It’s Hairy: Trichotillomania while Transgender
About the Series: “It’s Hairy”
Hair is one of those things that’s always, well, there, whether we like it or not. It grows, it shifts in color and texture, it pops up in places we don’t really mind for. But more importantly, it tells a story about who we are, whether previous childhood memories about it pave a complicated journey or current feelings towards our follicles say a lot more than just a hair style. It’s Hairy was created to encompass these complex stories for several identities: Black, trans, Middle Eastern, nonbinary, lesbian, and more. Each piece, written by the people who personally go through these hair journeys, tells a story of how hair is always about more than hair, where hair acts as a lens for diverse narratives, revealing that no hair journey is the same.
I can’t remember the last time I had the right amount of hair in the right places. I am 21, transgender, and trichotillomanic. To elaborate, I am nonbinary, transmasculine, and I have an impulse control disorder that causes me to pull out my hair—literally. Describing my relationship with my hair as rough is an understatement, but I must preface this explanation of my experience with an acknowledgment of the societal privilege that comes with having hair and a body like mine. My mental illnesses are largely invisible, I can pass as a cisgender woman, I’m white, and my hair type is 3A, meaning it falls in loose curls when it’s long enough. Each of these factors has influenced my hair-related experiences, mostly to my own benefit, and excluding or ignoring this information about how I am perceived and treated by larger society would be dishonest.
My earliest memory of hair is of a textured picture book I had when I was less than five years old. The book was about textures and feelings, and the page I remember had sand paper imposed on an illustration of a dad’s face, describing the scratchy feeling of stubble. I thoughtlessly dragged my fingers along the rough page, then felt my actual dad’s face to compare. I noticed that my mom had a scratchy feeling like this on her legs sometimes, butthere was nothing in my book about that. Two years later, I would be taught why.
I never noticed the hair on my arms until late August in first grade. I obliviously played in the sandlot wearing short sleeves until my playmates pointed out the dark wispy hairs on my arms. Their suspicious, disdainful remarks led me to start secretly shaving my arms using my mom’s razor in the shower, but I found the stubble even more unsightly and uncomfortable. I allowed the hairs to return and opted to wear long sleeves. When I couldn’t bear to wear a sweatshirt in the Baltimore August heat, I tried my best to keep my arms under my desk.
By middle school everyone else started to catch up, and I was not the only kid with arm or body hair. Still, desperate to avoid ostracization from my seemingly effortlessly effeminate peers, I religiously shaved everywhere. Armpits, legs, bikini line, happy trail, feet, even my toes. Everything had to go. With the frenzy of hair removal and anxious conformism that marked my early teenage years, I was introduced to my greatest vice: eyebrow plucking. It was still the early 2010’s, Cara Delevingne had not yet made thick eyebrows cool for white girls, and I plucked mine out with tweezers, struggling to control the sneezing and tears that welled up every time I removed a hair.
I only started wearing makeup in middle school because one of the popular girls had complimented me on it once, after which I decided I would wear eyeliner and mascara every day. Bored, disaffected, and apathetic, I formed a habit of picking at my mascara during class. It came off in crusty black flecks, and eventually my idle hand would have removed it all and simply tug at my newly naked eyelashes. By high school I no longer cried when I plucked my eyebrows, I found it relaxing. My trichotillomania made its debut; the masochistic enjoyment of eyebrow removal collided with my picking fingers constantly floating by my eyelashes, and I began to pull out my eyebrow hairs.
By the time I graduated high school, I was exhausted by shaving and finally quit—I had only ever done it out of shame. The return of my previously scorned body hair brought me a then unidentifiable comfort, a sense of subtle masculinity. Yet, even after quitting shaving, I could not kick the habit of yanking out my eyebrow hairs. People who noticed would ask, “How can you do that with your bare hands?” I defensively replied saying it was nothing more than a bad habit, similar to nail biting.
On the day I graduated from high school I got my first pixie cut, a milestone for baby queers. My hair had almost never been above my collarbones, and I loved the way it sprang up in the already humid May afternoon, healthy and curly, after having weighed itself down for years. That June, Pride month, I came out to my closest friends as bi/pansexual. My eyebrow pulling continued to quietly intensify as time went on, but I could hide it well enough with makeup.
Struggling through my freshman year of college, I sought out mental health services. I received multiple diagnoses, the most indescribably relieving one being Trichotillomania. I had barely heard of it before, and the understanding that this embarrassing self-destructive habit I had was so common tremendously comforted me. At the time my eyebrows were the worst they had ever been; I had some semblance of half of each one at best. While my other diagnoses felt condemnatory at the time, being told by an actual psychiatrist that I had a legitimate impulse control disorder invited me to consider that my pulling wasn’t my fault. It wasn’t constructive, kind, or accurate to think of myself as weak-minded or bad at breaking habits. I had an impulse disorder closely related to OCD.
Trich has made me miserable, but has also been compounded by my own continuous gender trouble. A little less than two years after my trich diagnosis, I gave up the act and came out officially online as transgender, although my close friends had known for over a year at that point. I leaned hard into masculinity, going as far as buzzing my head. I still struggle to divorce my trich from my gender dysphoria, and when my head hair gets to be too long for me, I regularly and angstily cut it myself. Although there are no gender roles for nonbinary people, there is an intense pressure to conform to a standard of stereotypical androgyny, which includes being assigned-female, white, thin, masculine, flat-chested and short haired. I meet many of these standards for reasons outside of my control, and while I vehemently reject that restrictive stereotype, I sometimes cannot help but feel like a fake trans person if I lean too feminine, too close to my assigned gender at birth.
Dysphoria aside, I dream of growing my head hair back (as well as my eyebrow hair) but every time it reaches bob-length I have a dysphoric meltdown, which ushers in a depressive episode, and a trichotillomanic impulse, to top it off, so I inevitably cut it.
My hair is a convenient lens through which to view my evolving sense of gender and struggles with mental illness, as well as how these two interact with each other. This tumultuous journey with the hair all over my body has taught me patience. To be patient with my own unlearning of binaristic and misogynistic standards of body hair. Feeling guilty for feeling ashamed of my body hair isn’t constructive, and this body brings me so much privilege that body hair on it is far from radical. To be patient with my evolving sense of my own nonbinariness and what that means for my gender presentation, especially my hair. Exclusively performing masculinity out of a sense of obligation to seem “trans enough” isn’t true to who I am. To be patient with my eyebrows and head hair as they grow back. This is the hardest one. And most importantly, to be patient with myself when I remove them and regret it. It always grows back eventually. Not blaming myself for pulling and cutting my hair while practicing better impulse control is hard to navigate, but with therapy, patience, and unlearning, I have already made a little peace with my follicles.