Gentleman Scholar

A Gentleman’s Guide to Going Bald

Attending to a thinning mane with grace.

Please send your questions for publication to Questions may be edited.

I am a man in my early 30s and am balding at an alarming rate. The hairstyle I have used over the years is starting to look rather silly, as it may appear to others that I am attempting a “comb-over.” I have several other friends who are also balding: One has elected to trim his hair to a few millimeters ever few days, while others sport a basic bald guy cut (short and tidy hair on the sides and back but little up top). I get my hair cut at a nice salon since the women there understand hair and know how to finesse the balding influence through styling—but even their magic is beginning to fail, and I am becoming self-conscious. Hair plugs are not in the budget right now and, in any case, seem like a sellout option. My question is this: How does the modern gentleman deal with balding?

Troy Patterson.
Troy Patterson.

Photo by Christina Paige

Thank you for your question.

A shining scalp is the presence of a personal absence—thus, a prominent embarrassment. In the human comedy of the body, hair is of course its own drama. Look at the talent in this casting call: Rapunzel and Bernice and Samson and Simpson and Yul Brynner casually sonorous about donning a bald crown for The King and I and then, voluntarily, forever after. “In a funny way, the shaving of my head has been a liberation,” he said. ”It has simplified everything for me.”

In the beginning of life, there was you and your lanugo. Then your mum and dad pluck you up, and you sense the adult musk of their follicles and the tickle of their butterfly kisses. Then you are a toddler conditioning your parents to expect traumatic tears streaking your shampoos. And a child trying chess in the barbershop while you wait to bristle in your chair. And then you squirm into pubescence, a term etymologically related to the Latin word for the bone beneath your pubes, which you have, both pubes and a bone. And for a while in your self-education, every haircut promised to unlock new depths of your identity. Baldness, then, is the conspicuous absence of a heavy symbolic presence—thus its special pathos. What is not there is plain to see, when you’re in your early 30s grieving the death of your hair.

The first stage of grief is denial, which expresses itself one random morning when you’re in a hot shower not thinking too hard about why the drain is so clogged that your feet are pruned.

Next comes anger, so consider varying your exercise regimen to include a boxing class. Then bargaining—bargaining so intense that it drives you back to core principles, and you pray for a replay of Pascal’s Wager: “Please, God, spare my hair. Let me go grey instead!” you say, maybe, believing grey hair to be high eminence and baldness all but doddering. Then comes depression, which may make you pull you hair out, if still have hair enough to get a grip on.

Acceptance is deliverance. Only once you have made peace with the diminishment of your virility will you be able to make a sane decision about your tonsorial future.

Achieve this level of enlightenment quickly enough, and you might—might!—rescue some hair that your DNA had destined to be Drano’d away. (If you detect male pattern baldness early, then you are more likely to be able to slow or halt its disappearance by spending thousands and thousands of dollars of your hard-earned money on ointments that may make your head smell like industrial carpet cleaner.)

Toupées? They may only be worn by actors, talk-show hosts, and awful politicians. Comb-overs? Very few attempts at fractionally disguising a bald pate are successful; you go to barber shop to see a barber, to a hair salon to see a stylist, and to the vaudeville theater to see an illusionist. Hats? You have to take these off unless you stay outdoors all the time, which, if you’re homeless and unemployed and bald, is an upside.

Yeah, my friend, you need to put yourself in the care of an oldish baldish barber. Share your grief as if he were a priest wearing a monastic crown—or a doctor topped by a Hippocratic wreath. Discuss your limitations and your opportunities and your limited options. Wait to act until the prospect of a buzz cut doesn’t even faze you, because that’s what it might take to make you look your best, or even halfway decent. While you are in the chair, read Kerry Segrave’s Baldness: A Social History, which traces anti-bald balderdash to ancient Rome.

Roman biographer Suetonius reported in his Lives of the Caesars that “Caesar’s baldness was a disfigurement that troubled him greatly.” … While Caesar worried about his powers receding with his hairline, a contradictory image was also being fostered—that of baldies being more sexually virile than the hairy. When Julius Caesar entered Rome in triumph, it was the polite custom to carol. “Romans, guard your wives: The bald adulterer comes!”  

In parting, dear reader, I thank for your patience in awaiting this reply. I received this email an equinox ago, when it was not yet spring, but I was inspired to scratch my head at it only last Saturday, after turning the pages of the New York Times to graze the obituary of 80-year-old Guinter Kahn, the physician whose name graces “the first patent ever granted for a baldness remedy, minoxidil, which is sold under the brand name Rogaine.” The obit includes an ironic detail that, like Kahn’s scalp in an accompanying photo portrait, simply gleams: “He was allergic to his own discovery.”