DEBATE!; A `Which?' survey last week said men should learn to accept their baldness. Quite right, says Nick Coleman; it's a lesson in life. Not true, says Malcolm Mendelsohn; it's worth paying to keep that hairline
OF COURSE, bald men should "learn to live with it". The alternative is too horrible to contemplate. Wigs look like wigs. Weaves look like weaves. Drag-overs look like you've had an accident. As for surgery, I'd rather chop off my own head. Moreover, bald is lovely.
That doesn't mean bald is easy. My matted rat's nest started to depart 20 years ago, when I was 19 and in my first, febrile term at college. I looked in the mirror one morning and there, through the tangle of hair I fondly thought of as my "Keith Richards", I saw luminous white scalp. I felt ill. I fell into denial. I skived off at least three lectures. And I remembered that my maternal grandfather had been bald as a coot. I realised there was no way out. Genes is genes.
The worst time was the early years, before a cleanly delineated, symmetrical pattern began to emerge on my head. During those years I wore hats, fiddled with it constantly and sought to catch myself reflected unawares in plate- glass windows, perhaps for once looking distinguished. I also bought a vial of Argentinian cow's placenta from an Argentinian hairdresser, on the understanding it would help "heal" my scurfy scalp. It was blue.
I continued to shed hair. What is not often understood by the haired is how spasmodic hair loss is. It goes in gusts, almost with the seasons. I grew to understand the American word for "autumn".
Also, it began to dawn on me that what distinguishes hair loss from other cosmetic plagues is that it is immutable. There's nothing you can do about it. When baldness starts, death begins. And you can see it happening every day, and feel it with your fingertips, and sense other people's eyes travelling up your head as if it were a cliff. Sometimes it itches too.
But that's the good thing about going bald. You get to deal with "immutability" good and early while everyone else is still callowly fussed with how perfectible life can be. You have to face your imperfectibility and declare as loudly as you can (but not in public) that you have seen the beginning of your death.
This is a good thing. What is also unreservedly good about baldness is that you can detect rain minutes before haired people can, and then walk in it with impunity. It's a beautiful feeling, fat raindrops really landing on your head. Splot! Also, your hairdressing bills are negligible (just get with the programme, Baldy, and buy a set of clippers, pounds 25 from Argos); and what hair you have takes minutes to dry following a wash that lasted seconds and entailed a minuscule amount of shampoo. And women like it. They like to stroke it, anoint it, kiss it. In fact, my wife says she would feel altogether differently about me if I had hair.
Also, when it's gone, you have no memory of hair having been there. Hair is not a limb, it's a curse. And when you lose it, it's a time to rejoice. Then finish the job with a ruthlessness you never thought was in you: shave close, young man, and live! Anyway - and at the risk of sounding Jacobean - in life you are in death: there is only skull beneath the skin.
I STARTED going bald in my early thirties - my hair was receding, more on one side than the other - and since I didn't want to lose one of my few redeeming features I decided to do something about it. I had my first operation a year later and in the 20 years since then I've had a total of four operations at a cost of pounds 3,500 to pounds 4,000.
I knew I was going to go bald - my father lost his hair, and my grandfather - and I'd decided before it happened that I was going to do something about it. You can call it what you like - vanity, self-consciousness, over-obsessive behaviour - but I didn't want to lose my hair. I didn't want to look entirely different to how I'd looked before. I've had treatment as I've gone along and so I've sort of kept up with my hair loss. I've never really experienced being bald and I wouldn't want to.
Wanting to be attractive to women has probably influenced my decision but not that much - it was more for me than anyone else. A lot of people do have cosmetic surgery for someone else - their partners of whoever - but I did it for me. Balding is ageing. I'm lucky - I've got good skin, a good head of hair, which helps. Has it improved my chances with the ladies? Well it's helped my confidence, and it all comes down to confidence, doesn't it?
The first operation was in the very early days of hair surgery and afterwards I decided it wasn't worth it. What they could do then was limited and painful - they used to drill your hair out from the back, literally drill it with a Black & Decker. For years after that I just used hair drugs - which Which! now says are a waste of time - but the one I used slowed my hair loss and gave volume to my hair where it was going thin.
Then, in 1993, with changes to surgical methods, I had another operation and I've had two more since. The microsurgery now is done under a local anaesthetic and it's very good - and not painful. They transplant single hairs, taken from the back, and it gives a very natural appearance. You'll never have a head of hair like you had when at 18 but you'll never look like you're thinning or balding. This hair will never fall out and it grows - twice as fast as it used to, because hair from the back of the head grows faster.
It's much easier for men now. I didn't give a damn what anyone thought when I had my first operation - 20 years ago if you wore aftershave everyone thought you were gay. For women it's considered natural to want to make themselves look better, but for men it's taken years to get to that situation.
My philosophy is if it makes you feel good, do it. It's OK for people who can handle it - they're obviously not as self-conscious as those who get terribly upset by going bald. Ninety-nine times out of 100, people have treatment to become more confident. And they do. I'd avoided having front hairline treatment for years because this it the most crucial area of the scalp - I'd had everything done apart from that and last year I did it and I'm the happiest man in the world. Now I don't have to bugger around in front of the mirror in the morning, I don't check the crown to see if it's getting worse because I've had it done and it's permanent.
Malcolm Mendelsohn is senior counsellor at The Wimpole Street Practice (tel: 0171 935 2617).
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