Watching my mother lose her hair during menopause made both of us stronger
Menopausal hair loss is experienced by more than 50% of women
Created by Clue with financial support from Vichy Laboratoires and L'Oréal
Throughout my life, my mother’s impeccable style has been a constant. She pulled off everything from conservative preppy chic to the glitzy drama of the 1980s. But her pièce de résistance was always, always, her hair. She looked regal in any hairstyle, and she had them all at one point: a resilient afro in the late 1980s, a bumped bob with bangs for her wedding in the early 1990s, jheri-curls and eventually, even chemically relaxed tresses. She always had, what is known in the Black community, as good hair.
Good hair is considered a blessing. The definition of “good hair” has evolved over the years—it once only applied to eurocentric beauty standards: pin straight hair or curls loose enough to look racially ambiguous. But these days, it means that regardless of your curl pattern, your hair is thick enough and strong enough to withstand any hair style, hair treatment, or hair product. My mother had good hair throughout her life, and it formed her identity. But about a decade ago, at the age of 48, she noticed that her hair was thinning. A few months after that, she noticed that part of her scalp had just stopped growing hair all together. Finally, and most devastatingly, she discovered a small, but steadily growing bald patch. She was alarmed and confused. Taking care of her hair had always been effortless.
“When I started noticing that my hair was thinning, I didn’t feel very happy with [it]. I wish I hadn’t used all the chemicals from over the years. I was thinking maybe I should take more vitamins? Maybe go vegan? But nothing worked,” my mother said, regarding that alarming time. But it turned out that the loss of her good hair was completely out of her control. It couldn’t have been prevented, because it was a symptom of menopause.
The effects of menopause are different for each woman and are primarily caused by drops in estrogen, when the menstrual cycle ends. Common symptoms include hot flashes, dry skin and of course, hair loss (1). Just because these symptoms are common for more than 50% of women doesn’t mean it’s an easy transition. Hair loss during menopause, or menopausal alopecia, can cause significant emotional distress and anxiety in women and my mother was no different (2,3).
Together, we would sit and watch YouTube videos for hours, learning about the best combination of oils, butters, creams, and conditioners for hair growth and damage repair. We spent Saturdays learning how to best twist, cornrow, and braid hair to prevent breakage. I was usually the guinea pig, testing styles and products on my hair first, before trying them on hers. And for a while, it seemed like we were succeeding. Her hair wasn’t quite as full as it used to be, but it didn’t seem to be breaking and falling out anymore. So she decided to braid her hair again. Tragically, after so many months of improvement, the tension caused by braiding caused her to suddenly lose more hair—this time a noticeable patch in the front of her head. “I felt betrayed by the very hair I was trying to nurture, “ she told me.
Every step forward felt like another two steps back. Finally, she sought professional help, imagining that medical experts would have a solution. But a dermatologist told her that there was no stopping time. All she could recommend was for my mother to rest her scalp and avoid anything that would cause tension or stress on her head. All my mother wanted to do was wear scarves or headbands to cover up her bald patches, but the dermatologist told her that doing so might make the irritation worse.
Her only option was to embrace her situation, and slowly, she is, wearing her hair naturally, bald spots and all. And though I was once attached to hair being the key to her style, I realized that truly, it was her confidence. “I am 57 years old,” she told me recently, reflecting on that time. “My hair is not going to be full, but I’m devising my own unique styles to go with my thinning hair. I have to make it work!,” she said.
Watching my mother struggle with her hair made me admire the amount of self love she had to have in order to roll with the punches and continue to be the style icon we all knew, despite the fact that her hair was no longer what it once was. Black women put so much personal identity and emotional energy into our hair. It’s exhausting.
My hair never grew as fast as I wanted it to, never took to products the way it should have, and I could never seem to replicate the videos I watched online. Unlike my mother, no matter what style I tried, it would leave my hair more damaged and broken. Like my mother, I was eventually over all of the drama. People had always told me I looked like my mother. I realized, if my mother, with her lifted cheekbones and natural hair, could still look beautiful, with her thinning hair and bald spots, then so could I.
So I chopped it all off, Lupita style. There was nothing inherently wrong with the wigs and extensions I had been wearing. What was wrong was how I felt on the inside. I felt fraudulent, unlike myself, like I could only be beautiful as long as my hair looked a certain way.
But when I cut my hair, I was suddenly able to enjoy the stunning features I inherited from my mother: the high cheekbones, the big brown eyes, and an infectious smile to match. For the first time in a while, I felt like myself. It eased my mind, also, to think that thirty-years from now when my own hormone levels drop during menopause, I will have already spent the decades learning to love myself in whatever condition my hair is in. I’m doing future-me a favor, if you think about it.