When I washed my hair in spring 2011, it came out in fistfuls. At first, I was in denial. School was stressful, I thought; my hair would grow back when the semester ended. But months passed. I noticed other girls’ hair in the bathroom mirror, how their scalps didn’t show through it like a gleaming moon.
Most women don’t begin to bald until 40; I was only a high school junior. My friends had other, more age-appropriate worries, and when I told them about my problem, they accused me of exaggerating. I figured my doctor would dismiss my dissatisfaction as purely cosmetic, so I never mentioned it to him. Instead, an over-the-counter solution presented itself — Rogaine. I first learned about it from a line in an Ingrid Michaelson song, “The Way I Am”: “I’d buy you Rogaine/when you start losing all your hair,/sew on patches/to all you tear.” It sounded like a miracle drug, so I hung around the aisle where it was kept under lock and key at my local drugstore. Its blue-and-purple box shimmered with hope.
Hair loss was a blow to my self-image, which I had built around my eastern Tennessee town’s beauty standards: long locks teased into a “Southern bump.” The fact that my hair was too thin to even attempt the bump made me feel inferior. In response, I developed another identity, emulating the bright teenage girls who haunted the Haruki Murakami novels I loved — think May Kasahara writing philosophical letters to Mr. Wind-Up Bird. I wanted badly to be a writer but grew up in a small suburb in the Tennessee hills, where literary pursuits were ridiculed and childish rumors helped police teenage girls’ sexuality. In response, I cultivated an air of precocious sophistication, emailing college-age friends to ask what they were reading, then parroting their ideas about postmodernism and free will to bewildered high school peers.
I was restless and wanted to know what else the world had to offer, so I enrolled in a six-week writing course at a university that summer. The professor was a man with a distinguished balding pate who I imagined would spot my potential and usher me into the world of poetry readings and magazine offices. After class, as other students filed out with their assignments and Xeroxed short stories, I approached his desk and tried to show him pages of the novel I was working on. By the second week of the program, determined to outshine my peers, I was meeting him at the park and in empty classrooms, where we talked and kissed. Once, we shared a lunch that his wife had packed him.
In hindsight, what I believed was mentorship was actually sexual misconduct. I could sense it at the time, but I was more concerned about clawing back the agency my hair loss had taken away. As soon as I got the gumption to use my youthful privileges — however illusory — they were stripped from me. Of course, there were right and wrong ways to be precocious: a young writer mature enough to handle a relationship with an older man? Yes. Sporting the pencil-thin ponytail of a middle-aged woman? No.
So I tried to salvage my youth with Rogaine, applying the stinging foam to my scalp — in secret, of course, because the ordeal embarrassed me. The biggest challenge was applying the foam every day. Minoxidil, Rogaine’s active ingredient, was originally administered as an oral medication for hypertension in the 1970s. Doctors noticed their patients growing hairier on the drug, and in the ’80s a topical version was released under the now-ubiquitous moniker, first for men, then for women. It takes at least four months to see results, and if your scalp stops receiving minoxidil, you’ll lose your new hair. Aside from that, the price and the pink tax (minoxidil products for women are marked up 40 percent from men’s) are discouraging, as are the strange possible side effects: heart palpitations, weight gain, swollen feet. I entered a lifelong pact with a drug known for its fickleness.
With Rogaine, as with other pursuits — education, self-realization, love — patience is key. You can’t cheat time. I’m a 20-something with thin, but not thinning, hair, and Rogaine is still part of my life. To this day, I find the repetition and uncertainty burdensome. I’m still hard-wired to expect a reward for every effort. I want before-and-after photos, not the tedious consistency required to create them, nor the dread of realizing I’ve missed a dose or forgotten to pack my two-ounce canister on a trip. But things improve with persistence. When I make a point to put hair care at the top of my daily to-dos, a tuft of baby hair the length of freshly mowed grass sprouts from my left temple. At odds with my hairline, it protrudes like a soft tusk. It isn’t beautiful, but I feel relief when I brush it.
Even now, it feels funny to say I use Rogaine. It’s like pulling back a curtain to reveal the scaffolding that keeps me looking my age. Over time, the youth I set out to salvage ebbed away on its own. So did the version of me who aspired to conceptions of desirability that our culture insists women must embody. I realize now that the power I held that summer had less to do with youth itself than with the energy, the open-mindedness and the resilience that came with it.
Jenny Wu is a writer and independent curator. Her work has appeared in Artforum, BOMB, The Brooklyn Rail and other venues.