- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 25, 2006

Everyone in the dressing room is obsessing about hair. Curlers are flying, and irons are burning. Hairspray drifts through the air, and bobby pins are in high demand.

It’s opening night for the high school musical, “Anything Goes.” My daughters are among the cast members spraying and teasing their long locks, attempting to re-create 1930s pin-curl bobs from their modern-day layered haircuts.

I’m backstage to assist in painting and primping the actors, though nobody seems to need me. I stand in the corner with a comb and take in the nonstop teenage chatter.

“Your hair is like, so curly,” one girl squeals to her friend.

“No, yours is so curly,” is the response.

The girls are amazed at the change in their appearance, but then, this is a generation of girls who don’t curl their hair. They straighten it. This explains the “oohs” and “ahs” and “oh-my-gosh-you-look-so-cute” comments as each one pulls the rollers out of her hair.

Then I spot Caitlin, a senior who sings and dances in the chorus.

Caitlin’s head is bent low over a makeup mirror. She applies eye shadow in a luscious jewel green. Her cheeks are appropriately pink, her lips full and red.

Just now she’s filling in the line where a portion of her left eyebrow used to be.

She can afford to spend extra time on her makeup because styling her hair is only a matter of donning a brunette wig, something she’ll do tonight as part of her costume.

Caitlin has alopecia areata, an autoimmune disease that affects 5 million Americans, causing hair loss. It can result in baldness or, in severe cases, cause a body to shed all its hair from lashes to legs.

Not long ago, Caitlin’s wig was more than just an accessory; it was her lifeline to a world that resembled normalcy. Struck with her disease six years ago, Caitlin hid her baldness, fearing it would make her a freak among her middle school classmates. Wearing a wig wasn’t a choice. It was a given.

As she grew, Caitlin became adept at hiding her condition, even mastering the quick fix when her hairpiece slipped during a high school soccer game or while messing around with her pals. Only her closest friends knew the truth — that underneath what appeared to be thick, bouncy hair, Caitlin didn’t have a strand left on her head.

Nearly a year ago, Caitlin’s life changed — as if simply having alopecia wasn’t enough to jar any high school girl — but this time, the change empowered her.

Caitlin attended a conference for people who suffer from alopecia. There, among hundreds of women and girls who confidently permitted the world to see their baldness, Caitlin took off her wig.

“It was really liberating,” she says. “I finally got to be myself.”

Just before school started last fall, Caitlin wrote a letter to all the high school parents and students to explain her condition and to say she would be attending school without a wig. She wanted everyone to know that her baldness was caused by a disease and they shouldn’t worry or wonder about her.

Then, when school began, Caitlin was the featured speaker at the opening day assembly. She stood up in front of more than 500 of her peers and told her story — her true story — relating a journey of courage and faith that brought her schoolmates to their feet in a long and tearful applause.

In October, Caitlin was crowned homecoming queen with a lovely jeweled tiara crowning her lovely, hairless head.

She says her senior year is astonishing, amazing, surreal. She never knew it would be so easy — or feel so good — to simply be herself. She never dreamed her fellow students would react with such strong support.

Yet I can’t help but wonder if Caitlin is hurting as I listen to the incessant talk about hair among the girls in the dressing room.

“Not at all,” Caitlin says. “I don’t even notice it. I guess I’m just so comfortable with it now that all the talk about hair doesn’t bother me.”

It’s not that Caitlin is stoically resigned to the impact of alopecia; rather, she has learned to accept it and to accept herself in the process. By putting aside her wig, and the fear and shame it reflected, Caitlin is conquering a condition any girl would consider an unthinkable burden.

But Caitlin knows better.

What’s really a burden is trying to hide who you really are from a world that loves you anyway.

Columnist Marybeth Hicks, a wife of 18 years and mother of four children, lives in the Midwest. She uses her column to share her perspective on issues and experiences that shape families nationwide. Visit her Web site (www.mary bethhicks.com) or send e-mail to marybeth.hicks@comcast.net.

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