The Internet Never Forgets

In our first episode, three of us discuss, what else, deeply embarrassing stories from our past.

If you’ve been waiting with your breath bated, you can finally breathe easy: the High-Strung podcast has arrived. That’s right, we flipped on the mics and filled up our wine glasses and for that you are welcome. For our first episode, Monica Torres, Frida Oskarsdottir, and Gabrielle Sierra journeyed into the past and explored the shame that can be brought on by our ever-present digital footprint—from resurfaced Hanson message board diatribes to far-too-easy-to-Google “Yu-Gi-Oh!” fanfic. Join us as we present “The Internet Never Forgets,” and please let us know what you think on iTunes!

Music: “Shine” by Katie Thompson & Duffy Sylvander.

Memories of a City Kid’s Summer

Our summers aren’t for backyard pools or manicured lawns or days spent in air-conditioned basements. They are for screaming, running, falling. For skinned knees.

By Gabrielle Sierra

Go. Leave the city. Flee to your upstate houses, your lakeside homes and your ocean-front rentals. New York summers belong to us. The native New Yorkers, the city kids.

Our summers aren’t for backyard pools or manicured lawns or days spent in air-conditioned basements. They are for screaming, running, falling. For skinned knees. For sneakers hitting hot cement. For jumping through sprinklers or being blasted by an open fire-hydrant, cartwheeling back and forth in the street. For us rolling ten deep, fifteen deep, every day. We fill the street. Kids with nowhere to go and nothing to do for two whole months.

Our summer is for games in driveways and for tagging your little brother just a little too hard so you have to run and hide before your mother finds you. For spinning and spinning until you fall onto your back to watch the world above you twist.

We play Freeze Tag and Spud and Man Hunt and tear across the block, darting into front yards, exploring rooftops and sneaking up alleys. Homebase is always the same tree, a beast that can only be seen in tunnel vision as your legs pump as hard and as fast as they can, moving you just ahead of an outstretched hand.

Our summers are for the Ice Cream Man, whose name is Mike, who rings his bells as he cruises up each street, sending even the calmest of kids into mild hysterics, prompting us to run inside and scrounge for change or beg our parents for a few dollars. We devour electric-colored pops that drip into a pool at our feet that will later be overrun with ants.

We draw with chalk over the cracked sidewalk, people complimenting us on our shading skills as they step all over our masterpieces. (Picasso never had to deal with this.) We rescue bugs from the tar oozing on the curb and we listen to the sound of cicadas in the trees.

Our summers are for playing handball in the park “asses up,” the losing team standing against the wall like criminals while they wait for the rubber ball to sting their bare skin.

For those of us lucky enough to grow up near the ocean (yes, New York City has ocean access) our summers are for running to the public beach and never bringing enough of anything, never having an umbrella or the right towel or the appropriate amount of suntan lotion. For sucking the salt from your hair as you walk across the too-hot sand without your shoes on. For smelling the ash can barbeques that are watched over by families who have come down for the whole day, lugging coolers full of meat onto city busses just to spend some time with their children by the water.

My summers don’t smell like hot garbage. They don’t make me want to get out of town. My summers are not for the faint of heart, the bored. We fill the space you leave behind (thanks for clearing out of our way.) We are adventurers, explorers, city kids in the heat.

So go, we’ll be here. See you in the fall.

Pools Are Weird

The history of these oversized baths in America is a history of socioeconomic divides, private and public spaces, and of course, bikinis.

By Frida Oskarsdottir

There is something quintessentially American about a diver cutting into the surface of a crystal blue pool on a searing day, the air filmed with humidity as the water ripples in his wake. When summer comes around we march onward toward that fenced-in oasis, some of us lucky enough to go no further than our backyards. Iconic film scenes happen in swimming pools, artists paint them, writers use them as symbols, and all the while we keep swimming.

I hope I’m not the only one who has asked herself, as Seinfeld might, “What’s the deal with pools?” Where did they come from? When you think about it, doesn’t it seem a little strange that we just decided one day to build ourselves a personal ocean, but without salt and devoid of all life? These blue squares, which essentially amount to oversized baths, are packed with so much meaning – leisure, isolation, excess – and their history in this country is in a way our history of socioeconomic divide, private and public spaces, and of course, bikinis. Part of the American-ness of the American swimming pool is its duality, it represents our desire for individual conquest and the conflict between private property and communal experience.

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Van Gogh’s Ear (2016) Elmgreen & Dragset; Image via http://www.artnet.com

There’s no question that humans love the water. On the most basic level, it makes up most of our biology. If we don’t drink it, we die. But our connection goes much deeper than survival. Wallace J. Nichols, marine biologist and water obsessive, describes our draw to the water – ocean, pool, or puddle – as our “Blue Mind…a mildly meditative state characterized by calm, peacefulness, unity, and a sense of general happiness and satisfaction with life in the moment…It takes advantage of neurological connections formed over millennia.” It’s not hard to see what he means – for instance, we take showers as part of a perfunctory routine but stepping under the water has an automatically relaxing and meditative effect. Ditto listening to the water flow in a river, or hearing your cat lap it up from his bowl.

Of course, what most people do in a given body of water is swim. We’ve been swimming, wading, and floating since we started recording history, in watering holes and ancient bathhouses, or — for those of us blessed with proximity to it — the ocean. The appeal of swimming in the ocean is obvious: it is formidable, vast, unknown, dangerous. We are still discovering species by the bucketful in its depths, and epics have been written about what takes place on and beneath the waves. Visiting the ocean allows us to skirt the edge of a largely inaccessible world, a completely different Earth that takes up more space than land on our planet but is somehow totally unsuited for us to live in. The ocean says, ”Sure, you can play on the beach, but if you go too far, I’ll fucking kill you.”

To create pools, we neutered the danger and mystery of the open sea and cordoned off watery spaces for our recreation. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t without their own troubles. In America, racial desegregation in pools followed a meaningfully different trajectory than that of other public spaces. Jeff Wiltse, author of Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America, argues that during the Progressive Era of the late 1800s, while gender and class divides were strictly enforced in public pools, race played less of a factor, meaning black and white swimmers shared the water with little tension. However, the integration of sexes and classes brought to light different biases; for instance, now that men and women were mingling in swimwear, the racist stereotype of black men preying on white women led some to alarmism. In addition, as swimming became more appealing to the Middle class, pools were built further towards majority white suburbs. This intersection of race, class, and gender relations played out differently in the water than in the workplace, school, and home, and it left a lasting mark, evidenced by the fact that even today white Americans are twice as likely to know how to swim as black Americans.   

While backyard pools are privately owned, they still carry a convoluted and somewhat contradictory history. Historian Ryan Reft describes the boom of private pools in Southern California in the 1960’s as “decadent and grandiose expressions of wealth and power, communal experiences for working class kids and families, and a symbolic reservoir of twentieth century alienation and danger…the pool stands as a testament to the complexity of California life.” He goes on that the pool even came to mean something when it was empty, the 1970’s drought forced swimmers out and the abandoned pools became an enclave for underground skateboard culture, most famously including the Zephyr Competition Team, or Z-Boys.

The pool as a status symbol, a glistening money sink for all your neighbors to see, is a common trope seen in the lush backyards of reality TV stars and Hollywood films. John Cheever’s famous short story, “The Swimmer,” reveals the more sinister undertones of this grandeur. The story follows its wealthy, tanned protagonist as he attempts to swim the entire way home from a party through the backyard pools along the way. It was dissected in my literature class (and, I assume, most literature classes) as an allegory for the inherent loneliness and darkness of material excess. The swimmer’s mood at the beginning is so eternally upbeat he can hardly contain his good fortune, or the beauty and riches that surround him and afford him the opportunity to swim through private pools all the way home. As the day wears on and a storm clouds above, his mood darkens, as do the demeanors of the people in the backyards he swims through. He grows tired; the water is not as familiar. Finally, he arrives at an empty house, his own, long abandoned and his family nowhere to be found.

 

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Poor Barb. Image via http://www.strangerthings.wikia.com


It’s telling that Cheever chose the pool as his main character’s conveyance when he needed a symbol mercurial enough to change completely over the course of the story. On a summer day, the pool is the 4th of July and sharks and minnows, a stand-in for the school cafeteria where you might glimpse the beaded back of an upperclassmen as he squints at the sun. As with most hallmarks of American culture, once the lights dim and the hot dogs have been taken off the grill, an eeriness descends. Barb in Stranger Things didn’t fall into the Upside Down through a trampoline, is all I’m saying. There is something enamoring, strange, and special about the pool. Everything is clear, but everything is murky.

 

Our Songs of the Summer

The songs we danced to, the songs we cried to: Robyn, The Ramones, Sublime, Ella Fitzgerald, Cardi B, and, of course, Prince.

Some songs were made for summer. Now that the end is upon us, we wanted to reflect on what was playing when we brought out the extra box fan, took scissors to last year’s jeans, and shook out our sandy coolers. Given the state of the world, no one will begrudge you an escape to some sugary pop or soul-hugging ballads, so listen deeply.

Saira: “Dancing on My Own,” by Robyn

"I'm just gonna dance all night
I'm all messed up, I'm so out of line
Stilettos and broken bottles
I'm spinning around in circles."

This summer, I danced, I hiked, and I swam. I stayed up way too late and sometimes slept way too early. I was daring. I was scared. I was honest, but occasionally not honest enough. I ended things that were going nowhere and started things that may go somewhere. I fell in lust and I fell out of like. And I did it all with Robyn on repeat. I know this song is old–seven years old to be exact–but, this summer, the song gave me new meaning and reminded me that, sometimes, I just wanna twirl around and dance all night. And there ain’t nothing wrong with that.  

Gabrielle: “Doin’ Time” by Sublime

"Summertime and the living's easy
And Bradley's on the microphone with ras m.g.
All the people in the dance will agree
That we're well qualified to represent the LBC
Me, me and Louie run to the party
Dance to the rhythm it gets harder."

As Sublime fans know, the original version of this song doesn’t actually begin with lyrics about summer. But no matter the version, this track will always make me think of hot days at the beach, greasy sunglasses, ice cream melting on my hands and sand in my bathingsuit. The first tinkling notes and scratchy vinyl pops remind me of Rockaway boys on longboards, nights building bonfires and afternoons baking in the sun. I play this album in its entirety every summer and I intend to continue the tradition forever.

Frida: “Don’t Fence Me In” sung by Ella Fitzgerald

"Oh, give me land, lots of land under starry skies above
Don't fence me in
Let me ride through the wide open country that I love
Don't fence me in
Let me be by myself in the evenin' breeze
And listen to the murmur of the cottonwood trees
Send me off forever but I ask you please
Don't fence me in."

Though this song – originally written by Cole Porter and Robert Fletcher in 1934 – has been covered countless times, for me there is only one version. Ella Fitzgerald’s incomparable voice seems to follow the direction of the lyrics and burst through its restraints; it’s impossible not to sing (or in my case, shout) along outside on a sunny day or inside a store, where I’m convincing myself I really can pull off a cowboy hat.

Laura: “Rockaway Beach” by The Ramones

"Chewin' at a rhythm on my bubble gum
The sun is out, I want some
It's not hard, not far to reach
We can hitch a ride to Rockaway Beach."

Though The Ramones released “Rockaway Beach” in 1977 when New York City was a far cry from the New York City of today, this summer song remains evergreen. This unlikely beach anthem by the punk quartet laments the age-old dilemma for Manhattan and Brooklyn-ites alike: how the fuck are we gonna get to the beach?  

Sara: “Raspberry Beret” by Prince

"She wore a
Raspberry beret
The kind you find in a second hand store
Raspberry beret
And if it was warm she wouldn't wear much more
Raspberry beret
I think I love her."

In 2016, we lost the magical Prince, but he lives on through his music. I felt the sultry vibe of this song all summer. To me, it’s a song about spotting someone and immediately being drawn to them—whether it’s that “raspberry beret,” a fresh tan, the perfect man bun, or the whole swagger. A summer fling anthem at times–it played during a few of my fave summer moments: eating fish tacos at Rockaway Beach, dancing on a roof overlooking the city, and cruising through the countryside on the way to Storm King Art Center. Plus in the music video he’s wearing a dreamy baby blue suit patterned with clouds. Blue skies baby–if that’s not what you want to see all summer, then I don’t know what is.

Monica: “Bodak Yellow [Latin Trap Remix]” by Cardi B

Soy la más dura en la calle, know you prolly heard of me
Me busca, me arreglé los dientes, hope you hoes know it ain't cheap
Pago la renta de mi madre y no dependo de nadie

When I think of the drumbeat to my summer, I think of Cardi B, the Bronx reality TV star who endlessly hustled her way into a rap career. She snickers, she’s ronca loud, she’s the woman who threw down the gauntlet and declared in no uncertain terms, “if a girl have beef with me, she gon’ have beef with me…foreva,” and when that phrase went viral, she had the business savvy to turn it into a single.

It’s the English version of “Bodak Yellow” that’s become the highest-charting Billboard single by a female rapper since Nicki Minaj, but I enjoy the Latin Trap version, because I admire the ease with which Cardi B slips between the two languages, one more lesson of confidence Cardi’s taught me. When I channel Cardi B’s self-assured bark of “Lil bitch, you can’t fuck with me ni aunque tú quieras” on the subway, men don’t sit next to me on the train, bless.

In “Bodak Yellow,” Cardi B boasts how she can get men to buy her carteras and Yves Saint Laurent, but she’s also honest about the effort it takes to pay her Mama’s bills. Fixing her teeth took money, so “hope you hoes know it ain’t cheap.” Listening to her, I’m reminded of Zadie Smith’s explanation on why rappers love talking about their stuff.

“Boasting is a formal condition of the epic form,” Smith writes. “And those taught that they deserve nothing rightly enjoy it when they succeed in terms the culture understands.”

The Sex Worker Putting Herself Through Law School

“It’s a lot more than a transaction of sex or a lap dance. People are also paying to feel a certain way, they’re paying to feel powerful, they’re paying to feel like their boss.”

By Monica Torres

 

In 2016, Rachel*, 23, was a broke English major applying to law schools. Now, she is a first-year law student paying for school with sex work. She was working as a hair salon receptionist when she heard of a way to make fast cash. “One of my co-workers was telling me that she knew somebody that…had gotten a $1,000 from this website called Seeking Arrangements.” This service describes itself not as prostitution, but as a way for a woman, known as a sugar baby, to “date financially secure men who can provide her with the lifestyle she desires.”

Rachel immediately made a Seeking Arrangements profile. Although she was a little weirded out by “messages from seedy guys,” she was determined to meet them and no longer be broke.

Rachel is a white “5”8 unnatural blonde with an ample chest,” as she described herself to me. Her first sugar daddy was a 44-year-old “chill” man who sent an Uber from the next town to pick her up after she finished a late-night tutoring job. “I was all high on adrenaline because I hadn’t exchanged demands on what kind of money I wanted or anything. He was buying me all this fancy food, which seemed so glamorous.” Then he asked if he could kiss her. “He leaned across the table and we kissed right there in the restaurant and it felt like daring and cool, because obviously I’m a lot younger than this guy and we just don’t give a fuck.” 

Later that night, he asked her to have sex with him in his hotel room. “We had some unsafe sex, which was a terrible decision but I feel like that’s the reality of sugar daddies and sex work,” she said. “Sometimes you make terrible decisions and people want to take advantage of your body and don’t care.” He gave her $400 when they were done. 

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Rachel with her “sugar d spoils” and at home with her cat

Rachel didn’t name a price that first time, and she doesn’t recommend doing so for a number of reasons. “The first is you don’t wanna get caught for prostitution,” she said. Rachel lives in a state where sex work is classified as a felony. Second: “You kinda want them to think that you like them and you’re not in it for the money.” Instead of bringing up a price when clients proposition her, she would agree, but with a caveat“if I get a gift.” When clients ask “how much?” she evades answering. 

Although there is often a glamorous narrative that accompanies stories about sugar babies, Rachel does not recommend sugar babying. “I think a lot of people think you can hang out with older men and get money and stuff, but really it’s a lot of crazy sex and weirdness. But there are exceptions.” Rachel’s exception is her “natural sugar daddy” who she’s known for two years and once tutored in English. They meet once a month but don’t have sex. In fact, they don’t touch each other than the occasional hug. He gives her expensive presents including airline tickets to Japan and $1,000 in cash.

When I asked Rachel if she felt weird having the lines between friend and client blurred, she said, “I feel like women get so much shit just for being a woman. If a guy wants to throw some cash at me and it’s unclear what he wants, I’ll just take it.”

Sex work can be dangerous. Almost two-thirds of all sex workers will experience sexual violence during their careers. A 2004 study found that 1 in 5 people who went to a U.S. emergency room for sexual assault were sex workers. When I asked Rachel how she avoids being taken advantage of, she laughed. She doesn’t believe there’s a way for sex workers to fully protect themselves. “People joke about sugar daddies all the time, but it’s really sketchy.” She told me about a time when a client refused to pay her. “I ended up yelling at him and he was drunk. It was a bad situation.” He did not hurt her though, she added, or she “would’ve killed him.”

Rachel is currently out of her “sugar daddy phase.” She tried escorting once, which she likes more than sugar babying. “I thought that was almost more empowering because then they know it’s a transaction, it’s a service, it’s no bullshit,” she said. “But it’s still really nice. It’s like getting your hair done, you know, you have an nice experience with your hair stylist. It’s a great exchange or whatever, but you know you’re not actually best friends.”

Escorting at a high-end level is also safer. “People want to use condoms,” she said.

Rachel has transitioned from sugar babying to web camming and stripping. Both give her more control over her body and schedule. That’s the upside of sex work, she said: you are your own boss. “I hate people telling me what to do. I can’t imagine being a waitress.” Since last June she has made $11,898 through web camming and averages up to $100 in four hours and, because it’s a legal activity, she files taxes for it.

“I’m an independent contractor for many, many people,” she said. Her work as a stripper is also considered independent contracted work. “You can choose whatever hours you want. You pay to rent the space,” she said. “I expected it to be more like a restaurant where you have a manager, but really, as long as you wear a garter and a nice g-string…you can do whatever you want. It’s kind of awesome.” When I noted that she is still being bossed around by others in the bedroom, she responded that we’re all working in an attention economy: “Aren’t we all ruled by the attention of something?”

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Rachel’s web camming set-up. She notes that “the lighting is key.”

Of all her sex work experiences, Rachel ranks stripping as the most empowering. She has met “cool” people through web camming, but she has also dealt with specific and complex requests like five-bulleted instructions on shipping her used underwear with “very light skidmark(s) so I can see where your butthole has been?” Oh, and could she please “double bag” it and “provide a tracking number”? (She completed that request for $70.)

Above all, she is very aware of the permanent digital evidence web camming leaves behind: “There’s like tons and tons of images of my face out there and me like putting random things in my butt.”

With stripping, it’s easier: “People literally throw money at you for just being there.” She strips 30 minutes away from her school in an area where there aren’t many strip clubs. Even with the strip club’s close proximity to her school, she does not worry about being identified by classmates there. “It’s not illegal, I don’t give a fuck who knows, I’ll tell everybody, I’ll tell my professor,” she said.

“I have this anger at how the sex industry is supposed to be so secret, it makes me so mad sometimes.”

***

Being a sex worker has changed Rachel’s relationship to her body, making her want to be healthier and safer. She also acknowledges that staring at her body through a web cam has made her more obsessive about her appearance. To be successful in her line of work, she has to look pristine. “I have to have everything, manicure, pedicure, laser hair removal, eyelash extensions, perfect everything,” she said. “If I weren’t staring at myself all the time, or being looked at all the time, would I be so obsessed with what I look like? I don’t know…”

I shared with Rachel what Zadie Smith once said about the irresistible allure of pretty girls:

I’ve risked everything for a certain look, for tapered fingers or a particular mole. So I hear you when you say it’s not what she says, not what she does, that it’s on her…Pretty girls lie at the centre of straight culture, dyke culture, fag culture. They sell everything, they buy everything, they ruin great men and women, and finally they ruin themselves, accidentally, simply by getting old.”

Rachel thought Smith was right on the money. “I feel like I would honestly be nothing if I wasn’t attractive. It’s a scary thought. I don’t wanna be older and in the sex industry.” Since her job is often to “manipulate the male gaze,” Rachel knows that it’s dependent on men finding her desirable.

Along with having an effect on her self-esteem, sex work has also affected Rachel’s personal relationships. She has been romantically seeing a man for several months. She feels as if she “could be convinced very easily not to do [sex work]” anymore, but he’s never asked her to stop. “The guy I’m with now doesn’t give a fuck. I’ll come over with bruises up and down my leg from people hitting me, or even bite marks and stuff. And he’s like ‘ehhh, I don’t care,’ and it kind of drives me crazy. How could you not care?” Rachel acknowledges that her feelings about men are complicated. She works in an industry where success sometimes depends on “gross attention” from men, so in her personal life, she says, she may be “addicted to what doesn’t want me.”

“I’m not this hot girl stomping over all these men and feeling great about it…There’s a lot of vulnerability and self-doubt,” Rachel said. Setting the record straight is why she was open to talking with me in the first place. “The positive thing is that I get a bunch of money,” she said, making it clear that she is in sex work for the money, not to explore kinks. If money weren’t a factor, she wouldn’t be selling videos of herself pooping or roleplaying incest on web cams. In her personal life, she describes herself as more “vanilla-ish.” “I feel like guys sometimes invent fetishes because they’re so alone and isolated in their room and are hating women for never talking to them, like, ‘ugh, I would love to see this bitch pee.’”

Rachel plans to continue with sex work until she finishes law school and gets a job. She hopes to become a criminal defense lawyer. Recently at the strip club, one of her clients, a criminal defense attorney, “tried to hook me up with an internship this summer” that she’s hopeful will come through.

Her advice to others who want to get into the sex industry? “Wear thick underwear and don’t let strangers stick their fingers in your ass,” she said. “Don’t get swept up in the glamour, don’t give in to the rush of recklessness, because in the end, it is all an image. Everything is just an image. It’s a lot more than a transaction of sex or a lap dance. People are also paying to feel a certain way, they’re paying to feel powerful, they’re paying to feel like their boss, picking you up in a private roomthey’re paying so they can feel like they identify to Lil Wayne lyrics. And that’s all bullshit. So just see past the image. Think about it seriously. Have paying off your rent in mind when you’re doing it.”

 

*Name has been changed.

 

Our Hair, Ourselves

For some women, losing their hair can mean losing a piece of who they are. I talked to a friend about how that feels.

 By Frida Oskarsdottir

For many women, hair is a significant facet of public and personal identity. From a young age, women are categorized socially by hair color and length, texture and style, reduced to features acquired genetically or at the price of a straightener or bottle of dye. The gendered imbalance of the importance of hair is evident in our language; referring to “the blonde over there” still conjures for most an image of a female-bodied person. In black culture, the phrase “good hair,” described by Lauren Walker as a reference to to hair that is naturally wavy, not kinkyis mostly reserved for women. The existence of the term itself exemplifies the complicated politics of hair within different realms, often a confluence of gender, race, class, and power dynamics.

For these reasons, discussing female hair loss remains taboo despite women making up 40% of the 50 million Americans experiencing it. Academic research supports the idea that hair weighs more heavily on feminine identities. In her studies on the subject, Priya Dua defines “hair work” as 

a technology of the self and/or the body wherein hair is a tool that women use to construct identity in everyday social interaction. These processes are located at the interstices of femininity, gender, normality, health, and beauty. Hair work is something that women are socialized into…hair loss is something that women need to be more concerned with than men.

In order to explore these ideas I spoke with a close friend about her own experiences with hair loss and identity. Michelle* is a 30-year-old nurse whose thinning hair has impacted her self-image in different ways over the last decade. “I feel like I was always aware of my hair being flat and fine,” she says, over drinks in Brooklyn. “It just wasn’t thick. In my early twenties, in the midst of nursing school I became more conscious of it. I’d start noticing that I could see my scalp in certain angles, or that I could see the ridge of my head through my hair.”

After doing research online and finding few options, she decided to see a doctor. She recalls that “he basically dismissed my claims and came off as incredibly insensitive. He was bald himself and made the joke that, ‘Hey it’s hard for men, too!’ I left just devastated thinking this was my fate, that this was happening and I couldn’t do anything.”

When asked what was most upsetting about noticing her hair thinning, she responds, “It’s just another part of the aging process that makes you feel like you’re losing yourself. This is the face I’ve looked at my whole life, this is the hair I’ve had, and it’s going away.” Hair is also a big part of her personal fashion. “It’s kind of your everyday, permanent persona. I wear a lot of black, I like my boots. My hair and shorter bangs are kind of goth, kind of edgy. It definitely influences my style.” Being a nurse means having to wear a uniform, and she finds that just having a slightly out of the ordinary hairstyle makes her stand out to her patients. “At work my hair draws attention – mostly because of my bangs which are kind of Betty Page-esque-and people comment and say it’s different.” She laughs, “People tell me every week that I look like the girl from NCIS.”

“This is the face I’ve looked at my whole life, this is the hair I’ve had, and it’s going away.”

The physical differences between male and female hair loss contribute to varying societal perceptions of the condition. NYU Langone Medical Center reports that for men the most common form of hair loss, androgenetic alopecia, can start anytime after puberty and the likelihood of going bald as a result is high. For women, the same condition typically begins later, and while it may cause hair to thin dramatically it rarely leads to baldness. Michelle says, “the way my doctor explained it to me that it’s like trees in a forest. You have the same amount of trees but instead of thick tree trunks they’re skinnier.”

Because of the pattern of female hair loss, dealing with thinning hair can be a performance steeped in disguise. Although most people likely wouldn’t notice that Michelle’s long dark hair is thinning when they meet her, she explains that the uncertainty of how noticeable it is leads to anxiety and precautionary behavior. “There’s certain ways I won’t wear my hair and certain things I don’t do which I think would draw attention to it. I’ll see pictures of myself and think how obvious it must be.”

In a time of changing norms, new pronouns, and fluid gender, experimenting with personal identity often begins with hair. However, the element of control is lost when it comes to naturally thinning hair.   “I see women all the time who are bald or with super short hair who are beautiful. But most of time it’s a choice to have a short haircut, they have the right head shape and it’s a whole look,” Michelle notes.  

Her concerns about her hair lead to issues of intimacy, even in non-romantic relationships. “I remember a few years ago I was goofing off with my friend,” Michelle recalls.“She was being funny and pretending to pick stuff out of my hair like a monkey and she goes, ‘Oh my god I can see your scalp!’ And she said it so innocently and she was genuinely surprised and didn’t mean anything by it but I jerked my head back and snapped at her and walked away. I was surprised by how much it affected me.” This fear of naming the issue is echoed in Dua’s studies, which found women often only bringing up the subject to “safe people,” indicating how far-reaching the taboo is.  

“I’d like to think that I will be this badass woman who doesn’t care what anyone thinks but I do now, I care about how people see me.”

One of Michelle’s “safe people” was an ex-boyfriend, the first romantic partner she ever opened up to about her concerns. According to her it made it easier to talk to him because his hair was also thinning. “We were even able to joke about it. We broke up on good terms and during one of our final conversations it felt like there was closure and I said ‘Maybe one day down the road I’ll turn and see your bald head and you’ll turn and see mine,’ and we both laughed really hard.”

At this stage in her life Michelle feels more equipped to deal with her hair concerns. “Since it’s been over the course of many years I think more and more I’m coming to terms with it and treating it like any other aspect of my personal care.” But insecurities still crop up, particularly about the future. “I think about it because I’m not in a relationship right now and it makes me think about when I find someone that loves me, are they going to love me if I lose my hair? More importantly, I have to love myself, and this issue can impact that. I’d like to think that I will be this badass woman who doesn’t care what anyone thinks but I do now, I care about how people see me.”
*Michelle requested we not use her real name due to the sensitive nature of this interview