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What to know about hair loss from a woman who's been there

Marianne Kirby is a writer and maker in Orlando, Florida. She is the coauthor of the fat acceptance book, "Lessons from the Fatosphere " and can be regularly found stirring up big fat trouble all over the Internet....

Severe hair loss affects more women than you might think

Losing my hair really sucked.

I was really proud of myself for taking care of my mental health and getting back on medication — I was dealing with the usual batch of side effects without too much trouble and I was starting to feel like my normal self for the first time in a really long time. And then my hair started to fall out.

It didn’t start slowly. My hair fell out in handfuls. Every time I touched my hair — much less ran my fingers through it — I was confronted with physical evidence that the medicine that was helping me be a happy and productive person was also costing me a portion of the physical image I had worked so hard to present.

My hair made me feel like I was able to take some control over how people respond to me as a fat person. So to lose it felt like I was losing control over my identity.

Of course, I did what any reasonable person would do: I freaked out. I stopped updating my hair, didn’t spend any time styling it, pretended it wasn’t there unless I absolutely had to. Part of that was because I wanted to treat my hair gently, but mostly, it was because I didn’t know what to do. The wait-and-see strategy has always left me feeling helpless, and this situation was no different. While I waited, I researched.

Women who are experiencing hair loss are probably also experiencing a lot of shame and emotional turmoil — this often leads to women trying to keep their hair loss a secret. Many medical professionals also don’t focus on treating hair loss in women because it’s not life threatening. That can be counterproductive when there are so many different causes and potential treatments, but also ignores how important hair can be to women in particular when it comes to self-image.

Forty percent of women will experience hair loss by the time they’re 40 — right around menopause for many people. But other circumstances can kick off hair loss for folks of any age as well. Thyroid problems and other hormone imbalances can be a primary culprit. Getting blood work done is a first step to treating these issues and the accompanying hair loss because hair will often regrow once the underlying issue is treated. While women are more likely than men to avoid going to the doctor, getting important blood work done is not just a vital part of owning your health care — if you’re losing your hair, it’s the first step in figuring out why.

More: 19 Things only girls with thin hair understand

One possible culprit: polycystic ovarian syndrome. This is a chronic hormone imbalance — and while there are lots of other potential symptoms, sometimes hair loss is the only one.

Alopecia areata, which occurs when the immune system attacks healthy hair follicles, causes hair to fall out in patches. And because most sufferers of this disease are otherwise healthy people, it can seem especially startling and upsetting.

Everything from childbirth to the birth control pill can cause hair loss. There’s no one, comprehensive list of causes and, most importantly, there’s no one solution either. Suffering in silence and hoping the hair loss goes away only isolates the woman experiencing it.

So, I had to take my own advice. I talked to my psychiatrist, but I also talked to my doctor, got my blood work redone just to make sure my thyroid medication was keeping me at the proper levels. Then, I went a step further: I talked to specific friends I trusted to offer encouragement and reassurance.

More: Hair today, gone tomorrow: How to prevent hair loss

It took a little while, but the conversations helped. The control I felt I was losing over my appearance was regained in terms of knowledge about the situation. I started to do more with my hair again, to take care of it and myself. And I felt better regardless of what my hair was doing.

My hair loss has finally slowed back to normal shedding, but some of the anxiety remains, I won’t lie. I monitor my hair just in case, just so I am never surprised again. Even so, a few weeks ago, I went to the hipster barbershop and got myself one of those cool side-shaves. I am back in control of my image.

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