Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2008

Women embrace hair loss, find new friends

At this party, invitations read ‘‘wig-optional”

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Laurie DeWitt⁄The Gazette
Anna Burnell of Baltimore (left) and Betsy Slagle of Lutherville listen to others talk about their experience with alopecia areata, a condition which results in hair loss, during a meeting of Bald Girls Do Lunch in the Kentlands in Gaithersburg on Sunday.
This story was corrected on Feb. 13, 2008, from its print version.

Eight women gabbed at lunch in the Kentlands on Sunday, but they didn’t let their hair down — they took their wigs off.

They shared their stories at Bald Girls Do Lunch, a networking group designed to gather women with alopecia areata, an autoimmune disorder that results in hair loss, in an intimate setting so they may learn from one another.

The luncheon was the first Bald Girls Do Lunch event in Maryland. The women bonded over garlic bread, lemon chicken, salmon and eggplant parmesan at Buca Di Beppo restaurant. They talked about early feelings of denial or isolation, coming to terms with their condition and braving the world with no hair. They shared laughs, poignant moments and tips for tying head scarves and ‘‘faking it without lashes.”

‘‘I had my hair until I was 29,” said Holly Deutsch of Alexandria, Va. She suffered intermittent bald patches as a child, but had a full head of hair until several years ago. ‘‘I was 30 and single and ‘Oh my God, I’m going to be bald.’”

Deutsch, 33, and her new friends are some of the more than 5 million people in the United States who have alopecia areata, a disorder that causes white blood cells to attack hair follicles. The condition may manifest as bald patches on the scalp, total baldness, or loss of eyelashes, eyebrows and body hair.

Sonya Snederar of Takoma Park has two bald spots at the back of her head but said she has ‘‘no idea what’s going to happen.” She came to the luncheon ‘‘to kind of dissipate that feeling of being different.”

Thea Chassin of Scarborough, N.Y., who lost her hair 11 years ago, designs the gatherings so guests can share coping strategies. She chose Gaithersburg for the meeting to draw guests from around the region.

‘‘Women want to find out how to talk to other people about this condition: How to talk to colleagues, their family and their dates,” Chassin said.

Chassin, who declined to give her age, is so comfortable with her condition that she frequently doesn’t wear a wig, hat or head covering in a room full of strangers.

‘‘Getting there is a journey, and one of the ways to speed up the journey is to meet other women with the same condition, because feeling alone and keeping this a secret from others is emotionally debilitating,” she said.

Deutsch, who wears a wig to work but goes bald with her boyfriend and wore a bandana on Sunday, described coming to terms with the condition.

‘‘There’s a lot of emotion behind it, I cried a lot. You have to admit that this is not what you expected in your life,” she said, describing early stages of emotion.

Now, she has a lot of ‘‘funny moments,” and gains strength from helping others cope.

‘‘It’s nice knowing I’m not the only one,” said Daria Rowe of Baltimore, who wears T-shirts with logos such as, ‘‘Everyone loves a bald girl” and ‘‘I’m having a no-hair day.”

In college, Anna Burnell, 26, of Baltimore, shaved her head as a birthday present to herself.

‘‘It was actually the most liberating experience,” then she realized, ‘‘Now, what?” she said.

As a child, she was known for her red hair and without it, she thought, ‘‘I’m not that little red-headed girl anymore.”

Not true, said Chassin.

‘‘One of the biggest turning points that I had, and is really meaningful for others to understand,” she said, ‘‘is to really believe and to really know that you still are the same person that you always were.”

Learn More

For more, visit www.baldgirlsdolunch.org or e-mail info@baldgirlsdolunch.org. The next event is March 1 at Maggiano’s Little Italy Restaurant, 5333 Wisconsin Ave., in Chevy Chase. RSVP required.