with her second daughter, the same pattern occurred. But, following the birth, she also developed thyroid problems, which went undiagnosed for months. The result was hair that was thinner than ever – especially at the front. “I had a couple of inches-wide parting,” she says.
“There’s no way you can hide that. If you’re a little bit overweight you can put on the big Bridget Jones pants, if you have a breakout of spots, you can wear make-up, but if your hair is thin at the front there’s nothing you can do.”
And so, with a family wedding coming up, she decided to get a weave. It cost £300 but right from the start it was extremely painful and itchy. And it looked “really fake”. She took care of it as best she could, getting it washed once a week at her hairdresser. But after six weeks it had matted so badly she had to have the whole lot cut out, strand by strand.
“I was completely devastated,” she says. “I found out, once the hair had come out, that the hairdresser had used the end of an old pair of tights as a cap, which was why it had been so itchy, and my own hair was really badly damaged underneath. It was just horrific.”
Her last resort was to buy a real hair wig – for £600 – which required her to shave her head completely. “I lost all my self-confidence. I’m six foot tall, I’m quiet broad, I’ve always been sporty, so I’m more one of the boys than the girls anyway. But for me to not have hair, I felt like I was trying to be a girl but not quite managing. If I wore heels, I felt like a transvestite.
“I felt in despair. My partner was very supportive, but I was so embarrassed I didn’t let him see my own hair for about four months. I’d go to bed at a different time, I wore a hat every night. Sometimes I’d sleep with the wig on, even though they said you shouldn’t, and wear a hairband to try and secure it. It was heart-breaking.”
Lucinda Ellery – the self-styled ‘hair fairy’ – knows how she feels. She lost two thirds of her hair overnight at the age of nine, following the death of her father. It was to result in a lifelong search for a solution.
“I’ve had many jobs but I’ve never not done hair,” she says. “I didn’t do any formal training, it just kind of evolved.” Her teenage wish to be a mermaid saw her amass a collection of 127 wigs and the way she talks now, you’d never guess this is a woman who has ever had any issues with confidence. “Confidence is something I don’t lack,” she admits, “but self-esteem is quite another issue. I didn’t realise it at the time, but wigs really pulled me down. I’d be worried about them getting caught in a tree, or the wind, or an umbrella – I was so self-conscious. If someone puts their arm around you and you have long hair – a wig – you have to move with them; you’re aware of people’s bracelets. You are never allowed to just be.”
Her experiments with extensions grew from her desire to escape the tyranny of the wig, and as she developed different techniques, other women came to her with their own hair issues; those with multiple sclerosis, or scarring, with leukaemia, alopecia, or those with trichotillomania – the habit of hair pulling. “There were some disasters,” she admits. “I’d spend 20 hours on someone’s hair and a day later it would all fall out. But it was the patience of all these amazing women who let me experiment on their hair in the early days that led me to where I am today.”
Her technique involves using a fixed mesh cap that allows the natural hair to grow underneath, and real hair extensions bonded not with glue but with a natural, flexible fixative. “It’s locked in position so it doesn’t blow around and you won’t see the joins. You can wash it, blow-dry it, tie it up,” says Ellery.
She has changed the lives of hundreds of clients – Kimberley Walsh of Girls Aloud has Ellery extensions, Barbara Windsor has been a client for years, while the day before we speak she was working with a Grammy award winner and an Oscar winner. But that didn’t stop Christie having misgivings about trying another solution so soon after her disastrous weave. “I thought, I’ve already had to shave my head, so that’s the worst that can happen. I’d rather try it than never know.”
She says now, “You don’t feel as if you are wearing anything. There’s no pressure or weight. It doesn’t even feel as if you have a hat on. It’s not hot, it just feels clean and fresh. And it doesn’t move. You’re out in the wind, torrential rain, it’s like your own hair. You can go to the gym, tie it up. I was clinically depressed after I had the weave and the wig. I put on weight. I became a bit of a hermit – I couldn’t go out, I didn’t see my friends, I just felt miserable. I lacked any self-confidence.
“Now I’ve lost weight, I’m not depressed any more, and I’m a better mum because I have my self-confidence back. I’m doing more with the kids, taking them out because I’m not embarrassed I bump into somebody at Tesco.”
Ellery says Christie, at 24, is not unique and that hair loss among young women is on the increase. “When I first started doing this, the women coming to me were in their late 50s, 60s and 70s; then there were girls coming in in their 30s and 40s. Now I’m getting teenagers with female pattern hair loss.
“There’s a terrible taboo surrounding it,” she adds. “It’s so linked to your femininity, and your sexuality, and your longevity, and your fertility. We associate hair loss with being not well, of being masculine, of having a loss of identity.”
• Lucinda Ellery Consultancy, 106 Dundas Street, Edinburgh (0131-450 7142, www.lucindaellery-hairloss.co.uk)