Colin Ward tried to tell himself he loved wearing hats. But the truth was his hair had started to disappear. Like many 31-year-olds stuck with inconvenient genes, his from-the-back combover was dredging up diminishing returns as the years went on. That was no secret to anyone in his life, but Ward was determined to fight this battle to the end. As far as he was concerned, denial was superior to the bare-naked alternative. It would take something dramatic to shake him out of the pattern.
“I would just try to hide it. Really, I ignored the problem,” says Ward. “Until last spring.”
Ward lives in Winnipeg, and like the rest of Canada, the city locked down all nonessential businesses in mid-March 2020 when the pandemic hit. Suddenly, Ward found himself extremely bored, absurdly isolated, and, yes, thinning out a little bit more with each passing day.
As Covid-19 escalated into a crisis and it became clear that society would be on hold for a shocking length of time, Ward noticed an emerging trend on Instagram and Reddit. All over the world, the follicularly challenged were arming themselves with a pair of clippers and freeing their scalp, once and for all. Ward was struck by a crucial realization: Finally, he had the chance to shave it all without any social implications or uncomfortable public reveals. As it turns out, being stuck at home while bald and being stuck at home with a full head of hair are remarkably similar experiences.
“I was like, ‘I’m just sitting around. I’m on Zoom calls all day. If I’m at home and not seeing anyone, what better time to test it out and see if I like it?’” says Ward. “If I hated it, I could grow it back.”
Ward attached a guard to his clippers and took a few passes over his head. On his wrist, his smartwatch showed his heart rate was spiking. Invigorated, he removed the guard and went to town, scrapping what was left of his hair into a heap on the floor. That strained combover would never be seen again. He liked the new look instantly and received rave reviews from his partner, his family, and his friends. Ward posted before-and-after photos to r/Bald, Reddit’s foremost hair loss support forum, writing, “Quarantine life got to me, and I decided to go for it.” His fellow Redditors commended his new look (“OMG dude, you look fantastic!” “I’m jealous af”). Like many of the other posters on the forum, the difference is night and day.
The r/Bald community has always provided solidarity to anyone struggling with hair loss, but over the last year, it’s been filled with stories authored by people just like Ward. They’ve watched their tresses disappear for years, and were happy to kick the can down the road indefinitely. But the seismic impact of Covid-19 allowed them the time and space to reconsider their hairlines. A few minutes in front of the mirror with a razor and they’re free.
“The subreddit was just flooded with transformation photos, and in every single one of them I saw they looked better after they shaved it off,” Ward says. “It made me think, ‘Why hold on to a lost cause?’” Ward saw how great people on the subreddit felt and wanted to feel that way about himself.
It is hard to say exactly how many people used quarantine to ditch their hair. In early 2020, as we were still getting accustomed to our new lives, a number of prominent celebrities embraced buzz-cut season. Most of them weren’t balding; they had just grown increasingly annoyed by the moratorium on barbershops. (Ward mentions, though, that the critical mass of everyone going hairless — regardless of the relative thickness or thinness of their mane — was certainly something he noticed.) Last April, The Cut reached out to 17 people who shaved their heads for quarantine, and GQ published a step-by-step guide to a DIY scalp shave. If nothing else, the pandemic has made the hair-free lifestyle pretty chic.
Gershen Kaufman, a former professor of psychology at Michigan State University and someone who has dedicated his life to studying the relationship between shame and body image, believes that the pandemic’s disruption provoked an opportunity for lasting personal change. The beauty industry has made a lot of money rejecting the inevitability of hair loss. There are creams, balms, and laser-powered incubation caps, all of which promise to keep your hair exactly where it is, with varying results. But with trips to the pharmacy off the table and a lot fewer reasons to groom, Kaufman argues that the balding population was then offered a much simpler question: Do you really want to keep this up? Many concluded that they didn’t, and were pleased with what they found afterward.
“I think the pandemic has helped fuel this trend because people have not been attending their usual hair-grooming practices. They have to try something,” says Kaufman. “Once they embrace baldness, they realize that it isn’t so bad. They understand that they can live life this way and feel good about themselves.”
That’s easier said than done. Not everyone owned their new look as sweatlessly as Ward. Josh Rich in Austin, Texas, says he shaved his head as reluctantly as possible. Rich, 39, never liked his hair in the first place. He describes himself as one of those kids who always had hair, but never much of a hairstyle. It was stubbornly curly, always a bit of a mess, and had only grown more unwieldy once it started to disappear. Rich entered the pandemic overdue for a barber’s appointment. There was only one way out.
Still, the idea of shaving it all off — even after reading the success stories on r/Bald — was a hard pill to swallow.
“My wife did it for me. I couldn’t do it myself. I just couldn’t do it,” says Rich. “I had my eyes closed and I just said, ‘Do your best, and we’ll see what it looks like.’”
Rich did not have the kind of joyous experience described by those on the Reddit support group. Instead, he says he had a hard time looking at himself in the mirror for a few days after the purge. He couldn’t quite recognize himself; he was mourning the unkemptness of his adolescent years. (His wife also initially offered a middling reception.) But within a couple weeks, Rich began to fall in love with his new silhouette.
“I was like, ‘This is where it’s at.’ It was so nice to not mess with it on a daily basis. There were some mornings when I was getting ready for work and I was styling my hair to cover everything up,” he says. “I would spend 15 minutes some mornings just trying to fix my hair.”
Rich believes that the pandemic has unleashed chaos into the air. It seems like everyone has intermittently lost their marbles over the last 12 months. He compares his decision to embrace baldness to the many women who dyed their hair pastel hues or cut their own bangs last summer. After all, these grooming choices are born out of plague-ridden thinking — there is little chance of aesthetic backlash or career fallout while living life perpetually indoors.
Frankly, risking it all on a wild new style is one of the strange ways we cope with the manifold tragedies of the pandemic. All of us want proof that we didn’t waste one of our precious few years on the planet staring at the ceiling, accomplishing precisely nothing. So we can approach the anniversary of the stay-at-home orders knowing we tried something new, at least with our hair.
“It caused a lot of people to do things they wouldn’t normally do,” Rich says. “That’s exactly what I told my wife. ‘I don’t know if this is a phase I’m in, but it feels right, right now.’”
Both Rich and Ward have almost logged a full year as proud bald men. This is no longer a test run for either of them. They’ve been blessed with a year to become accustomed to this new phase of their lives, as proud, young bald dudes. They never had to face the humiliation or self-consciousness of walking into a bar as a newly bald person. Instead, all of the growing pains were left in the doldrums of 2020. The lingering apprehension is nowhere to be found. Rich and Ward are leaving the pandemic as different people. The quarantine buzz cut has become permanent.
“I am now fully adjusted. At first it’s not like I hated the look, I thought it looked good, but I was not used to myself. Now, it feels weird to leave it more than a couple days without shaving it,” says Ward. “This is just me, this is how I look, and I’ve come to love it.”