In 2012, Naomi Campbell stepped out of a beach in Ibiza, and the press went crazy. Her hair had receded to the middle of her scalp. I was shocked! People were shocked! The internet nearly crashed! I love Miss Campbell, and wish I look as good as she does. Nonetheless, seeing her hair like that…?! The experts called it “Traction Alopecia” (Ha! There’s a name for everything!). The so called traction alopecia was something I had seen all my life, in children and adults. To me it was the natural consequence of braiding and plaiting hair, especially amongst black people. As far as I knew, the hair usually grew back. So, I didn’t give it another thought until last month, when my friend Tee asked me: “does Traction Alopecia constitute child abuse? She is a doctor, and she told me it was a question that had nagged her, and her colleagues for a while.
I went snooping around for scientific aspects of traction alopecia. I aimed to discover: (1) is it preventable and (2) can adults be exonerated from blame when it happens to children? I found that hair follicles are delicate and if strained for long periods of time, can cease to grow hairs. If hairstyles constantly pull the hair, they create tension on the scalp. Eventually, this can cause damage to the follicles. Traction alopecia is not a medical condition, and it solely relates to how we treat our hair. It’s usually not painful, so its occurrence is likely to go unnoticed until evident bald patches or alopecia start to appear. It differs from other kinds of hair loss because, it occurs after consistent pulling on the hair follicles/roots over a period of time. In other words, we can prevent traction alopecia!
The kids aspect!
Getting children to style their hair is usually a nightmare for most parents. Afro hair especially, can be coarse and difficult to maintain. Therefore, resorting to long term styles like braids is normally the option. I struggle with controlling my daughters hair, so I get it. I can also understand adults like Miss Campbell wearing hairstyles that eventually cause traction alopecia. Nonetheless, I despair at the sight of children with bad cases of traction alopecia. I can understand the initial tiny patches, but when a child’s hairline recedes so much, and she still has tight braids; that is torturous. Other follicles killers include; tight hair extensions, cornrows, ponytails, and buns. Interestingly, children are hardly given choices as to how loosely or tightly they want their hair. Even when they cry out in pain, stylists continue without flinching. We parents sometimes tell them off for crying. I have seen children (including my daughters) walk around with pain inflicted postures after braiding their hair.
The good news is that, unlike other causes of hair loss, traction alopecia can be reversed if caught early. The key is stopping the wearing of tight hairstyles and extensions to allow hair’s follicles gain strength again. It can take up to three months for the hair to grow back. Conversely, in severe cases, hair loss cannot be reversed, as the hair follicles are permanently damaged and hair is unable to grow back.
Traction alopecia in children has been linked to bullying. Some children are teased relentlessly for it. I’ve heard of teenagers having serious image issues as a result of it. So, when the price of beauty leads to ugly consequences for a child, it’s not worth it. Whether it constitutes abuse, I’m still pondering on that bit. I believe parents always mean well when they style their children’s hair. The justification for tight tugging of the hair is normally for the style to last long. Ironically, what lasts long in some cases, is the baldness and image alteration that go with it. I think we really need to let children’s hair follicles breath.
Images courtesy of Daily Mail UK
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