This Magazine

Progressive politics, ideas & culture

July-August 2022

Facing bald

There is no playbook for aging in a non-binary body

Alex Manley


The thought only seems to come in the mirror. It plays out staccato, like a chess game, tennis match, sword fight.

It’s helping. No, it’s not. It could be. It’s obviously not helping. Look, the spot there, a bit back from the front, to the left—no, the right—it’s barer than before. OK. So maybe it’s not helping—but if I wasn’t doing it, it might be even worse than it is now.

I’m talking about the Rogaine. I’ve been rubbing its foam into my scalp—nominally twice a day, though, like any non-binary writer with ADHD and anxiety, I’m far from perfect at remembering—and have been for about a year now. To address My Problem, which people still call “male pattern baldness.” A box of three tubes—a three-month supply—can run you anywhere from about $100 to $150, but apparently no longer requires a prescription in Quebec, as it did when I first started using it. I still couldn’t tell you if it’s helping or not.

Of course, it’s embarrassing. Rogaine feels like such an awfully cis-het man product to me. It speaks, above all, I believe, to a male desire to be attractive to women. I feel like the gay community is relatively comfortable with sexy bald men, that it’s possible to be a sexy gay guy without the thick head of hair or the flowing locks. But, as I began to seriously confront the fact that my hair was thinning a few years back, the question of how this affected me as a non-binary person arose alongside it.

My first act as a non-binary person, after all, was dyeing my hair pink. I made the decision before I’d even come out; it was a statement choice, and a photo of my new ’do was the exclamation point on the sentence. Along with the cut, the colour cost north of $250, a bracing welcome to the world of femininity via professional hair care. My days of $20 barbershop cuts—in places where the men sometimes seemed like they were fighting to see who could say the most sexist thing—were over.

Though my gender does not line up with the sex I was assigned at birth, my experience with dysphoria has been a bit all over the place. I quite like having a penis, though honestly I don’t especially care for testicles, and I do dream at times of being able to try having a vulva and vagina—just as an option. I don’t mind being tall, but I do wish I was skinnier in a way that I recognize as feminine—because I, too, have internalized the idea that skinniness and feminine sexiness are inextricable from one another. I don’t crave surgery—but I wish I didn’t have facial hair or body hair, and if I ever had the money I’d probably look into laser hair removal. I think typically male modes of dress are largely boring, but it’s a boringness I feel comfortable in, and I have close to zero interest in wearing dresses or skirts. I’m curious about makeup, a little bit, and I wear eyeliner on occasion, and nail polish often, but most of it feels overwhelming. I’ve largely stopped wearing them entirely. I think about going on hormones every now and then, but they don’t call to me the way they do for many trans people.

On some level, then, I understood that hair was the easiest, best, most fun place for me to express my gender. Since the pink, I’ve gone back to get it dyed silver, pink again (though this time a subtler one), and, most recently, turquoise. Watching the colours fade over the first few weeks to a uniform blond, and then watching the blond hold tight while my natural brown sprouts irrepressibly up below it, has been fun. I’m 33 now, but for a long, long time—all through my teens and 20s—my hair was a place of conformity, one that, on some level, I longed to use for exploring, but didn’t know how to bring myself to. Coming out finally allowed me to confront, and satisfy, that desire. It felt, to use a word that comes up a fair amount in gender discussions, affirming.

One of the things I love about transness is its ability to subsume the world, the way it functions as a lens, the way everything can be considered in a trans light, in a trans context—even hair loss. One of the most beautiful things I’ve ever read is a sentence about transness I saw on Twitter. It was something like, “every person assigned male at birth has a potential breast size and they’ll never find out what it is unless they start taking hormones.” The idea that our bodies contain within them the blueprints for gender markers we do not claim as our own is a fascinating and unsounded depth of human thought, a beautiful, glittering pool whose bottom we have not yet attempted to touch.

American trans author Thomas Page McBee has at least done a jackknife dive into those waters. As he writes in his wrenching, gorgeous memoir, Man Alive, “In more anxious moments, washing my hands in single-stall gas station johns, I hoped that being a man would not feel like pretending. I looked in the mirror and tried to imagine myself into being. I could have a deep voice or a reedy one, I could become bald or not, I could be skinny or muscular, hairy or pimply. I was a mystery to myself, and yet my body knew what it needed. My body waited for me.”

I wondered what that might be like, the idea of anticipating a baldness, of awaiting it like one might await a child, that your body failing you was somehow a sign of rightness, of success. It was a hopeful concept, but one I felt outside of. Did any older trans women rejoice to find out they could no longer achieve erections? At least going grey, and then white, is gender neutral.

Still, for what feels like the overwhelming majority of out trans and non-binary people today, the questions of bodily aging remain academic. The one fact about trans ages that I’ve seen cited often—that trans women die on average at the age of 35—has since been debunked in a 2019 article in The Stranger, though the study it stemmed from did shine a spotlight on trans women of colour’s alarming vulnerability to acts of (almost always male) violence. Elsewhere, there simply isn’t a lot of data on the subject yet, given that non-binary people are still fighting to be recognized in the medical literature to begin with. The figures that are available—and Canada made a big step forward on this account when it released data from the 2021 census, which contained a question about non-cis gender identities, in April—suggest that trans and non-binary people, as a cohort, are younger than the general population, seemingly in large part because younger people come out at higher rates than older people: Canadian Gen Zers are about six and a half times more likely to identify as trans or non-binary than those born in 1945 or earlier (0.79 percent of the age cohort versus 0.12 percent, respectively). And with a growing acceptance of transness leading to even young children coming out, it’s plausible that the median age for trans people is actually dropping even as our numbers swell.

At 33, I’m hardly an ancient trans person, but it often feels like I’m over a decade removed from where the action is. Which means, for better or for worse, that the embodied experiences I’m living through are ones that so many trans people haven’t encountered yet, and, in many cases, haven’t even begun to consider. And while many trans people will find themselves aching for a different kind of aging as they hit middle age, as their bodies begin to deteriorate and change in sexed ways that may feel like betrayals, there is simply no playbook for aging in a non-binary body. It’s a kind of freedom, of course, but also a form of aloneness.

When was the last time you saw a sexy bald woman? I don’t mean a woman with her hair shaved close, like Amber Rose or V for Vendetta-era Natalie Portman. I mean a woman with a Mr. Clean-style cue-ball head—or worse, the inescapably “male” look that mixes sheer baldness on top with hair around the back and sides. Mainstream conceptions of female sexiness are so wedded to thick hair flowing from the top of the head that it’s conceptually hard for many people to imagine a beautiful woman without it. So, while the first signifier of beginning to go bald may be that one is moving away from youth, to begin to go bald is also to move inexorably away from femininity, or at least from the possibility of expressing a traditionally feminine beauty.

For someone who was just coming into my appreciation, in a real way, of that potential in my male-presenting body, that was a blow. I was only beginning, it felt like, to become myself, when genes, hormones, the inscrutable hard-coded logics of the body were already robbing me of the fullness of that self. I would never be the me I could have been.

Of course, no one is guaranteed beauty, particularly if your ideas of beauty have been passed down to you by mainstream culture, as they have been for so many of us. We don’t deserve that narrow ideal of beauty, we aren’t promised it. That’s sort of the point—it’s more a measure of what some people have and most others don’t than it is any one set of visual standards. We see that in the way ideals shift. People love to parrot that old saying that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but what’s more interesting about it is that certain time- and place-specific groups of beholders all seem to agree on a specific look, only for it to fall out of favour as soon as you cross a border, whether between countries or between decades.

So, I think about wigs, another hallmark of trans life. They can make any kind of wig these days—they could make a wig that looks like the hair I wish I had—short and masculine in length, unmistakably feminine in colour. Do I have wig money? Do I have wig confidence? Do I have a certain wig je ne sais quoi? Would wearing a wig make me feel more like a sad businessman with a toupée or an over-the-top drag queen? Would wearing a wig feel non-binary to me?

Recently, I’ve seen several meme-ified variations of a phrase on Twitter: non-binary people don’t owe anyone androgyny. But that doesn’t mean some of us don’t feel like we do, don’t feel that we’re not being “queer enough.” Did I recently describe myself to a friend as “diet trans” for feeling like my transness wasn’t, as people say, “embodied” enough? I did. Do I feel guilty whenever I let my nail polish lapse? I do. And when an old friend offered to take me out to get my ears pierced and I took over half a year off before getting back to her? It ate at me. How will I feel when it’s too late for me, when the hole in the ozone layer of my hair grows too big to paper over and I need to embrace being bald?

I lied about the mirror earlier, actually. I also think about My Problem in summer, when I’m caught in an unexpected rain, fat droplets thinning my hair down to what feels like nothing, exposing the weak spots. Like I’m made of something sweet and sticky that dissolves in water. Spun sugar. Of course, no one is guaranteed beauty. I’m still in mourning for the body I wanted, will never be the me I could have been. But I hope the
next wave of non-binary kids gets to make the most out of their hair while they still have it. And with luck, maybe one day I’ll be the older non-binary person a younger version of me sees as a model for aging gracefully.

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