Photographed by Brayden Olson
For five years, my morning routine rarely changed. I’d wake up with raw eyes, blurred vision and a sore scalp. It’d take a few seconds to remember why: then the reality would sink in after a quick glance in the mirror. There were bald patches between my lashes and brows – and I’d done it on purpose.
It wasn’t always this way. Much to the envy of my friends, I had a full set of thick, dark lashes and a mane that grew at an almost unstoppable rate, while they obsessively checked whether theirs had reached shoulder length.
But secretly I was battling trichotillomania. Aged 16 and with looming exam stress, I’d started to pick out a few lashes here and there, later escalating to my brows and then the hair on my scalp. Although it did occur to me that it wasn’t quite ‘normal’ (partly as my identical twin sister was never affected by it), pulling hairs quickly became addictive. It wasn’t long before bald spots began to resemble the size of 50p coins.
No matter how much I resolved to stop pulling, I couldn’t quite beat the thrill of looking at my desk and seeing hair scattered all over it.
Even so, I couldn’t ignore the downsides. Now that my hair was no longer attached to my body, I realised just how much of a powerful symbol of femininity it really was. I felt singled out – even ostracised – from the invisible club where women with hair (in the right places) were entitled to a lifetime membership.
I took offence to makeup adverts on the tube and TV and skipped past the beauty sections of magazines. It was as if they were taunting me for having deliberately ‘de-womanised’ myself. But most of all, I lived in constant fear of being discovered. There were countless 18th and 20th birthday group shots that I never appeared in. Most likely, I was lurking in dimly lit loos, precariously balancing a pocket mirror and a spare pack of eyelash glue in the low-level lights.
At my most desperate, I resorted to plucking out my pubic hair as there wouldn’t be the typical ‘tell-tale’ signs the next morning. But when my falsies one day revealed my baldness and I had no choice but to come clean, nothing could quite undo the sheer horror that my secret – one I’d assumed I’d painstakingly hidden – was no more.
Overnight, my body had become public property – judged and scrutinised. I was initially met with a resounding chorus of ‘why?’ particularly among my Asian friends who longed for lustrous lashes like the Bollywood icons they idolised – and the ones I once had.
Some had even taken to the running joke: “How can you tell Salma and her twin sister apart? Salma’s the one without eyelashes”. Most memorably, one person had likened it to ‘self-mutilation’. I couldn’t help but see the comparisons: after all, I’d spend hours literally tearing the hair from my scalp, lashes and brows, only to wake up the next morning, repulsed by what I’d done.
But to my surprise, there was one emotion that overrode the humiliation: relief. I was unwittingly afforded the freedom I desperately craved: I was no longer enslaved by the ritualistic hourly mirror check-ups or lugging countless tools in my bag. And I certainly didn’t miss feeling forced to conform to society’s expectation of what a woman should look like.
But as the fifth anniversary of pulling edged closer, I discovered that makeup didn’t have to serve the functional purpose I once designated it to: it could be enjoyable and empowering. I experimented with MAC’s Russian Red and fell in love with Urban Decay’s Powder Blush. One moment I could channel Twiggy’s doe eyes, the next Kat Slater’s overdrawn lips. Those moments cemented my love for makeup (one I didn’t quite realise I had) and its transformative power.
Before long, I’d started spending countless hours perusing beauty counters, the same ones I had actively avoided and which I soon discovered outweighed the thrill I got from pulling. Best of all, mornings were no longer a hellish extension of a late-night binge. Now, new products – not lashes - were jostling for space on my desk.
Like me, a new wave of trich sufferers are embracing beauty’s power to reclaim their bodies. Instead of hiding away like I once did, there’s been a surge in beauty bloggers who are no longer afraid to bare all (often quite literally) about the disorder.
Gweni, who runs www.gbeauty.co.uk, is one such blogger. Her tutorials – namely, eye makeup for no eyelashes, reveals just how much beauty products have been instrumental to her recovery: “Although makeup doesn't actually stop me from pulling, it does give me the confidence to leave the house without feeling like I look “weird”. I don't want to draw attention to hair pulling and it’s helped me achieve that.”
Meanwhile, Sophie behind Pretty and Polished goes one step further, snapping photos without her lashes and brows. She explains: “There's a huge pressure to show a perfect life on Instagram, so it was almost fun to rebel against it and show the 'ugly' side of this disorder.” Even so, she’s yet to brave it offline: “Makeup is such an integral part of my life to the extent I wouldn’t quite know where I'd be without it. Wearing false eyelashes and drawing on my eyebrows allows me to cover the disorder, hide the shame, and pretend to be 'normal'. It doesn’t solve trich or rid me of paranoia but it certainly helps ease the stress.”
Today, I’ve all but beat the disorder. That’s not to say that recovery has been easy nor that there’s a universal ‘cure’ to it. There’s still physical memories: I have patches of hair that never quite grew back and stubby lashes that still don’t curl, even after several layers of mascara.
But I definitely don’t cower away from the beauty counter. Now I’m the one hunting down the latest launches.
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