Alain de Botton: The terrible poignancy of the thinning pate

Baldness has been spun as synonymous with exaggerated potency, but the bald know that, far from having the vigour of a skinhead, most of them look like nothing so much as a fragile librarian.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman\'s Morning Call email.

Image: Chris Fraser Smith/Gallery Stock

Image: Chris Fraser Smith/Gallery Stock

Going bald as a man is a matter for public ridicule. Men are not meant to be vain; therefore, if they lose their hair, any sign that they mind their new appearance is proof that they are not deserving of pity. There is no figure more absurd than the man who goes in for the combover. “Just shave it off” is the mantra – and examples of implausibly beautiful bald men are typically wheeled in to support it, as though one would inevitably look like Sean Connery just by the act of shaving.

Baldness has been spun by its supporters as synonymous with exaggerated potency (as if lust and extra doses of manhood had pushed all one’s follicles out), but the bald know that, far from having the vigour of a skinhead, most of them look like nothing so much as a fragile librarian.

We are trained to see the bathos, not the terrible poignancy. At the same time – and in obvious contradiction – society likes a full male head of hair very much. Bald politicians are notoriously bad at winning elections. Hair is virile and gets you more money. So it’s entirely logical that one should be bothered about losing it.

For those unhappy with their locks, pictures are painful. Each new image brings more bad news. The worries are not trivial because personal appearance is a major currency of status. In a world where we are constantly interacting with strangers (who have little to go on but our bodies), nice treatment goes to the hairiest first.

To face the challenges of being bald, we need to develop a particular kind of wisdom. First, we should let our deficiencies feed our love of beauty. Appreciation tends to be stimulated by lack. When Baudelaire wrote his ode “La Chevelure” (“hair”), his praise was all the more intense, his love all the more poignant, because he was rapidly balding, much to his distress.

O fleecy hair, falling in curls to
   the shoulders!
O black locks! O perfume laden
   with nonchalance!
Ecstasy! To people the dark
   alcove tonight
With memories sleeping in that
   thick head of hair.
I would like to shake it in the air
   like a scarf!

It is the bald who are best placed to appreciate hair (and beauty in general), something the beautiful should surely bear in mind when they are considering upon whom to bestow their favours. The bald will – among other things – simply be more grateful.

It brings one to the crux of the issue. Anxiety around baldness is really about a fear of lovelessness and loneliness. But the good news for the bald is that you can’t assume you can know what everyone thinks of your looks. There will be exceptions, people who actually rather like the way you appear, even where it’s not perfect. The hotel receptionist might be enchanted by one’s pate or be deeply moved by the stubble at the sides.

The reason is simple. We learn about love from our parents; they provide the template for affection that we go on to apply to others when we are grown up. And fortunately for the ugly among us, many parents who are kind and loving are also bald. This means that many people, even very attractive ones, grow up predisposed to think very generously of not-so-perfect heads. Their owners were the ones who first looked after them and taught them about love: and they are the physical types with whom they may continue to associate comfort, safety and tenderness.

We should follow the comic flow of envy and frustration around baldness. The bald, affluent guy in first class deeply envies the thick locks of the cabin steward. The president or CEO is terrified of his receding hairline. This is interestingly humbling, levelling and democratic. Given the stubborn iniquities of class, how liberating that there should also be – alongside the feudal castes of money and power – another class system based on looks, in which the hierarchy is rearranged and a new elite established, based simply on the productivity of one’s follicles.

However unfair the distribution of hair is today, time will eventually bring justice. No one ends up with too much hair; it’s just a question of waiting. For some (like the author), disenchantment may start at 20. For others, it may take another 40 years. But it will happen for sure.

Rather than saying appearance doesn’t matter, which is trying to hold back the ocean, we should, as a society, get better at noticing the less obvious but still real beauties of certain bald types. The trouble with our culture is not so much that we love appearances but that we focus on too narrow a range of features and qualities.

Take action. Praise someone’s august forehead; note the melancholy sweetness of their eyes beneath that endless dome. Admire an expression of kindly acceptance; point out
serenity, a trusting face, a candid nose . . .

There are so many good and attractive things we can see in people’s faces when we are alert to different types of hairless beauty. And hopefully someone, somewhere, will one day do the same for us. 

This article appears in the 08 October 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Grayson Perry guest edit

Free trial CSS