For internal communications officer Laura Mathias (29), the pandemic lockdown has actually been a mind-opening experience. It allowed her to revisit feelings towards her baldness – caused by alopecia – and motivated her to leave the house without a wig for the very first time. With the support of a welcoming Instagram community, Laura has single-handedly changed her own life.
To start at the beginning: how did your alopecia journey start?
Laura Mathias: “I started losing my hair when I was thirteen and was diagnosed with alopecia around the age of fourteen. I’d gone to the doctor’s a lot as a child because of my eczema, which is an autoimmune disease like alopecia. But alopecia was something I’d never heard of and my mum didn’t seem to know anything about it either. That made me scared, especially as the doctor couldn’t offer a medical solution. He just told me to try and stay calm and it would probably grow back.”
To what extent did your diagnosis change your life?
“Looking back now, I can admit that I basically stopped leaving the house. I was so embarrassed as my hair loss progressed, that I stopped going to school, wouldn’t meet my friends etc. I completely withdrew and just gave up. I do remember I would spend my time at home doing a lot of exercise and controlling of my eating – I lost a lot of weight. I think, on some level, because I had no control over the hair loss, I was desperate to control the other things about me I didn’t ‘like’.”
And then, out of the blue, the lockdown of 2020 changed your life?
“Lockdown broke the routine of having to put a wig on every day. I used to get such bad eczema on my scalp, from the wig-wearing, but I never questioned it. ‘I’m bald, so I wear a wig.’ That was the only solution I ever considered, it was certainly the only solution ever offered to me.
As for many people, lockdown offered me time for self-reflection and prioritizing. It was in lockdown that I discovered amazing people on Instagram sharing their experience of hair loss. It was like finding a whole community. Becoming part of this hair loss community was a game changer for me and my confidence.”
How did you stumble upon that community?
“I posted a picture in which I tagged a wig brand. I started following the brand, and saw the people commenting on their posts. I was brave enough to send a private message to some of those people. A couple of months later, I changed my account name to @relightalopecia, so my account was searchable as well. The Instagram community opened my eyes. @farahmlondon was one of the first people I saw who really used her alopecia to be creative.
I’m drawn to anyone who shares their insecurities, because I think they are doing something good and I need to see that in this social and supportive social media bubble. The truth is, I don’t see it anywhere else. In real life, magazines, billboards, apart from some tokenistic diversity here and there in a brand, I do not feel represented as a bald woman. I can’t believe it’s 2021 and brands have still not realised that representation of all people matters. “
When did you decide that you wanted to play an active role in the alopecia awareness community?
“I didn’t wake up one morning thinking: ‘I’m going to be an alopecia champion. My first bald selfie wasn’t until June 2020. So, while it wasn’t a conscious decision at first, after seeing all these beautiful women using their difference to be creative got me thinking. I was starting to be a bit more candid with the change in my own mindset, which kind of spurred me into sharing more.
When I saw the positive reaction to that first bald selfie, I was overwhelmed. All I had done was share a picture?! It took me another month to leave the house with no head cover whatsoever and that was for a specific photoshoot, so I had a purpose.
I do still feel that there is a big difference between the social media bubble and simply leaving my house without hair. It was an effort to take that first step outside without a wig, even in a bandana, and it definitely helped chronicling it on social media. On Instagram I wrote something like: ‘Today, I’m going to go out without my wig’. I thought: ‘If I say it, I can’t chicken out of it’. Setting these mini-challenges helps me make and mark my progress. If me sharing these milestones is also helping other people, then that’s amazing.
I love the headwear that Rosette La Vedette makes. It’s comfy and perfect to wear outside. It’s something I don’t question anymore, even though a couple of months ago I wouldn’t even do the bins without a wig on.”
Did you surprise yourself with how fast your mindset has changed?
“I do fear that I will fall back into old patterns when the pandemic eases. My goal has never been to be someone who ditches the wigs forever. It’s just about not being petrified to leave my front door without my hair. I want to get to a point where wearing wigs or wearing headwear or being bald is just a choice I make day to day. I can do things now that I never even considered before because of my wig. It never dawned on me: ‘Just take the wig off’ (giggles). It sounds easy, but it’s not always an upwards trajectory.”
You’re now an ambassador for Models of Diversity. How did that come about?
“I came across the charity on Instagram too and saw the things they were campaigning for: diversity in fashion and media. I felt that I needed to get alopecia on the agenda. I contacted the CEO and we had a phone call. They said that they needed people to be passionate about wanting to change the fashion and media industry, not just for people with hair loss, but for every person.
It felt like a cause I could really get behind. My Instagram is only a tiny platform. Now I feel like I’m part of something bigger. Models of Diversity is a relatively young charity and it feels quite hands-on-deck. We’ve got a Whatsapp group with all the ambassadors in, about ten of us. We share ideas, our personal stories and generally support each other to shout about the cause.”
Although you find yourself in a closely-knit virtual alopecia community now, it is a community which remains mostly invisible to the outside world.
“It’s easy to forget that when you’re in the safe social media bubble. If I walk out in the street now, with my bald head, I still have people look at me. Until that changes, there’s work to be done. It’s not familiar enough to society and yet hair loss is so common. It’s awful that the feeling of shame is so closely associated with talking about, or showing, hair loss because it’s something you can’t control. It doesn’t help that people often assume that if you don’t have hair you are ill. So, you have to get to a point where you can just say: ‘I’m going to do what makes me feel good’.
I do sometimes feel that people are more accepting on social media than they are in real life, although you might assume it to be the other way around. The community I’ve created is a supportive space, because people follow me for a reason. I hope that doing these things on Instagram will help me deal with my alopecia better in real life. I would like it if, when someone asks me whether I wear a wig, I could just say ‘Yeah, I do. I have alopecia, have you heard about it?’ Without being absolutely mortified as I often have been in the past.”
What do you do to lift your spirits when you’re having an off day?
“The funny thing is I actually put my phone down and connect with friends in ‘real life’. Having a break from my phone in general and just getting outside always makes me feel better. Anything that takes the focus off myself and off how I look, because I’ve always been quite self-conscious – being a bit chubby, having no hair and having eczema. Doing something that gets me in the flow, like playing with the toddler of a friend of mine. Social media is good, but it has to be treated carefully because it can go the other way. If I post something that feels like a milestone for me, of course the positive reactions make me feel good, but it’s as important for me to keep my friends involved in these milestones.”
What would your advice to your younger self be?
“Don’t worry about what people are saying about your hair loss, because people will either act like it’s the end of the world to lose your hair, or they’ll say something condescending like ‘it’s just hair’. It can seem like there’s no middle ground for you to just feel the feelings of loss.
Find people to talk with by all means, but make sure they respect that you have to come to deal with it at your own pace. It’s taken me sixteen years to get where I am today. I do think things would be easier for any young person with hair loss if our limited societal view of beauty can catch up with reality. It is beauty standards that made me develop a phobia of leaving my house bald. I never questioned why I should wear a wig, and no one helped me question why. Now they are.”
It seems like, post lockdown, you will experience a lot of things for the first time again.
“I’m curious whether, if life ever gets back to normal, I will mix it up in the office every other day or maybe once a week. How will I bring what I’ve learned in lockdown back into a routine again? I hate saying ‘at the end of the day it’s just hair’, because it’s so much more than that. It’s how I feel about myself and how I feel that society views me. But it would be awesome to give a little less of a crap about my hair or lack of it, to be honest” (laughs).
Follow Laura on Instagram @relightalopecia