Thursday, 25 July 2013

From despair to hair: the hidden link between emotional harm and home beauty remedies

First published in the Huffington Post on 25th July 2013. This piece was removed from the Huffington Post in 2014 following a terrifying legal threat. The threat is marked 'not for publication' but any known contact who wants to see it can email me.

One night when I was brushing my teeth, I glanced into the mirror and saw that my hair was thinning. It had always been sparse but now I could see my scalp straight through from my hairline to my crown. It was curved and it glowed palely like a newly discovered moon under the probing beam of a Nasa satellite.

That was in May 2012. I knew what had caused the thinning: the distress from some events I survived in 2009, which I wrote about in an article so harrowing that it carries a trigger warning. This latest manifestation was no surprise. In the last few years, I'd undergone the visceral metamorphosis that is the result of emotional violence. I marvel at the eloquence of the human body in its ability to express mental anguish: the nausea, the burning and freezing reactions of panic and dread, the loudly buzzing confusion, the skin-crawling high alert, the pounding heart, rank disgust and trembling fear, the hives and stress acne, the loss of physical strength, the humiliation poisoning the blood and filling the guts. Those reactions have subsided but can still be triggered.

I lost my looks permanently and to my mirth have discovered that it makes no difference at all. I had always looked ten years younger than I was, but now I am called Madam everywhere I go. I don't mind. It's liberating to be forced to let go of my self-objectification, to have to disregard it completely. The only things that matter to me now are my actions, my words and my work. The work has itself moved towards outreach, human rights and social justice. That is typical: the wounded seek to heal.

However, the change has been drastic.

My eye bags make me look as though I haven't slept in years but merely stared at the wall, tormented by a living nightmare of succubi, vampires and Goya-style demons. Each eye bag comes with its own puffy underbag, with a crescent of shadow underneath. They're stacked on my face like those three-for-one cheap luggage deals where you get a handbag, a carry-on case and a roomy weekender all together.

There are deep lines between my nose and the corners of my mouth. I felt a tremor of foreboding when a colleague remarked, "It's not the lines you should worry about. It's when they all start joining up."

And my arse. It used to be a heavily muscled, upwardly mobile entity, full of personality. Now it just hangs there, two inches lower than where it was before, slack, inert, dimpled and unresponsive, a little bit cooler in temperature than the rest of my body.

But these changes would have happened anyway, sooner or later. The thing that makes me sad is the despair and fear I see in my own eyes and body language. Sometimes I think I look exactly like what I am: a 35 year old woman who did not survive an abuser's actions. The thought of being found sexually attractive fills me with total horror and the sheer terror that I might be set up to be knocked down again. I have been joyfully celibate nearly all my life and it pains me that this joy is now tainted with fear and is no longer a positive leap but a reaction to harm.

And then came the baldness.

It's not as though chunks of hair were falling out in the shower and I'm not sure the thinning was noticeable to other people. I couldn't get a negative word out of my friends so I asked my mother, who I trust to be both loving and truthful. She agreed with me. No matter how I ruffled my hair, the scalp showed through.

I consulted the Internet, everyone's favourite quack doctor. I don't like being too Netty but I found myself trawling YouTube for hair growth tips, lurking on web sites like The Long Hair Community and reading the haircare product reviews at Makeup Alley. I tried every witches' potion, shamanic brew, positive affirmation, natural remedy, upside down yoga pose and crackpot theory. High dosage biotin supplements gave me headaches. I didn't want to put chemicals from complex and expensive 'hair loss systems' like Rogaine or Nioxin onto my head or commit to using them for the rest of my life. Iron supplements and good multivitamins for skin, hair and nails - like Florisene, Viviscal or Perfectil - seemed to help. And there were two things that made a noticeable difference:

1. Mane N Tail Shampoo. It was developed for horses, hence the name. Indeed, it's got a picture of two horses on the front, manes flowing. But horsey people were such equine-fetishising freaks that they started using the shampoo on themselves in some pathological nutjob act of My Little Pony psychological transference. Turns out Mane N Tail gives your strands a thorough clean (don't use it every day or it'll strip your hair back to hay, that other thing horses love) and makes it grow like a weed.

2. Castor oil. It's thick. It's sticky. It's yellow. It clings to the inside of the bottle when you tilt it. It gives me cystic acne when it gets into contact with my face. But it makes your hair grow, especially when combined with rosemary oil and lavender oil, applied thickly to the scalp and left for a full day or overnight before being washed out.

I'm sure that part of the recovery was simply recognising the problem and its cause. Maybe the whole oil and horse business is an effective, if weird, placebo. This is not about having a makeover or coming back bigger and better, triumphantly rebranded, successful, famous, exultant; it's about fighting for survival, nothing more. My hair's back to how it was: pretty thin but not totally transparent. I'm growing it a bit, to help it thicken out and also because I feel the person I used to be is dead and her appearance, career, many of her friends and hobbies, her body clock, mannerisms and previous world all died with her. Even the name, 'Bidisha', looks like it belongs to someone else. A single name is for a rock star, a Messiah, a legend, a god, a warrior, a force, an entity. I am not those things, obviously.

The world itself has changed during the five years - all of my thirties so far - that I was out for the count. Journalism is no longer a paid occupation or a liveable career. I (and countless colleagues) am too old to hustle or just hang out. We'll have to manoeuvre hard to keep a place at the table and not be pushed to the margins and dropped off the edge. My own solution is to go beyond the UK and work globally. Other peers have specialised, downshifted, gone mainstream, started their own businesses, gone corporate, changed disciplines or strengthened their academic standing.

Having been stripped down to the bare pieces - a mind, a keyboard - it's brutally exhilarating to face the stark state of play and start again with nothing but sobriety and circumspection. Just as all the good in me was destroyed, so was all the bad, and I look at my own flaws with a pitiless eye. It is no longer possible to get by on mere style and wit, or speed and reflex, without substance. It's revolting to behave like some dilettante when you are 35. My levity, vivacity and expectancy are gone, but so are the shallowness, pretention and flippancy which I cringe to remember. I will never judge another woman for as long as I live and will never arrogantly claim to have good instincts or be a shrewd judge of character. I do not bother looking in the mirror.

As I apply the reeking muck to my head I sometimes ask myself, Is this what must happen: in order to continue, I must die? Transform completely, or be destroyed?

The answer is yes. Just as we are elevated and transfigured by others' love, we are debased and mutilated by their hate. But that is not the end. I won't let this demise, this defeat, be the defining story of my life. It's merely a new beginning, one which starts with reaction, adaptation and change. Some call it evolution. I call it (hair) growth.

Further reading (trigger warning):