Airdronian Kristen Vaccher was 13 years old when she noticed that her hair was falling out in clumps. When her father took her to the doctor, the visit brought little comfort and 20 years on, Vaccher says she only recently came out of the ‘alopecia closet’.
Vaccher said she had been contemplating sharing her story more widely for weeks, but the recent scandal over what happened at the Oscars and the recent suicide of an American teenager, Rio Allred whose family said took her own life after being bullied at school for having alopecia, prompted her to want to do more.
“I need to get my story out there. I need to get into schools and have conversations, show my bald head to the world,” she said. “I didn't mean for it to be right after the Oscars incident, but that's how it happened.”
When Vaccher initially saw the doctors about her hair loss, she was told that she could lose 30 to 50 per cent of the hair on her head.
“I had actually ended up cutting off my hair. [It went] down to the middle of my back and when it was falling out, it was matting, so I actually ended up cutting it to shoulder length so that I could easily brush through and not lose any more hair.”
By the time she entered high school, she was wearing a bandana on her head. Vaccher said she would need to get special permission to wear the bandana as her school had recently banned them from being worn. Regardless peers spread rumours about her having cancer.
“[The emotional toll], it was absolutely indescribable. It was like, ‘Oh, my God, I'm losing my hair. I'm losing a piece of me.’ And I think that's what a lot of people don't understand about hair loss,” Vaccher said. “They're like, ‘well, it's not fatal, or it's just hair.’ But would you shave your head tomorrow?”
That emotional toll would last decades and Vaccher hid her condition under a wig for 18 years, losing friends along the way.
“I took those feelings and push them so far down in me for about 19 years and I am unpacking them now and it is excruciating. It's taken a while to get to the place where I am,” she said. “At the end of 2020; [that] was a huge realization for me and I was sick of hiding under this wig and not showing up as my authentic self.”
Vaccher also underlined that alopecia doesn’t just affect head hair, it can mean hair loss everywhere on one’s body.
“At first it started as [alopecia] areata, which is patches on your head that are bald, and then it progressed into a fully bald head which is totalis and then I ended up getting universalis,” she said. “[I had] no eyelashes, no nose hair, which, when you don't have these things, you realize how much gets in your eye and how much gets in your nose.”
She has grown some of her hair back, but that on its own is incredibly emotionally taxing.
"I have about probably 90 percent baldness on my head. I choose to shave the rest because I wear a freedom wig; it's a suction wig that you have on your head so that it doesn't fall off. That was prompted after a little kid pulled my toque and wig off in front of a group of friends that I didn't tell that I was bald."
Vaccher said wearing a wig or going bald should be a choice she should be able to make without being ridiculed or mocked or having to explain herself.
“When we're grouped into [having cancer], and people think that we're sick, it's really a quite the emotional toll because you're trying to be out there, very confident;” Vaccher said. “It takes a lot to leave house bald. I tried to do it last year and I did it last year, but you're on edge the whole time. and then one comment, one comment and just break everything.”
This is why Vaccher thinks the incident at the Oscars was so pivotal, it highlights a lack of awareness on the part of the public about how deep the pain can be for a person struggling with alopecia.
“That is why I'm so passionate about getting my story out there so that I can, you know, even just help one person,” she said. “I decided one day that I'm just going to get my bald head out on social media.”
Vaccher started attending meetings of what she calls ‘baldies’ like herself, and from there it grew. Today she has an Alopecia Instagram (@alo.peaches), as well as creating and co-hosting an Alopecia Podcast (@thosebaldchicks). Vaccher has also written magazine articles and has been a guest on other podcasts, while also mentoring bald/balding children.
She said that if she can impart just one piece of advice to the public, it’s to be a little kinder and a little less intrusive.
“Just approach the situation with kindness. This world means more kindness and understanding versus immediate laughing and mockery of it all. I want to normalize this look [that] I can go out of my house, bald,” she said. “They [those who have alopecia] are different, but they don't have to feel like it's wrong like they need to hide or that they can't show up as who they are without hair.”
According to the National Alopecia Areata Foundation, 147 million people worldwide have or will develop alopecia areata at some point in their lives.
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