Shiny happy people

Hair loss is a natural process and not the crisis many imagine.

Unlike almost all other mammals, humans have little discernible body hair - a distinction shared with, among others, rhinos, pigs and naked mole rats.

Once upon a time, we humans were as luxuriantly furred as our monkey cousins. But as that pelt gradually lost its relevance, our hair receded to just a few vestigial clumps around our bodies.

But that bald (sorry) history does nothing to explain the huge cultural and emotional significance many blokes place on losing their hair. Go online and you'll find dozens of forums and self-help groups populated by anguished men discussing hair loss.

These postings mostly fall into two predictable categories. The first is the ''Do you think I'm losing it?'' post, complete with pictures of thinning crowns and widow's peaks. Then there's the ''Does [insert remedy] work?'' message, generally followed by an in-depth discussion about the pros and cons of various remedies.

''It's just slow torture. I would not wish hair loss on my worst enemies; it's emotionally devastating,'' is a typical post from one forum member, ''Scar85''.

Male pattern baldness, or MPB in the jargon of the forums, affects about 35 per cent of men before the age of 30. That figure rises to about 66 per cent by the age of 60.

In other words, it's laughably common. Why then are some men so distressed at the thought of facing the world with a naked scalp? At the extreme end of the spectrum, suicide is not unknown.

Much of the blame can be laid at the feet of the hair-replacement industry, with its aggressive campaigns depicting thinning hair as a personal disaster. From Shane Warne wearing a T-shirt with the slogan ''No hair, no life'' to repeated messages that there can be no confidence without hair, it's in the industry's very profitable interests to stoke men's anxiety. In the US alone, hair-loss treatments are worth more than $US550 million ($520 million) a year.

Alongside these campaigns comes the creeping medicalisation of hair loss.


A 2002 British Medical Journal article labelled this so-called disease-mongering ''the transformation of the ordinary processes of life into medical phenomena''.

The article highlights a 1998 ''study'' promoted by pharmaceutical company Merck, which markets the hair-regrowth drug Propecia (finasteride). The widely reported study, funded by the drug company, found a quarter of men with hair loss felt less confident. It also announced the establishment of an International Hair Study Institute. Curiously, 13 years later, there is no evidence of the institute's output - or existence - online.

Regardless of the fate of that august research body, it is now accepted that those in the hair-loss community (yes, they do use that phrase) talk about ''suffering from'' baldness or ''getting'' MPB, so, for some men at least, hair loss has become a genuine medical problem to be treated.

But the anguish cannot be explained only by the machinations of the modern hair-loss industry. Men, it appears, have been trying for centuries to turn back their receding hairlines.

There is evidence that as long ago as 1550BC, the ancient Egyptians were trying ''cures'', including the application of a paste made from the leg of a greyhound cooked in oil with a donkey's hoof.

Hippocrates also had his own patent hair restorer, which contained beetroot, herbs, pigeon faeces, horseradish and opium, while Julius Caesar reputedly resorted to the classic ''comb over''.

A Sydney psychologist, Craig Forbes, says why some men appear to be more bothered by hair loss than others is a paradox, although he agrees that those with a strong sense of self-esteem are generally less likely to be affected.

And, he adds, it may not even be about going bald.

''I would be asking, 'What else is going on in your life?''' he says. ''The loss of hair may not be the real issue.''

Declaration: the author is as bald as a particularly hairless coot and couldn't care less.