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Defending the Bun: Why My "Look" Never Changes

Tuesday, October 06, 2020

October is BFRB (Body-Focused Repetitive Behaviors) Awareness Month, so I thought I'd share an essay I wrote 15 years ago about a different kind of "coming out."


Defending the Bun: Why My “Look” Never Changes

My name is Leslie, and I wear my hair in a bun.

I tell myself that my hairstyle is classic — timeless and sleek. Yet the reality is that I have been wearing the same hairstyle for approximately 25 years, and the look that worked so well for me in my 20s is now — in my 50s, and many pounds heavier — merely dowdy.

When I take down my hair each night, I delight in its feel as it cascades down my back almost to my waist, its brown color glinting with highlights of chestnut and gold. Each morning, I gather my hair first into a ponytail, then into a bun. This is not the hairstyle I would ever choose under normal circumstances. But I am not normal. My bun is both a form of camouflage and a symbol of my affliction. It covers my personal mark of shame — the mange-like bare spots and the sparse areas of regrowth on my scalp. When I wear my hair in a bun, I can pretend I am making my way through life without the hidden disorder called trichotillomania.

Trichotillomania (trich), or compulsive hair pulling, is a body-focused repetitive disorder affecting millions of people. It is estimated that 1% to 2% of Americans suffer from some form of this disorder, which has no known cure. Because many of us began our trich journeys in childhood, when we learned to hide this “disgusting habit” and live with the shame, there is really no way to know how many people are affected by trich. Unless we are blessed to have found the safe havens of knowledgeable mental health practitioners, local support groups or online communities, it’s something we just don’t discuss. We trichsters become adept at covering the bare spots, finding ways to hit the waves without baring our heads, rising earlier than everyone else at sleepovers and camping trips to allow us time to cover the damage — and we do everything possible to ensure that we never, ever, get caught in a rainstorm without something to cover our heads.

So I wear my hair in a bun. I am the “Before” that Oprah selects for her makeovers: a little pudgy, with schleppy clothing, glasses, and – her favorite target – the schoolmarm bun. I sometimes wonder how her hair team would find a way to give me a new look once they see there’s not a lot to work with under that bun. Through the years, I have been teased and ridiculed for my never-changing hairstyle. Co-workers who see my hairstyle day after day feel no compunction about commenting on my hair. Friends who aren’t aware of my disorder encourage me to update my look (they even share the names of their stylists). Even casual acquaintances who always see my hair in a bun begin to feel they have the right to weigh in.

I wear my hair in a bun to feel as if I am normal, to help me feel as if I really do fit in. But an incident that happened about a year ago made me realize that by wearing my hair in a bun, I set myself apart more than ever.

My husband’s family gathered on the other side of the country for his mother’s funeral. That evening, some of us sat down to decompress by looking at videos from the family’s summer beach house rentals in the mid-1980s. There I was, in picture after picture — with my hair in a bun. One of my nieces said, “There’s Aunt Leslie with her hair in a bun!” She then turned to me, laughing, and told me that my hair had always been a topic of “endless speculation” among the five nieces. I just smiled and continued watching the video.

As the tapes rolled, the good-natured teasing continued: “There’s Aunt Leslie cooking — with her hair in a bun….There’s Aunt Leslie on the deck — with her hair in a bun….There’s Aunt Leslie coming out of the water — hey look, her hair is in a bandana AND a bun.” I laughed along with them, yet I began to feel a twinge of unease, the warning signal that sometimes precedes an episode of what I have come to think of as Defending the Bun. And sure enough, they eventually turned on me, teasingly asking about my big secret, telling me they expected me to wear my hair down the next day. I usually deflect this type of ribbing with humor, responding that the bun is my signature look, so please get off my back.

But that night, in an outburst that surprised me as much as it did them — red-faced, shamed, defensive and embarrassed — I blurted something along the lines of, “I know I wear my hair in my bun, but I have a legitimate reason for doing so, and it’s really nobody’s business but mine.” I will never forget the stunned and hurt look on their faces — and then the silence. A very big silence. Waves of overpowering shame swept through me as I prayed for a hole to open up in the floor so I could crawl in and hide. After what seemed like forever, my sister-in-law defused the tension by saying something like, “You are so right. Well…it’s been a long and emotional day, let’s all go to bed.”

I barely made it to our room before I erupted, gasping and shuddering and sobbing uncontrollably. My husband held me, kissing my forehead and my hair, rubbing my back, offering comfort. After all our years together, I think he finally understood how my trich affects so much of my life, how even innocent remarks have the power to peel away my defenses and leave me exposed. The incident that evening brought back all the shameful feelings I’d experienced since childhood: the feeling of being so different, the fear of being found out, the frustration of not being able to control my compulsive pulling — and most of all, the feeling that I don’t fit in. I cried because none of my friends or family have ever seen me — and probably never will — with my hair down. I recognize that some of my emotions that evening were due not to the bun incident, but in fact resulted from having to say a final goodbye to a nurturing and loving mother-in-law. Yet I couldn’t stop crying. I lay there in bed for hours with my husband’s arms around me, feeling the tears creep down my face, feeling the dampness soak into my pillow — feeling alone and so hopeless.

The following morning, when we were preparing to leave their house to return home, I apologized to my husband’s brother and his wife for my outburst. Then I told them what I wish I’d had the courage to say that night:

My name is Leslie.
I have trichotillomania.
And I wear my hair in a bun.


(Originally published in “In Touch” newsletter of The TLC Foundation for Body-Focused Repetitive Behaviors, Winter 2005. Received permission to share.)
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