WHEN THOMAS CARTY went skydiving last year, it wasn’t the idea of jumping out of a plane that scared him.
It was his hair.
Carty was balding and had recently employed the use of a hair system—or, more plainly, a toupee—across his crown, where the thinning was most apparent. When he found out that skydiving wouldn’t require a helmet, he realised that his fake hair would be colliding head on with some very real high velocity winds.
“The entire day I was incredibly stressed,” he says. “I was certain that after I jumped out of the plane, my deepest darkest secret would be exposed for the world to see. You can see the stress in my eyes leading up to it. Surprisingly though, the hair system ended up holding on for dear life and stayed on.”
Carty had been aware of his thinning hair since 16, when a classmate pointed it out. It came as a shock because, growing up, many people commented on how thick his hair was, but from the ages of 17 to 20, his hairline retreated precipitously. To combat it, he tried various anti-hair-loss techniques—both clinical, like the drug Finasteride and micro-needling, and unproven, like rubbing olive oil on his scalp and doing 10 minute handstands to increase blood flow to the area—but to no avail. Then one day, while looking at hair loss videos on YouTube, the streaming service recommended one from the channel BaldCafe.
To Carty's surprise, BaldCafe was filled with videos of men shaving their heads and ending with a big reveal: They looked infinitely younger, more handsome, and more confident afterwards. These men would discuss how they felt about balding with a surprising amount of vulnerability. The videos themselves had a strangely satisfying quality, almost ASMR-like in their transfixing, soothing appeal. There was something cathartic in hearing the buzz of the clippers and watching the razor plow through a field of thinning, wispy strands of hair, to reveal the dignified stubble beneath. Like a caterpillar into a butterfly, it promised that we can be reborn as something better than ourselves—that an optimised version of ourselves is already within us.
Carty had noticed that some of his friends had thinning hair, too, but the idea of discussing their shared struggle felt taboo, like he'd inadvertently joined a brotherhood sworn to secrecy. On BaldCafe, not only was hair loss spoken about, men did so frankly, with a hopeful, optimistic attitude. “The videos seemed very positive and [showed] a great community of like minded men going through the same thing,” Carty says.
Suddenly, a problem that felt so all-consuming and life-defining seemed like something he could actually overcome. And he was far from alone in his fandom. BaldCafe videos can rack up tens of millions of views, a hint at the powerful, purgative, and imminently gratifying act of seeing a man take control of a problem and conquer it. They’re a look at how small transformations can make a big difference; they are a window into our cultural ideas of masculinity, self-image, power, and so much more.
In February, Carty semi-officially joined those ranks by submitting his own video to the channel; it's a nine-minute odyssey in which he first removes his ball cap, then toupee, before finally beginning to shear away what's beneath. Along the way, his narration shifts from guarded and confessional to ultimately upbeat and inspirational, which may be part of the reason the video has racked up 2.8 million views.
“It was a weight off my shoulders once I finally shaved my head,” Carty says (pun very much intended). “All of those insecurities, the times when I turned down sports and events purely because I thought my head would be exposed. Now I can do anything freely, with no worries about how I look.”
BALDCAFE IS the digital gathering spot created and overseen by Harry James, who is, indeed, a bald man named Harry. He lives in Southampton, and since 2018 has carved out a small but mighty corner on the Internet: an 93,000 subscriber-strong YouTube channel that covers all aspects of losing your hair. But, most of all, it offers a shocking yet obvious solution to balding men, one that may have previously been unthinkable and even counter-intuitive: to shave their heads. For many men, losing your hair can be a highly-charged, deeply emotional journey, one that can feel embarrassing or even shameful, despite the regularity with which it occurs. Moreover, there’s a dearth of forums where men can voice these anxieties, leaving them to obsess over it internally, with no outlet.
As such BaldCafe has become much more than some YouTube channel of instructional videos or pep talks, though it is that. To its members it acts as a support group, a safe space to confront their deepest insecurities, and a place to imagine a future for themselves without hair.
James, 30, is himself an affable, loquacious man with a killer smile, and a beautiful, smooth noggin. He often sports a beard, ranging from a debonair Hollywood stubble to mountain man whiskers, and talks easily, with the cadence of a natural born motivational speaker. “I remember feeling really sort of helpless about it all,” he told me of going bald, which he noticed in his early 20s. “I just didn't know what to do, didn't feel comfortable talking to anyone about it, I felt embarrassed.” So James built daily rituals around his thinning hair, like arriving late to his classes and then sitting in the back. If he did sit in front of someone, he obsessed over the idea of them looking at his balding pate. When he heard people laugh, he’d assumed it was about him. An obscene amount of mental power was dedicated to his hair. It was exhausting. “It really took up so much of my energy,” he says.
James wanted to open up to his father—who was bald himself—but couldn't find the words. One day, he finally unburdened himself to a colleague at work, a woman a few years older who had a calming presence. It was then that he realised just how much emotional baggage was tied up in not talking about his own hair loss, along with his own ability to reconcile with it, and he realised he couldn’t live like that anymore. “I was like, right, I’ve got to take control of this now. I just want to be done with this, to draw a line in the sand here. I want to move past it. I want to transcend this, to conquer it.”
Two months later, James shaved his head.
The feeling of relief was freeing, almost overwhelmingly so. “I was no longer hiding, and I got so much relief from that.” Beyond overcoming a personal obstacle, he felt he was standing up to an industry built around making men feel insecure for losing their hair, an occurrence that affects many millions of men throughout their lifetimes. “I felt proud of myself for not buying into that, like I need to do certain things to please society. It gave me a newfound level of confidence. In all honesty, I felt more confident than I did before because I'd done this thing that was such a challenge.”
His journey into founding a YouTube channel dedicated to balding began around three years ago, largely as a fluke. James had started building a different channel for reviewing various apps, when he came across a photo editing app meant to alter and upgrade one’s appearances—to endow a person with six pack abs, say, or a fuller head of hair. During his video assessment he veered into a critique of the way this app played on our deepest vulnerabilities, eventually sharing his hair loss experience, and the subsequent decision to shave his head. After posting, comments immediately began rolling in from men thanking him; he sensed that there was an appetite for this sort of content, and that many men could benefit from this honest dialogue.
“Knowing how much of an ordeal that was—losing my hair, shaving it, accepting it, and then embracing it—I used that as fuel. Those comments showed me that, if I could use my experience and help even a few men go from where I was to where I am now? I should absolutely share this.”
The channel debuted in June 2018 with instructional videos about hair loss—tips on shaving techniques, reviews of different razors, that sort of thing. The more he posted the more feedback he’d receive, and men started reaching out and offering to share their own experiences, and even film themselves shaving their heads. He'd share those, too, with the tremendous amount of attention drawing even more personal stories and submissions. And so, one of most surprisingly honest, inclusive, and body-positive communities on the Internet was born.
AS BALDCAFE HAS evolved, James has gotten even more involved in helping others feel empowered. Take the experience of Dale Horn III, a 21-year-old student at the University of Central Arkansas, who first noticed his thinning hair at 17. “It really bothered me because I didn't have any friends around my age that could relate,” he says. “It felt like I was ‘ageing’ too quickly, which was not a good feeling.” Everyone making comments only made it worse. “[It] can really mess with your self-esteem,” he says.
Horn discovered BaldCafe in 2019 while searching for videos about shaving one’s head. He had already considered hair transplants (too expensive) or medication (weird side effects) and was now, “trying to hear other people's stories with hair loss and how they finally decided to shave their head,” he says. “I was also looking for how people felt after finishing the deed. I was mainly trying to find people to relate to and help me not feel alone in it, and I was also curious if there were any other young men around my age that had gone through what I was going through.”
Finding James and BaldCafe was just what Horn needed. “It showed me other men that were in my shoes, showing their vulnerable side, taking the step to get balding over with and continue in a confident, healthy life,” he says. “It was really cool to see someone, Harry, talk the men through it and give them the reassurance and motivation to get the deed over with. I wasn't expecting to find that and it was really cool to see. Something about the way Harry talked to the men really made me feel OK with balding and that, at the end of the day, you are not alone or weird.”
But before he shaved his head, Horn decided he wanted to reach out to James, “because he was the last person I wanted to talk to before I shaved my head. I knew he would be real with me and connect with me in a way most men were not willing to do.” James asked Horn if he could record their conversation, in case he felt comfortable letting him post it to his page.
That video, entitled Balding at 20, shows Horn and James talking before Horn finally takes the buzzer to his head. It humanises the debate that many men feel in a way that other entries on the sit, ones where a decision has obviously already been reached, don't necessarily do. “I just want my confidence back, I want it off my mind,” Horn tells James at one point, looking exhausted. There’s a really wonderful moment at the end of the ten minute video, which was posted in December 2019 and has nearly a million views, where Horn finally rubs his freshly shorn head and looks into the camera. “It’s scary,” he says, “but so are a lot of things in life.”
“By the time the deed was over with,” Horn says, “I already felt so much better that I was okay with sharing my story.”
Clinical psychologist Dr. Stephen Blumenthal, Ph.D., has a theory why our hair has become so culturally affixed to ideas of self-worth and masculinity. “Imagine all the stories which have been told and retold through the millennia,” he says. “The stories which survive do so because they resonate with our deepest fears and desires. The story of Samson and Delilah is one of those. It connects strength with hair. This suggests that hair loss is deeply embedded as a sign of strength and virility in our collective consciousness.”
Additionally, hair, and the loss of it, can represent a profound part of the human experience. “There is an important fact of life which we find hard to come to terms with, this is the passing of time,” Dr. Blumenthal says. “Much that we’d like to, we can’t stop the clock. Our selves are embodied in an ageing shell which decays with the passing of time. Hair loss is a reminder that we are not forever young. We are getting older with each passing day.”
In a similar way, though, shaving our heads can represent, in a way, our ability to overcome obstacles, to exert some amount of control over the unpredictable world around us. It shows us, no matter how right or wrong, our destiny is in our hands.
FOR HIS PART, James understands that a culture of emotional suppression is part of the engine that has fuelled his vertiginous ascent on social media. There is so much shame, embarrassment, and anxiety built into losing one’s hair, and men, generally speaking, aren’t encouraged to express their feelings in the same way women are. As such there aren’t many forums for voicing those fears. When men agree to talk to James on camera—and he tells me he never solicits them, they come to him—he simply asks them how they feel, which is akin to jamming a spigot into the Hoover Dam and letting the outpouring wash over him.
“I think that something that has quite taken me by surprise,” James says, “is, a lot of guys, start with a little disclaimer. They're like, I don't have anyone to talk to about this, or I don't feel comfortable talking to anyone about this. Or, literally: Help me, what do I do?” While James may have stumbled upon this vocation, he has the perfect temperament for it. Watch any of the many videos and you’ll see the sympathetic way he listens, the sincere encouragement he gives, and sharp advice he doles out with a friendly ease. “I say: Just tell me about it. Talk to me about it. And don't hold back. If this is really getting you down, go for it,” he says. “Getting those feelings and emotions and worries out there is the first step. And then they just feel that little bit more in control.”
In fact, James tries his best to respond to every comment he gets on social media and through YouTube, but that’s become damn near impossible these days, something he feels terrible about. It’s easy to see why: he sent me some screenshots from men saying that he’s, quite literally, changed their lives for the better. It’s partly for that reason he recently put in his notice at his day job and is embarking on a new journey for himself—to turn BaldCafe into his full-time job. In addition to running the site, he envisions a book or a documentary in the future. It’s not hard to imagine a Netflix series. Whatever it becomes, James tells me that this all feels fated. “I’m not religious,” he says, “but this feels like it happened for a reason.”
You need only talk to men like Thomas Carty, who went skydiving in a hairpiece, to believe that could well be true. “The biggest advice I can give to people who are going through what I have, is to know that there is a community out there of people who are in a similar situation,” he says. “You are never alone. Embrace change, don’t fight it. Sometimes nature must run its course, and we can only change certain aspects of our life. We may not be able to control this type of situation, but we can control how we react and how we think about it. So embrace it! Embrace change! Seek those in the BaldCafe community and be confident in who you are. You are more than your hair.”
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