Thursday, April 19, 2012

Making the Most of Nothing

From top left: Jason Merritt/Getty Images, Bruce Bennett/Getty Images, Brendan Mcdermid/Reuters, Isaac Brekken for the New York Times, Carlos Alvarez/Getty Images, Chris Keane/Reuters (Michael Jordan)
Clockwise from top left, the actor Jason Statham; the surfer Kelly Slater; Chris Daughtry; Andre Agassi; Pitbull; Michael Jordan.
ALTHOUGH I am married with no plans to be single, I recently signed up for several online dating sites as research for a book I am writing. The process was fun until I saw a question asking me to describe my hair. I didn’t want to check the “bald” box. I wanted to say I had a shaved head. But a “shaved head” wasn’t a choice. (What? No write-ins?) So I sighed and checked bald, no doubt setting off an instant downgrade of my profile.

I noticed that several women listed “bald” as a trait they hoped to avoid. A few even called it a “deal-breaker.” That I was merely lurking on these sites, not actually looking for a date, failed to ease the sting of prerejection. 

Yet their aversion came as no surprise. Like anyone, I have seen how the ravages of male pattern baldness can make even the most youthful and handsome men look old and clownish. But that’s only part of the problem. What is particularly insidious about hair loss is the toll it takes on a man’s ego during its slow but steady march, the years of mirror gazing and shower-drain inspecting as he helplessly monitors his hairline’s inexorable retreat. The options for dealing with it (comb-overs, hair plugs, toupees, topical hair-growing slime, or, most humiliating, the infomercial powder-in-a-can product that promises to fill in thin spots with the squeeze of a spray pump) only aggravate feelings of inadequacy. 

It’s as if he’s a fragile flower held together with duct tape and glue, deathly afraid of rain, wind or a flirtatious hair-mussing from a colleague. It’s no way to live. 

Luckily, I hit my hair-loss turning point at a time when there is, if not a solution to baldness, then a cooler alternative: head shaving. Not that the Mr. Clean look hasn’t been the choice for some: soldiers, competitive swimmers, ascetics like those in the Hare Krishna movement. But if you weren’t the sort of person who spent his days wearing a saffron robe, a Speedo or a sidearm, chances are you didn’t shave your head either. 

Jose Luis Pelaez, Inc./Getty Images
In this millennium, however, it’s a whole new bald game. Head shaving has gone prime time. And not a moment too soon for guys like me, who would never have had the guts to take such a drastic measure if so many men hadn’t acted so bravely to make an odd look so mysteriously hip. Macho types are inspired by the likes of Jason Statham and Vin Diesel; music fans have Pitbull, Chris Daughtry and Michael Stipe; intellectuals can look to Chuck Close and Sir Ben Kingsley; and aspiring athletes can air-slap high-fives with Andre Agassi, Michael Jordan, Kelly Slater and countless others. 

Thanks to such pioneering royalty, commoners no longer have to deal with creeping baldness as farmers do with droughts, desperately nurturing, praying, begging and paying to get something (anything) to grow atop our infertile plains. Instead we’ve been liberated to rise up, stand tall and torch our fields with a pre-emptive razor strike (and to emerge from the flames like Samuel L. Jackson or Dwayne Johnson a k a the Rock, arms rippling and grizzled domes beaded with sweat). 

Psychologically, too, the appeal is obvious. Shaving your balding head is like breaking up with someone before he or she can break up with you. Or like marching into your boss’s office and saying: “You can’t fire me. I quit.” 

After all, nothing screams “gradual decline” like thinning or retreating hair. It’s a constant voice of anxiety whining, “It’s only going to get worse!” But with a shaved head, it can’t get any worse. There’s no voice of anxiety. You’ve already gone ahead and chosen the nuclear option. 

We men already are facing way too many gradual declines without adding baldness to the mix. Compared with the women in our lives, we’re fading in nearly every category: educational achievement, income growth and general necessity. For years we’ve no longer been needed (at least not in person) even to make a baby. And along comes this “mancession” to inflame our sense of passive victimhood even further. Can we really afford to acquiesce in the face of yet another slow deterioration by standing idly by as our last clumps of active hair follicles decide when they would like to close up shop? 

Here’s what to do. Grab a razor and shaving cream, and step into the shower. (Depending on how long and thick your horseshoe of hair is, you may want to hack it first with a beard trimmer.) Lather up and commence shaving. Keep going until your entire scalp is uniformly (and freakishly) smooth. Be careful not to nick your ears or shave off your eyebrows. 

Now you have entered the Mr. Potato Head phase: You have a clean palette (or pate) on which to create your new look. Time to accessorize. After all, you don’t want your head looking as if it’s nothing more than a doughy thumblike appendage protruding from your collar. You need to give your potato definition. 

Depending on your body type and profession, you have several options. There is the architect look, which typically would include flamboyant designer glasses and some sort of facial hair, like a stubble goatee or perhaps a Howie Mandel soul patch (not recommended). Rockers and artists can be creative with ear hoops, piercings, tattoos and maybe some zany sideburn carvings. Athletes and tough guys will probably want to forgo glasses, jewelry and facial-hair features for a whole-body approach that involves working out 24/7 until their bodies and heads coalesce into a kind of flawless, sexy ├╝ber muscle upon which hair would look unnatural. At that point, they may want to accessorize with a tight T-shirt and wraparound sunglasses.
The pluses of head shaving, now that it’s in vogue, are almost too many to count: No chance of going gray, no wet hair after a shower or swim, no haircut bill, no bed head, no risk of infestation with hair lice from your third grader. 

The minuses are almost nonexistent, though you will need to be careful when wearing a cycling helmet to avoid inflicting upon yourself a bizarre (if geometrically pleasing) sunburn. Another minus is a direct result of head shaving’s soaring popularity: It’s to the point where many spouses, partners and children of head shavers may find it hard to find their loved ones in urban coffee shops or at jazz clubs, where head shavers tend to congregate in large numbers. 

Yet even that scary scenario can have its sweet upside. Last summer while attending a James Taylor outdoor concert (the kind of event where, as you may imagine, you can hardly spit without hitting multiple shaved heads), I was startled when a girl, 3 or 4 years old, toddled up and grabbed my leg, seeking comfort in the crowd. And she didn’t look up or let go until another man — a bespectacled, goateed, shaved-head father just like me — called out to her and rushed over. He and I exchanged a smile of recognition as I handed her back. Poor little thing. She had become so lost in a sea of lovable shaved heads that she couldn’t figure out which one she loved most. 

We’ve come a long way, baldies. 


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