Why the millennial focus on body positivity and self-love won’t topple the everloving terror of balding.

Men's Balding
Credit: Jackson E. Joyce

Anthony first noticed his hairline receding in his late teens. He tried growing out his hair and combing it into a center part to conceal the balding near his temples, though with “a little breeze ... all would be exposed.” He wore hats everywhere. But the fear of being found out as a young man whose youth was literally going down the drain was crippling. “The psychological toll of my hair loss was, and is, profound,” says the 38-year-old, who asked to be referred to by his first name only for privacy. “The anxiety of going out far outweighed any potential enjoyment.”

Despite the millennial push for body positivity and inclusion, one realm of physical appearance still carries a stigma: balding.

It’s a stigma that’s helping fuel a nearly $4 billion industry of hair loss prevention and restoration products in the U.S. alone, as men spring for medications, shampoos, even surgical measures to save their strands. “Hair loss is one of the few issues that can still be made fun of openly,” says Spencer Kobren, who has spent two decades as a hair loss activist and host of the radio show The Bald Truth, which is billed as an on-air support group. “But it really does affect people's lives, and I wish society would recognize that.”

Over the past two years, at least five new hair-growth brands have emerged to ride the wellness wave and target the two-thirds of men who’ll experience noticeable hair loss by age 35. With minimalist product design and cheeky marketing campaigns — “hair today, hair tomorrow” — they are valiantly attempting to make hair-loss treatment cool. (Something Rogaine and Hair Club, previously called Hair Club for Men, never quite managed.) The brands Hims, Keeps, and Roman offer both online medical consultations and hair-growth products, and Good Guy is available as a subscription service and in Wal-Mart stores across the country. “Men are radically more open to self-care now,” says Beth McGroarty, director of research at the nonprofit Global Wellness Institute. “It’s a whole new male consumer.”

But while these brands’ founders want to normalize hair loss and empower men to be proactive about their health — through conversation, education, and Insta-friendly product lines — their businesses are succeeding because balding is not yet celebrated as beautiful. Men who are losing their hair tell InStyle they feel ineffectual, passed over, treated like a punchline. The American Hair Loss Association, a private consumer advocacy group founded by Kobren, calls balding a “devastating disease of the spirit” that affects “nearly every aspect of life.” Or as a 30-something marketing consultant who started losing hair a decade ago told me: “You just don’t want to be that guy.”

But why does hair matter so much to some men, anyway?

To understand the significance of hair loss, it helps to understand the significance of hair. When body hair first sprouts during puberty, it represents becoming a man; when a man loses it from his head, it can feel like his very manhood is slipping through his fingers. “For men in our culture, in general, hair is associated with masculinity and virility and being a ‘real man,’” says Gershen Kaufman, PhD, a psychologist based in Michigan and pioneer in the study of shame. And when a man is “faced with the awareness that I am not what I used to be, that’s infused with shame.”

Hair loss can also make men feel helpless. In most cases, balding is caused by a condition called androgenic alopecia, in which the steroid hormone dihydrotestosterone, or DHT, causes follicles to shrink and stop growing. Stress, diet, medication, and chronic health conditions can also lead to hair loss, but it’s usually genetic — which helps explain why it can feel so threatening. “It feels different than, say, ‘Oh, I can't eat pizza and wings every single night and stay skinny,’ where you feel like you can take action and see results,” says Steven Gutentag, co-founder of Keeps, who started the company after he started losing his own hair. “This feels like something you can’t control, and that's really anxiety-inducing.”

What’s worse: Balding doesn’t typically become visible until you’ve already lost about half your hair, so by the time you realize there’s an issue, it can feel “too late.”

The solutions to hair loss also make some men nervous. Beyond the rise of millennial hair growth brands, scientists around the globe are racing to develop a “cure” for balding, exploring everything from stem-cell treatments to hair follicle cloning. This is a “peak moment” for hair science, according to the creator of the popular hair-growth news site and community FollicleThought.com. For now, though, the Food and Drug Administration has only approved two medical treatments: a topical solution called minoxidil and a daily pill called finasteride. Minoxidil, the generic of Rogaine, works by increasing blood flow to the scalp. Finasteride, the generic of Propecia, lowers DHT levels, which can lead to modest hair regrowth but significant hair retention. These treatments work for the majority of people who use them — however, in rare cases, finasteride has led to temporary sexual dysfunction, and in even rarer cases, permanent sexual dysfunction in men.

It’s also worth noting finasteride carries with it a lifetime commitment: If a man stops taking it, he will in a matter of months lose all the hair he’s managed to hold onto for as long as he’s been on the pill. And neither the pill nor the topical solution are covered by insurance.

Hims, Keeps, and Roman all sell generic versions of finasteride and minoxidil at lower costs than what you’d pay at a brick-and-mortar pharmacy — and without the embarrassment some men feel discussing hair loss to face-to-face. Good Guy sells nutrient-rich shampoo and conditioner as well as a minoxidil serum. They all sell the promise of self-confidence — of not being “that guy.”

The stigma against “that guy” can be traced back to nearly the beginning of recorded time. In the Old Testament, a group of boys tease the prophet Elisha, referring to him as “bald head,” before Elisha sends bears to devour them as punishment. We’ve only elected one (openly) bald president in more than a century, Dwight Eisenhower. (Our current president has said, “The worst thing a man can do is go bald.”) Bald and balding icons in pop culture include Homer Simpson and George Costanza, and villains from Voldemort and Thanos. This isn’t great representation.

To be sure, the past few decades have seen the rise of several bald heartthrobs, from Bruce Willis and Jason Statham to Taye Diggs, Vin Diesel, and Dwayne Johnson. Will Smith went hairless in the 2015 film Suicide Squad, and Breaking Bad’s Aaron Paul has toyed with a barely-there peach fuzz look. Channing Tatum sent women’s sites (like this one) into a tizzy when he debuted a Mr. Clean shave after his breakup with Jenna Dewan, and Jude Law has been hailed as a Master Class in Hair Loss for simply being brave enough to continue being around, even as less and less of his hair is. But as nearly every man I spoke with told me, not every guy feels like he can pull off the totally bald look — and not every guy wants to shave his head. “Those are the anomalies,” says Kobren. “As your hairline erodes, so [can] your self-esteem.”

And so, many men fear hair loss before it even begins. Earlier this year actor Rob Lowe described watching Prince William go bald as “one of the great traumatic experiences of my life.” A friend recently told me her husband has a house rule: Don’t talk about the hairs in front of them — it might scare them. The fear can be consuming.

It’s possible, though, that capitalism may actually contribute to acceptance. While they surely inform men’s understanding of physical ideals, the new crop of millennial-focused hair-loss brands are also selling a way for guys to address their fear and shame. None of the brands try to push one “look” on clients, and none mock them for losing their hair. They treat balding as entirely normal, as part of being a man.

“We are trying to make men aware that they have options, so they can feel like they have choices throughout their life,” says Hims’ founder Andrew Dudum, echoing an argument women have made for female body inclusivity for decades. “If you like the shaved-head-bald look with a really cool beard and hipster sunglasses — amazing.” If not, he says, you can do something about it.

Dudum’s hope is that his company will empower men, who research has shown avoid going to the doctor, to take control of their health — first with hair loss, then with other stigmatized issues, from sexual dysfunction to prostate or heart health.

They are simply starting at the roots.