“I want to look like Rapunzel if she joined a biker gang,” I said to the stylist who was placing an order for my tape-in hair extensions. She was certain no respectable 35-year-old woman would really want waist-length blonde hair, but apparently my mid-life crisis had come early.
“Twenty-two inches is really long, though,” she cautioned. “You’ll have to carry that weight around, and it definitely won’t look like your real hair.”
But I was undeterred. I knew what I wanted, and if you’re going to spend nearly $1,000 to tape someone else’s hair to your head, you may as well go all out. And with that, she swiped my Visa.
I’d been longing for extensions for years—since the mid-aughts, to be exact, when Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan and the rest of the celebutante elite began gluing, taping and stitching hairpieces the size of small animals onto their heads. As an avid user and abuser of peroxide, I’d never managed to grow my hair longer than a few inches below my shoulders. And despite cautionary tales from stars like Jennifer Aniston and Kate Beckinsale—who have both reportedly sworn off faking it after bad encounters with extensions—I still wanted to experience the look and feel of butt-length hair.
I justified the absurdity by the fact that it wouldn’t even be a full head of extensions, since I already had an undercut on the right side and back of my head. Sometime Chanel model Alice Dellal was my inspiration, and I was mere weeks away from my 36th birthday. If I was going to have one last over-the-top hairstyle, now seemed like the time.
It look less than an hour to have about 30 individual extensions taped onto my existing shoulder-length locks. My hair from another mare instantly made me feel brand new; merely flipping it over my shoulder inspired the kind of onlooker awe I imagined a figure skater receives after pulling off a perfect triple Axel. While reviews from friends were mostly mixed—“I know your heart screams ‘eccentric,’ but your bone structure demands ‘classic,’” insisted my bestie—I loved my bold look, and I planned on keeping it, at least until the extensions required reattaching in approximately three months.
Within a week, though, I started feeling hot all the time, almost feverish. At home, I’d separate my extensions into tiers before making a loose bun atop my head to let my scalp breathe. My scalp felt itchy, too, especially near the tape. I resisted scratching it because I was worried about damaging the extensions, but a couple still fell out on their own. Secretly relieved to have less hair to contend with, I didn’t have them reattached. I also did a few cider vinegar rinses to remove any product buildup that might have been adding to the discomfort. After about six weeks, I noticed small bald patches forming at the back left side of my head and started obsessively Googling hair-loss remedies. I was spritzing my scalp with diluted Monistat—a DIY baldness fix I had come across—when I finally started thinking that something was seriously wrong. My entire skull felt tight, like it was in a vice. On the morning of my 36th birthday, I made the impulse decision to take the extensions out myself, rubbing my hair with oil to loosen the adhesive. It didn’t hurt, but I still wanted to cry.
When friends arrived later that morning for a celebratory brunch, I sported a humble ponytail. That’s not to say I had given up on my extensions entirely at this point—they were hanging on a drying rack in my bathroom, terrifying the first guest who ventured in. However, the instant relief that came from removing them didn’t last. In a matter of days, the entire left side of my head, where the extensions had been, erupted into an inflamed and seeping infection, the lymph nodes in my left cheek and below my ear visibly draining pus from my scalp.
There are few things more embarrassing than admitting your vanity is likely the root of your medical crisis, but I had no choice but to do so with my doctor. The situation was past the point of a follicular infection and had ventured into cellulitis territory, meaning that the entire left side of my scalp was infected. I needed antibiotics before I could even talk to a dermatologist about prescribing something that might help grow my hair back.
Rapunzel I was not. What remained of my hair was so tattered, I was too embarrassed to go to a salon to have it styled. Instead, I borrowed my roommate’s clippers and shaved my head. If I had to start over, I might as well have my very own Britney-breakdown moment—the most dramatic way to throw in the towel after a botched hairdo.
I kept going until all I felt was an even round of half-inch bristles. I was anticipating hating it. I’d had short hair as a child but swore it off around age eight, when my mother’s friend mistook me for my brother. I grew my hair out after that and, consciously or not, always equated having long hair with being a woman. And yet, there I was, a freshly shorn 36-year-old. I’d never been this bald before—even my baby photos had more volume than I could currently muster—and, to my surprise, I liked it.
Four weeks in, I’m keeping my ’do closely cropped as I wait for hair above my left ear, where the most follicular damage occurred, to slowly resurface. While I wish I hadn’t had to go to such great lengths to figure out that I don’t have to rely on my hair (or the hair of others) to feel beautiful, I never would have been brave enough to go short on my own. There’s something surprisingly sexy about knowing I can be ready in one minute flat, that rain has no power over ruining my day and that a bar of soap and sunscreen are really all I need to look my best. It’s refreshing to have a bald head as a starting point—to imagine my future hair as not just a compromise between my wishes and what’s already on my head. After all, now I have nothing to lose.