Jessica Sample, a psychology student from Staffordshire University, tells us a bit more about her project exploring body image and self-esteem in women with alopecia.

Why did you want to study alopecia?

I decided to create my psychology research project on the topic of body image and self-esteem in women with alopecia as I have had alopecia for 12 years now and I wanted to research something close to my heart. I know that from personal experience struggling with body image, self-esteem and confidence issues is a very real part of living with alopecia. I was interested to explore if this was also the case for other women with alopecia or if they all had very different experiences. I was aware that there has been a lot of research around alopecia induced by chemotherapy and wanted to expand on that research to focus on other types of alopecia, in particular alopecia areata, totalis and universalis. My main aim for this research was to highlight the psychological impact of alopecia for women and that there may be a need for extra support and interventions to help us through such difficult times.

How did you carry out the study?

To try and gain the most honest and detailed answers I used an open-ended questionnaire, that allowed complete anonymity for participants. This anonymity along with the open-ended questions ensured that participants could be completely truthful and also write as little or as much as they wished. In total, 147 participants volunteered to take part!

What did you find out?

There were two common themes identified in the questionnaires: loss of femininity and a change in appearance. There was also a sub-theme: coping with hair loss.

The theme of ‘Loss of Femininity’ analysed how participants seemed to see hair as a symbol of femininity. Losing their hair may have contributed to feeling like they had lost their femininity and in turn affected self-esteem and body image.

The ’Change in appearance’ theme captured how women talked about themselves and their appearance in accordance with hair loss. How an individual perceives their body image and appearance may have an impact on their self-esteem. Negative body image may lead to low self-esteem and lack of confidence.

Finally, coping with hair loss was a sub-theme, which captured how women talked about coping strategies for hair loss. Women seemed to talk about behaviours that made them feel better about their hair loss, such as putting on makeup or getting new wigs. Despite these coping strategies, we concluded that women perceived their body image and self-esteem more negatively due to the change in appearance that hair loss caused.

Participants identified that social beauty standards conveyed by the media seemed to have sculpted how women perceived their body image, as hair was deemed an important characteristic. However, it was heart-warming to find that not all participants reported negative perceptions towards their body image. There were a small number of women who felt empowered by hair loss and also felt as if they had gained a positive body image.

What next?

The difficulties that people affected by alopecia experience should be acknowledged and addressed in health care settings. This research could be used to help health professionals begin to come up with body image specific psychological interventions to help those affected by hair loss. More research into body image specific interventions should be carried out to ensure that individuals receive the best help possible.