Hair Stories: "I didn’t really understand what my hair meant to me until it was gone"

Hair is so much more than what we see in the mirror. It’s linked intrinsically to who we are, to our identity, gender, culture and ethnicity, whether it’s the hair on our heads or our bodies. In the July/August issue of IMAGE Magazine, on sale now, Holly O'Neill spoke to seven Irish women on how their relationships with hair has shaped their lives. Here, Amber Jean Rowan, model, actress and founder of Hair Free shares her story.


I didn’t really understand what my hair meant to me until it was gone. It starting falling out when I was 15 as a result of alopecia, and was gone within a year. When you’re 15, anything different is daunting and terrifying. My journey with hairpieces began at around 17. The word “wig” for me has a lot of emotional attachment. Before I needed to wear them, “wig” seemed a very unglamorous word, a word that had a lot of emotional stigma attached to it. Hairpiece is a bit more gentle – it leaves people guessing. A wig means you’re covering something, but a hairpiece is more of an enhancement. Once I got my first good hairpiece, I came out of the salon and felt amazing. I had this long, luscious hair that I could have only dreamed of when I was younger.

 

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When 26-year-old me looks back now, it’s interesting how I thought, and still do sometimes, that long hair equals beauty. My hairpiece for so long was my shield. It made me feel safe. It hid my most vulnerable part of me. I go hair-free more often now, but when I don’t have my hairpiece on, I feel completely vulnerable. It protects me. I still adore wearing hairpieces, but I’m getting to the point where I’m just as comfortable being hair-free as I am wearing a hairpiece. It’s just a case of how you choose to present yourself that day. Hair, no hair – it’s how you feel on the inside.

Related: Emma Dabiri on how her hair has shaped her life

I could appreciate a beautiful picture of me without my hairpiece on, but finding confidence without wearing it has only happened in the last year or so. I’m taking little steps, like arriving at a shoot without my hairpiece on, or going to a talk with my scarf on and taking it off once I’m there. The month I spent in India, I made a promise to myself that I wasn’t going to wear my hairpiece, and that has made a massive difference. It took me until my third day in to take off my headscarf, but once I did, it was so liberating.

 

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I felt safe without my hairpiece on within the complex of the yoga camp in India, but once I went out, those who didn’t know me would stare. I wouldn’t say I’m completely comfortable being hair-free. I’m getting more comfortable when people do stare, perceiving their stare in a more positive way. At the end of the day, hair is just hair; it means so much, but in the same breath it doesn’t. It’s just strands of dead matter that happen to be on our head.

With my website, I wanted to set up something I could have had when I was going through my own hair loss. It’s about finding community and learning how to love ourselves just as we are. Being able to give advice gives you a sense of purpose, but it’s opened up a lot of old wounds and brought up a lot of feelings that I haven’t felt in a while. Having all these people contacting me and sharing their stories, I’m automatically transported to the 15-year-old me. It’s been very therapeutic.

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If I could talk to 15-year-old Amber today, I’d say, “You don’t need to make everyone like you.” A really good expression I learned through acting is just to own yourself. You don’t need approval from anyone. One of the main things I’ve learned is that success in your career doesn’t automatically equate to happiness. It’s other things in life that truly make you happy. A gorgeous quote I posted on my Instagram today was “Don’t define yourself by things that are temporary. Define yourself by things that are eternal.”

Photography by Jakub Koziel.

Read the stories of seven Irish women and their relationships with their hair in the July/August issue of IMAGE Magazine, on sale now. 


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Read more: Hair Stories: Mary Dunne on how her grey hair has made her more confident now than ever

Read more: Hair Stories: Emma Dabiri on how her hair has shaped her life

Read more: Hair Stories: Laylah Beattie on how her hair has shaped her life

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