real life

When Shannon Dooley was 17, her hair suddenly began falling out in clumps.

As women, our relationship with our hair is fraught.

From Lady Godiva riding horseback covered only by her flowing locks. to fairytale princesses with impossibly thick tresses, we’re sold early that hair is intrinsically linked to femininity.

The average woman spends approximately $50,000 on her hair over her lifetime, and almost two hours a week washing and styling her hair. That’s not including the time spent despairing over whether it’s too short, thin, frizzy, dry or grey.

It doesn’t stop at head hair. Body hair is ripped, plucked, lasered and threaded. Lashes are plumped and permed. Hair is a multi-billion dollar industry.

But what if you started to lose it?

This week, the Mamamia Out Loud podcast received a listener question that had us stumped.

A 21-year-old (who asked not to be named) has just been diagnosed with androgenic alopecia and it’s hit her hard.

So far not one day has gone by when I haven’t thought about it.

I look in the mirror and instead of looking at my general face like I used to I look at my hair. I get nervous brushing it, or when someone touches it, just in case it falls out. And I’m now super sensitive when my girlfriends chat or complain about their hair I want to scream at them, ‘you don’t know how lucky you are!’

Some days I think, ‘stuff it, I just want to live and be happy and who cares?’ and others I think ‘I must cling on to every strand I have.

I feel so alone with this issue.

So we called someone who has been there.

Shannon Dooley is a creative professional and artist – and the founder of RetroSweat – who lives with alopecia universalis.

You may have seen her in the media when she was papped with her bestie Jessica Marais, sans wig. Not the ideal experience, but since then she’s just proved to be a champion of positive body image.

Shannon lost all her hair in clumps, over about 10 days. Listen here:

She says alopecia is not life threatening but can change the course of your life. And the shock was immense.

“My hair began falling out and it fell out extremely quickly over the course of about 10 days in 2002, so when I was 17, at the start of my HSC year,” says Shannon.

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“When I think back, I was definitely in shock. But I have strong memories of my mother sitting beside me crying and me running my fingers through my hair, and sitting in the bath with the shower running and just putting it on the edge of the bath while I was showering,” she says.

With the disease striking so quickly, the dance teacher struggled with her diagnosis, but says the people around her adjusted quickly. She said in the past, friends talking about their hair was frustrating but that she’s reached a level of normality about it.

“I had a very good friend call me crying last year because the hairdresser had dyed her hair a colour she didn’t like. I just let her talk and I let her cry… I just said to her, ‘look, I don’t think I’m the right person to be having this conversation with.’ The fact that she had forgotten was actually almost a compliment. My condition has become so normal for her that she didn’t even think,” the 32-year-old says.

Ultimately, she is grateful for how it happened and now refuses to be ashamed of her condition.

“It has challenged my perception of what I thought beauty had to be when I was 17 years old. It simply had to change or I would not be able to get out of bed or look at myself in the mirror or leave the house… My biggest trauma is actually my greatest gift and I wouldn’t be the empathetic, compassionate, understanding person that I am if I didn’t know this pain and this vulnerability,” she says.

According to Shannon, dating with alopecia is really no different than it is for the rest of us: it’s still terrifying.

An incredibly confident and bubbly person, she found herself often questioning everything and assuming her baldness was the reason they didn’t want to see her again or didn’t message her back.

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“This has been the thing that has caused me the most fear and the most stress. We want to be beautiful, but we want to be desirable.”

But despite her fear, the men she has met have treated her with the utmost respect.

“I have been really scared and I’ve only been surprised and supported. What I’ve also learnt is that everyone has their scars, some are visible, some are invisible,” she says.

She says wigs have come a long way in recent years and now the top quality ones are comfortable, and worth shelling out for if you can afford it.

“My first wig was terrible, but we were in desperation. My mum said ‘get in the car’ and we just grabbed anything,” she says. “[Now] the ones that I have… they’re about $4000.”

She says top of the range wigs are designed to perfectly fit your head and avoid any awkward gusty wind/fly away wig moments, and you can swim, exercise, and do everything in them, including the retrosweat dance classes she runs in Sydney’s Surry Hills:

Shannon’s final advice for Anonymous and anyone else suffering from alopecia is simple – stay strong.

“Sometimes it is really hard to get out of bed in the morning and yes, I struggle to look at myself in the mirror… Some days you will feel pretty crap but you should hold your head high for persevering through it and be strong.”

Listen to the latest correspondence episode of Mamamia Out Loud here: It’s all your thoughts about our podcasts. Like talkback radio, but for podcasts. 

You can buy any book mentioned on our podcasts from iBooks at apple.co/mamamia, where you can also subscribe to all our other shows in one place.

Feature image via Shannon Dooley’s Instagram @shannondooley84

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