My husband, at the ripe age of 35, is losing his hair. He has had luxuriant long locks since he was a young teenager, long before I knew him. He fought multiple administrative battles with his conservative Catholic high school’s dress code in order to keep it. He considers it an inextricable part of the identity he constructed that turned him from a sad, isolated kid into an adult with a social community. In his own words, he can no longer picture himself without long hair. Nevertheless, it’s visibly thinning on top–and he knows it.
His anxiety over this is really ramping up: he bought a second mirror so he can examine the top/back of his head, he’s exploring combover-like hair arrangements to hide the thin area, and the angst performance over every stray hair in the shower drain trap is… heartbreaking. Also more than a little annoying.
I’m a fat woman, Captain. I have never in my life looked the way I wanted to, much less the way society told me I ought to. After thirty years, I’m largely over it in most circumstances… but when my husband starts up this new routine about his hair, part of me wants nothing more than to roll my eyes and notify the whaaaambulance. As a bonus, my husband is quite thin, and has done the dance of fat-shaming in the guise of “concern for your health” at me in the past, so that resentment lingers a bit. (Even though I did break him of that habit and it hasn’t come up in years, I can’t avoid the basic truth that he’s thin and I’m fat and I have feelings about that.)
I want to be supportive, but at the same time I dread the day he actually asks my opinion of the effectiveness of his combover techniques (spoilers: they are super not effective). Right now all my buried bitterness about my own body wells up in my throat when he gets started about how many hairs fell out during his latest post-shower brushing, so I just kind of shrug and nod sympathetically to avoid choking on it. Do you have any scripts for soothing sounds I can make in response to his escalating sads-spirals?
Some of Us Have Never Been Beautiful, Howl
Dear Some Of Us:
When you’ve expressed uncomfortable feelings about your body in the past, is there any soothing thing a thin person could have said to you to make you feel better?
True story, a thin friend recently offered to sort through plus size dresses online to help me find something to wear to an event, and while she found the least hideous-shoulder-cutout-boob-sequined-couch-upholstery looking things that fell within my many parameters, the best part about it was afterward when she said:
“I gotta say.
Shopping for plus-sized lady stuff
The prints, Jen. The prints.
It was awful.”
I love her so much for it, because, while she’s always quick to say “You’re beautiful!” it was amazing to have her, for one brief second, know and affirm how much things can suck out there. #YOUSEEME #YOUREALLYSEEME #letmypeoplehavesleeves
Applying this to your husband’s hair loss, I think the best soothing noise you could make is some version of affirming his feelings of anxiety and loss. Nodding sympathetically works. “Aw man, that sucks!” works. If he asks for more of a response, try “Your hair is so pretty, I know it sucks to lose it so much earlier than you planned.” “No advice, just sympathy.” Resist the urge to flood him with supportive “Bald Is Beautiful”* memes and let him come to his own peace with it in his own time.
Edited to Add: I had this as a P.S. but I want to emphasize this: There is a reason that this is bringing up old feels about body image. You (understandably) had and have a lot of feelings about having a body that is seen as non-standard, not sexy, not lovable, not celebrated, and downright discriminated against by our culture. You’ve made an uneasy peace with those feelings and didn’t ask your husband to manage them for you. In fact, you had to do a lot of emotional labor to shut down his harmful attempts to manage them. But now, it feels like he is asking you to be the audience and cheerleader while he manages his feelings about getting older. You don’t have to manage his feelings about aging and baldness. Nodding sympathetically and saying, “Aw, that sucks” is enough “work” around this issue. Giving him a lot of space to work through it himself is actually a kind thing to do. If he’s looking for something else, he needs to come out and ask you or tell you what that is.[/Edit]
At some point, when he asks your opinion, or if his unhappiness escalates or shows no sign of stopping, here’s your script: “Husband, I can tell this is stressing you out a lot, and I hate seeing you so unhappy about it. I don’t know the first thing about styling men’s hair, and I think it’s time to call in a great barber or hair stylist who can help you work with it and make you feel maximally handsome.”
Once you’ve invoked this stylist/barber, you can defer everything to them. “I look at you every day, I’m not a good judge. Let a professional at it!”
He’s 100% gonna say; “But they’ll just cut it off or tell me to cut it off!” to which you can truthfully say “Maybe so, but they won’t actually cut it off unless that’s your decision, too. Why not work with someone who knows what they are doing?”
To use the example from your letter, you are at peace with your body (mostly). But if you talked about being unhappy with it every day, it would be okay if someone close to you said “Hey, this is clearly making you unhappy, and I don’t feel right commenting on it, but I also want you to have every bit of support and help you deserve, so, who can we call?” Finding a fat-friendly doctor is much more of a crapshoot than finding a barber who can gently steer your husband into his post-ponytail life.
*About those “Bald Is Beautiful” images: One thing that got me to be more comfortable with my fat body was looking at beautiful images of fat people – from the Fatshionista LJ Community in Ye Olden Tymes to various fashion blogs. Our media culture is so saturated with fatphobia that this process was an important part of normalizing eye so I could see myself. If your husband were writing to me, I’d tell him to build a Jason Statham/Luke Cage Pinterest board post-haste. Since he isn’t the one writing, it would probably be overstepping if you did it for him. I’m putting this here in case it helps another baldy or future baldy. Retrain your eye!