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Vivian Diller, Ph.D. Headshot

The Gender Hair Gap

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When Demi Moore famously shaved her head for the 1997 film G.I. Joe, many admired her courage. More recently, Charlize Theron shaved her head for the upcoming movie Mad Max, and reactions were similar. "With that face, " blogs buzzed, "it's hard not to look beautiful."

Yet it didn't take film roles to get Bruce Willis, Vin Diesel or Samuel Jackson to sport their signature bald look. They, along with star athletes like Michael Jordan, Andre Agassi and Kevin Youkilis, have not only made balding acceptable but even trendy for the everyday man.

While gender differences have narrowed in so many ways, when it comes to hair loss, the gap remains wide. A clean-shaven head may be commonplace among men, but it continues to be a rare and complicated choice for everyday women. Why is that? And is it likely to change anytime soon?

First, some facts about the fundamental differences between male and female hair loss:

  • Frequency: Serious hair thinning (defined as more than the typical 50-100 strands we lose daily) occurs for about 60 percent of men by age 50 and 40 percent of women by age 40. While baldness may be perceived as a male phenomenon, these numbers suggest that more women suffer hair loss than we think. According to the American Academy of Dermatology, 27 million women, as compared to 40 million men, face some degree of hair loss by the time they are 80. Hair thinning most often becomes noticeable at midlife -- usually later for females than males -- but can begin as early as age 15.
  • Appearance: Females typically lose hair more diffusely, which means it thins all over. Male hair loss is more obvious, because it starts with a receding hairline and often results in complete or near baldness. Women's hair loss, while diffuse, impacts the crown of the head more than the hairline. Women may notice that their part gradually becomes wider when their hair is pulled back or more scalp is exposed throughout their head. But rarely does women's hair thinning progress to complete baldness unless caused by illness.
  • Causes: There are three major reasons behind hair loss. The most common is changing hormones, specifically the rising levels of dihydrotestosterone -- DHT. These hormonal shifts are genetically-determined, occur naturally throughout life, start earlier for men and are exacerbated by menopause for women. Another cause is trauma. Certain stressful life events can lead hair follicles to prematurely stop growing. It is most often temporary and hair begins to grow again six months following trauma. Lastly, some medical issues can lead to hair loss, like thyroid problems, nutritional deficiency, autoimmune disorders, medications and cancer treatments, but if treated, hair growth sometimes returns.
  • Psychology: Males who begin losing their hair, especially in their 20s and 30s, tend to feel anxiety about premature aging and have concerns about maintaining their attractiveness. Some explore medications and hair transplants, but most seem to gradually accommodate to their baldness without taking radical measures. Women, on the other hand, have strong visceral reactions when they see their hair thinning at any age. Anxiety, even panic, can set in as more hair is found on brushes or left in sinks. Embarrassment and shame is also not uncommon. Women not only worry about their attractiveness and desirability, but about their social status and job security.
To understand the gender hair gap, we need to look at the role hair has played for men and women throughout history.
  • Evolution: The importance of healthy hair in female identity is probably based on its role in the survival of the species. Even though the function women play in today's culture has broadened dramatically since the Women's Movement, we are probably hardwired to value the one we had for hundreds of thousands of years -- to attract a mate and procreate. The male role -- to protect and defend -- has never been (and probably will never be) as connected to his hair or his appearance in general. Healthy, youthful looking hair is an integral part of fulfilling a traditional feminine imperative, one that is not likely to disappear anytime soon.
  • Biology: Curves, smooth skin, thick lashes and long hair are among the visible physical features that are typically associated with femininity. When any of these change, it impacts a woman's identity. During adolescence, pubic hair growth is viewed as a sign of fecundity. When hair begins to thin -- as it often does at menopause -- it signals the opposite, the loss of procreative possibility. And, while there are physical changes that all men and women face with age, they aren't all associated with lack of health or vitality. Wrinkles, weight gain or age spots, for example, show up on almost all aging bodies at some point. Hair loss doesn't. There are people living well into their 90s with a full head of hair, so those women who lose theirs before 50 are more often viewed as ill, not just old.
  • Self-Esteem: Men may not be happy about hair loss, but women report much deeper feelings of fear, shame and humiliation. Generally, women spend more time, money and effort to defy visible signs of aging. But as they watch their hair thin, most women are left feeling helpless. There are just not many good solutions available for hair regrowth. Some products are used to delay hair loss. Some can thicken eyelash growth. There is also hair transplantation, but it's complicated and expensive. The result? As hair thins, women suffer thoughts like, "Something must be really wrong with me, and there's little I can do to stop it." Many fear, "Not only will I lose my looks, but possibly my job and even my mate."
  • Role models: Female beauty icons throughout history have had long, thick, rich-looking hair, often portrayed as windswept and wild. Think Elizabeth Taylor, who was known for her black, silky locks. Poster girl Farrah Fawcett was all about those blonde waves. Jennifer Aniston's career has been tied closely to the latest toss of her enviable mane. Medusa and Rapunzel are mythical figures whose hair served as the symbol of power. Classic portraits and sculptures almost always portray women with beautiful, luscious hair, even when depicted nude. While men have many role models (past and present) for how to go bald in a confident way, there are only a handful of contemporary women (like Moore and Theron) who provide females that kind of inspiration. It's just not considered feminine or stylish -- and may never be.
Finally, consider this: If men had to deal with some public display of impotence -- say, graying hair was an indicator of their decreasing virility -- think how emotionally challenging that would be. (One can only imagine drugs like Viagra and Cialis would fly off shelves if impotence was actually visible for all to see!) Loss or thinning hair to some women is tantamount to losing their femininity. So, it seems that unless science offers reasonable solutions to baldness or until more women find ways to make it a "look" that is sensual and stylish, hair loss will continue to cause females a great deal more angst than it does men.

What do you think about the gender gap when it comes to hair loss?

Vivian Diller, Ph.D., is a psychologist in private practice in New York City. She serves as a media expert on various psychological topics and as a consultant to companies promoting health, beauty and cosmetic products. Her book Face It: What Women Really Feel As Their Looks Change (2010), edited by Michele Willens, is a psychological guide to help women deal with the emotions brought on by their changing appearances.

For more information, please visit my website at www.VivianDiller.com. Friend me on Facebook (at http://www.facebook.com/Readfaceit) or continue the conversation on Twitter.

For more by Vivian Diller, Ph.D., click here.

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