People Sitting in Front of Me: The Bald Man


Even in the crowded writing conference, the bald man in front of me catches my eye, his noggin is as smooth as a bowling lane and as well-worn as a catcher’s mitt.  He turns slightly and the fluorescent light ricochets offs his polished head, and I think about how his baldness has impoverished his options for self-identity.  Hair is the most flexible parameter of self-identity – whether to grow it long or short, mullet or Mohawk, or experiment with a rotating palette of colors – all visual choices that can instantly convey conformity, rebellion, youth or vitality.  This man in front of me has lost these easy opportunities for self-expression.

The barrette tugging at the nape of my neck reminds me that I should be grateful for my full head of hair.  I have no quibble with its hue or heft and perhaps that is why I have taken it for granted.  Recently I picked up an impulse book consisting of women’s testimonials about their struggles with hair.  Manydescribe battles with curly or frizzy hair, while others comment on how abrupt changes in hairstyles with wigs, cutting or coloring can announce a new identity – perhaps post-divorce or career change.  I have never taken advantage of any of these options.  In fact, I think that my approach to hair might be similar to many men.  My dwell time in front of the mirror can be measured in seconds; a few swipes with the brush in the morning – brushing my teeth takes longer.  I get my hair cut every two year.  And it’s free because I donate the hair to charity.  Doesn’t matter which shampoo I use, although so far I have avoided the large jug labeled “Honey Dew Oatmeal Enhanced Dog Shampoo.”

The confluence of hair and identity remind me of a terrifying episode thirty years ago when my hair started to fall out in clumps; I stopped washing or brushing to avoid the disturbing visual of hair smeared across the sink and clogging the drain. I rushed to consult a dermatology textbook and discovered that hair is equally divided among three stages – resting, growing or shedding.  A traumatic event, in my case a very high fever some months earlier, can alter this balance.  So instead of a little hair falling out every day, I experienced large clumps for a couple of weeks. But that was an unnerving couple of weeks.  Mentally, I tried to assimilate my emerging identity as a bald woman.  What would people think, how many wigs would I need, what happens if you sweat under a wig, would I have the courage to just be bald?  Then the shedding stopped abruptly and I resumed my laissez-faire relationship with hair.

How did my bald man become aware of his fate?  Maybe he noticed he needed an extra loop of the rubber band to gather up the long hair of his youth.   Maybe the hard bristles of his brush began to scrape across a scalp unprotected by a fluffy cushion of hair.  After a day in the sun, he might have been shocked to see tender pink skin peeking out midst tufts of hair.  Maybe it was nothing more than a candid photo from behind or above.

While women’s hair may denote youth and beauty, for men a full head of hair has long been associated with virility and power.  Hair was the source of Samson’s power, and Julius Caesar may have been the first to use a back to front comb-over to disguise a receding hairline.  Analogous to the modern day baseball cap, Caesar additionally relied on a strategically placed wreath for further cover.

Julius CaesarCasear with wreath

The association of male hair and power probably extends back to our prelingual ancestors.  I envision an early hominid looking at his reflection in a glistening pool.  The man touches his nose and watches his reflection do the same, and then he strokes his hair and nods as he realizes suddenly that he is an individual with a distinct visual presence, and even better, he can have his own personal agenda.  He thinks, “Why shouldn’t I eat the succulent boar filet instead of the gristled haunches?  How can I seize power?”  He looks at the reflection of the man standing next to him and immediately notices wisps and bare patches compared to his tousled locks.   The hairy man’s chest swells with pride; he grunts, yanks up his bear skin tunic and confidently strides back toward his cave.  The bald man defers to the more manly man and pads meekly behind him.

How did the man in front of me assimilate his baldness? Did he feel diminished and powerless, perhaps less of a man?  Did he try to disguise it, embrace it or resign himself to his fate?  Long hair and balding make an awkward combination, and perhaps his first step in balding management involved neatly trimming what’s left.  A comb over might have been an initial consideration, but wise men eventually abandon this strategy, fearing the humiliating spectacle of a wind-blown comb over.


I think about the double standard that favors women.  While women may decry society’s emphasis on youth and beauty, at least our hair options are all socially acceptable.  We can wear wigs or dye our hair with impunity.  Men’s work-arounds are considered a vanity derisively referred to as “rugs, plugs or drugs.”

I recall Andre Agassi’s 2009 autobiography Open where he describes the painful intersection of his image as a “rebel” and his premature balding.  To preserve his signature multicolored mullet, Agassi started to wear a hair weave even during tennis tournaments. He attributed his loss in the finals of the 1990 French Open to the distraction of his slipping hair piece.  In the book he states, “I think about the pain my hair has caused me, the inconvenience of the hairpieces, the hypocrisy and the pretending and the lying.”   Iinterviewers inevitably teased him about the folly and shallowness of wearing a hair piece.  David Lettermen even told Agassi that his admission of wearing a rug was more shocking than his year-long addiction to crystal meth.  Letterman then lowered a mullet hair piece from the rafters so that Agassi could stroke it one last time before throwing it away.

In 1995 Agassi dropped the pretense and aggressively announced his baldness with a shaved head.  Did the man in front of me consider this?  Shorn heads have had a quixotic fashion trajectory throughout history.  In ancient Rome, slaves were identified by their shaved head.  In post WWII France, a shaved head was a humiliating testament to Nazi collaboration.   Mr. Clean emerged as a marketing icon in the 1960s, a large muscular man with bushy white eyebrows and a single ear ring, an exotic look for that time.  In an interesting role reversal, his bald head actually exuded power and virility over dirt and filth.  The actors Yul Brenner and lollipop-sucking Telly Savalas of Kojak fame introduced the shaved head to Hollywood, but the style never caught on, perhaps due to the negative effects of the punk rock movement and racist skin-head culture.

My bald friend RayJ credits Michael Jordan for making a shaved head socially acceptable around the world, including Andre Agassi.    RayJ told me, “I’m saving lots of money on haircuts and as long as I shave my beard so that the grey doesn’t show, I think that my shaved head actually makes me look younger.”  RayJ’s hand skimmed over his burnished pate.  “It also helps that I have I have a nice round melon.  I’ve seen guys with pointy or flattened heads.  This wouldn’t look good on them.”

Michael Jordan

I agree with RayJ’s assessment – he does have a well-contoured head.  But even so shaving seems to be limited to a baldness work-around and I wonder about the deeper meaning of balding strategies.  Is shaving one’s head a sign of fearless control over the vicissitudes of aging?  Does a non-intervention strategy of just letting nature take its course imply that someone has just given up?  Or is it a sign of confidence to reject our societal norms of power and virility?  But I must consider one more factor.  If the bald man in front of me turns around, I might have the dreamy privilege of gazing upon the epitome of male beauty.  Maybe this man is Sean Connery who just happens to be attending this suburban writing course. If so, any concerns regarding social imperatives for a full head of hair are completely irrelevant.

Connery 2

The missing words in the following poem are a set of anagraoms (i.e. share the same letters like post, stop, post).  One of the missing words will rhyme with the previous or following line, giving you a big hint.  The asterisks indicate the number of letters.  Your job is to solve the missing words based on the above rules and the context of the poem.  Scroll down for answers.  

What is it about the human head of hair

That leads to all that anguish and *******

Men who have ******* to power and virility are often appalled

When they look into the mirror and realize they’re slowly going bald.

And while men have ******* women who color and coif,

Women look at plugs, drugs or rugs with disdain, scorn and scoff.







Answers:  despair, aspired, praised. (Note also that “diapers” also belongs to this set of anagrams, but it proved too difficult to work into this poem.



  1. Nancy on May 24, 2016 at 11:46 am

    Love your astute observation of the male and his bald head. Much ado is about women and their hair but your reflections of a man’s lacking is very entertaining!

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