We caught up with Fabio Zucchelli, a research psychologist from CAR, and asked him about his work with those with visible differences, including alopecia.

Tell us something interesting about yourself

Well, I was once Noel Edmonds’ hand double for a Deal or No Deal advert. True story. They dressed me up in a replica of his famous flowery yellow shirt, and I had to hold out a serving tray with the Banker’s telephone on it. So I followed the usual path to academia…

Tell us something slightly less interesting about yourself

I’m a research psychologist based at the brilliant Centre for Appearance Research (or ‘CAR’) at UWE Bristol. I’ve been there since 2016, and absolutely love it. The job, and the city.

What first sparked your interest in visible difference?

Honestly, I think like many people who do not have a visible difference, before I joined CAR I didn’t really have much understanding about it at all. I didn’t think about what it might be like to look different to most people, how others might treat you differently as a result, and how our media-driven culture privileges conventional attractiveness and stigmatises difference.

My first major project at CAR was looking at a type of psychological therapy called ‘Acceptance and Commitment Therapy’ (ACT) for people struggling with visible differences, which ended up being the topic of my PhD. Through that project I met a lot of people living with a visible difference. Having that personal connection really brought all the research papers I’d read to life and motivated me to do my best for the visibly different community.

And what about your work with alopecia?

Again, it was meeting actual people rather than reading papers that got me interested in alopecia. I met hundreds of people with alopecia at the ‘Alopecia UK Big Weekend’ back in 2019, where I ran a workshop on using ACT as a self-help tool, and a focus group with men on their gendered experience of the condition. My former colleague Dr Nick Sharratt and I then worked with Dr Kerry Montgomery and Jen Chambers from Alopecia UK on a project to better understand the underexplored area of men’s experiences of alopecia.

And I haven’t looked back since! We also analysed and reported data that Alopecia UK collected on people’s experiences of NHS care for alopecia, which has helped shape the recently launched Charter for Best Practice for NHS Wig Provision. My motivation just increases the more actual real-world impact our research has.

Regarding the work on the impact of alopecia on men you mentioned, men are often underrepresented in health and psychology research. What would you say to men who might be thinking about taking part in research?

Good question! With our busy lives, I certainly know what it’s like to feel that there’s no time to take a quick survey, or to commit to any more time-consuming research. So I am not preaching from a soapbox. I would just say that we have significant gaps in our collective understanding of men’s psychological and social experiences of many health conditions, and the only way to fill those gaps is for affected men to take part in research. And for many men, it’s that sense of being directly invested in progressing the science which could ultimately help them, possibly their children, and other people with their condition, that drives them to take part.

Basically, “you’ve got to be in it to win it”. So I might just say that.

What psychological research would you like to see being done in alopecia?

I think the findings of our research with Alopecia UK on patients’ experiences of NHS care for alopecia illuminated some major areas for development. One of those things is an apparently pervasive lack of awareness about alopecia from some medical health professionals. And importantly, a lack of understanding of how it can affect people psychologically. There’s a common assumption that it’s purely ‘cosmetic’ and nothing can be done anyway, so people just need to get on with it. This totally dismisses – and in fact, exacerbates – the shock that many experience from developing alopecia, and the significance that out culture places on appearance. So I would certainly love to look at ways of improving health professionals’ awareness of the psychological impact both of alopecia itself and of their own interactions with patients who have alopecia.