Will Self: Who is the baldest of them all?

As we approach our middling years, we tip the other way on the fulcrum of delusion.

Will Self

Sitting in the chair at Smile, the fashionable King’s Road salon where I have had my hair sculpted by Keith Wainwright for the past six or seven years, I looked for too long into the abyss of the mirror in front of me, which – given that it was positioned in front of the mirror on the opposite side of the room – afforded me an unpleasant vision of infinite Wills, both rear and full-face. I looked at the scrawny neck, the Gautama ears and the praying mantis posture – but these I could cope with, I knew they were present, if unacknowledged aspects of my physicality. I even stared upon the juxtaposition between me and Keith with a certain equanimity: he is on the small side, I am freakishly large; so to look at him skipping about my semi-recumbent bulk, snipping away a hair here and a hair there, was akin to observing those birds that pick at the teeth of crocodiles.

Keith is a celebrated hairdresser – in a career stretching back to the 1960s he’s sheared ‘em all, including David Bowie at the spiky peak of his success. I delivered myself into his expert hands because I had at last, with almost preternatural stoicism, faced up to the fact that my hair was thinning at the temples. My old number four down the barber’s wasn’t hiding this enough – but Keith’s genius allowed him to seamlessly elide “balding” with “short hair”. He also said reassuring things to me (or at least I thought he did), of the form: “There’s no need to worry, you may recede at the sides, but you’ll be dead before it goes on top . . .”

Man in the mirror

And yet there it was, in the mirror, and all the infinity of other mirrors, right on the very apex of my skull, like some sinister new fontanel, opening to herald my birth-into-death, a patch of bare scalp at least two inches across! I spluttered – Keith left off his deftness: “What is it?” he asked. I pointed to the mirror, “Look,” I said, “look at that, I’m losing it – and you said I wouldn’t!” Not so much a note as a full orchestra of infantile petulance had infiltrated my tone, and Keith, responding to this, grasped me by the shoulder and looked me full in the face: “I never said that,” he said forcefully, “I simply said that it would be a long while – if ever – before the sides and top met up. And anyway . . .” I may’ve been mistaken, but I think his grip on my shoulder tightened as his eyes narrowed and tone hardened, “ . . . what did you expect?”

I’ve treasured that remark ever since. What did I expect? I was 50 – my father’s pate was naked by my age, both my brothers had lost the bulk of their covering by their 30s, who was I to hang on, idiosyncratically, to some Rapunzel-like escape ladder of hair? But Keith’s “What did you expect?” has continued to shake the wobbly edifice of my denial ever since. George Orwell said, “By the age of 50 every man has the face they deserve”; and recently Martin Amis has pointed out that the mirror always lies, because once you hit 50 you deduct ten years from yourself and superimpose the younger you. Putting Orwell and Amis together seemed to indicate that everyone believes they deserve to be ten years younger.

Lamb to the slaughter

Certainly, walking the streets of any British city you could be forgiven for thinking this. On our way to school the other morning my youngest said conversationally, “There’s a lot of mutton about nowadays,” and when, thinking he was referring to young sheep, I began to explain the expression “mutton dressed as lamb”, he said that this was exactly the sense in which he meant it. Ten is a little young to be making these distinctions, but the more curious phenomenon is how, throughout life, we move from an exaggerated perception of our own bodily quirks, to an occluded one; from maximising to minimising. In adolescence, pimples are a yard wide and gushing pus, chubby thighs are elephantine and hair is either too curly or too straight. But in our middling years we tip the other way on the fulcrum of delusion, and start believing that tight underwear makes us thin, or a well-knotted tie obviates a turkey-skin neck, or even that a few carefully arranged strands will hide a head like billiard ball. Body dysmorphic disorder is a well-recognised mental illness but less acknowledged is the far more widespread phenomenon of clothes/hairdressing/ make-up dysmorphic disorder (CHMDD).  It took Dr Keith, with his devastating “What did you expect?” to tear the hairy veil from my eyes. Of course, it helps that this therapist is as bald as his patient soon will be.