When people first meet Renee Merson, they assume she has cancer. She isn’t sick, but she does suffer from alopecia universalis, or total hair loss.
“It’s difficult. It’s difficult every day. I have good days, I have bad days,” Merson said from her home in the West Island.
Merson, 49, first started losing her hair 11 years ago after a stressful divorce. It started coming out in clumps in the shower.
“It would just be more and more patches, hair loss, hair covering the pillows, covering the floors, the whole bathroom. It was just too much, it was a terrible feeling,” Merson said.
Eventually, her hair grew back. Last year, though, it started falling out again, initially in clumps, and then eventually all over her body.
“I am completely hairless. I have no hair at all. My eyebrows are micro-lidded, my eyelids are tattooed.”
Merson tried wearing wigs, but they were uncomfortable. So she started leaving the house bald.
“It was hard. It was very hard,” she said. “When I am out by myself I just do my own thing, but I can feel heads spinning around after.”
Struggling with her own journey, Merson created a Facebook blog called Truth Be Bald. She’s hoping to raise awareness about the issue and eventually create a support group in the West Island. She says the response has been incredibly positive, with other women contacting her who are also suffering from the stigma associated with being bald.
About half of all men and 40 per cent of women suffer from some form of hair loss. Total baldness affects less than one per cent of the population. It can be emotionally devastating, especially for women.
There’s a growing movement for acceptance, though. This month, Sports Illustrated featured bald model Christie Valdiserri as a finalist in its swimsuit model search. And actress Ricki Lake has opened up about her struggles with hair loss.
Merson says it all helps.
“Men go bald and nobody questions that and that is one of my reasons I go out bald. Why should I cover up my head?” she asks.
Merson said the support of her husband and children has helped her overcome the fears she has about being bald in public.
“My message to women: be who you are,” Bruce Hafner, her husband, said. “I fell in love with her. I did not fall in love with her hair, I fell in love with the package. Be brave enough to go out and be who you are.”
Merson says she feels more confident every day. She’s accepted how she looks. She’s optimistic others will do the same.