Hair today, hair tomorrow

I say, if your head looks bad, put something on it.

By Cary Tennis
Published November 12, 1999 5:00PM (EST)

We do not always know what we want until what we do not want is readily available and then we want it. Vide tiny backpacks, puffy photo albums, Jamba Juice et seq. So it was with a guarded sense of wonder that I greeted last week's news that a Scottish doctor had transplanted four hairs off his head onto the forearm of his wife.

That had never been done before. The results of the experiment, reported in the journal Nature, could mean that someday any head could sprout hair. Scientists are even proclaiming that this may lead to a cure for baldness in the next seven to 10 years. Before this, human hairs had only been transplanted from one spot to another on the same person. The human immune system would reject hairs from other people. How the doctor got around that was that he transplanted not the hair itself, but cells taken from the dermal sheath of the follicle. Those cells enjoy "immune privilege" and were not attacked by his wife's immune system. So now Dr. Amanda Reynolds, wife and colleague of Dr. Colin Jahoda, has four of his little black hairs growing on her forearm there at the University of Durham in the U.K., in addition to the hairs of another man added later for good scientific measure. Oddly enough, DNA tests showed that the hairs that grew are a genetic mixture of hers and his. God knows what that means.

I called them up but they were busy in the lab and couldn't come to the phone. I wanted to ask them if you could transplant a whole bunch of hair all over your body and become like an ape and not have to wear clothes to work anymore, even in the winter. I bet you could but I wanted to know what they thought.

I am awaiting return calls from dermatological experts around the country with whom I wish to consult about my hairy ape idea. In addition, I wish to consult with them about my multi-ethnic hair garden idea. I don't see why you couldn't transplant red hair, blond hair and black hair on your head, put some curly hair up there, some straight hair, blend all kinds together and make a head of hair that has never been seen before. And if the genes of the hairs get together when you transplant cells from the dermal sheath, perhaps the genes would also get into the gene pool and so your children would have the hair of many different races, and bit by bit the world would become populated with people who look like they go only by the name Naomi.

But dermatological experts around the country are not expeditiously returning my calls. Perhaps they consider the likelihood of a stampede for surgically implanted gorilla suits unlikely.

Perhaps they should reconsider. Twenty years ago if I had been calling dermatological experts around the country to tell them that their children would be showing each other their genital piercings in dorm rooms, that girls would be getting Shiva tattooed across their backs and snakes spiraling down their calves and putting silver posts through their tongues and boys would be putting quarter-size discs in their earlobes, they might not have returned my calls either. I find nothing far-fetched.

The problem with making wild custom hair suits right now is that it takes an hour to do two hairs. So to do your whole body, say, if you were a blond with 140,000 hairs on your head, just to do your head would take 70,000 hours. That would be almost eight years of continuous round-the-clock transplanting. You could finish the New Yorker and start on Talk in that amount of time.

I wanted to ask the doctors if they think they can speed up the process, so you could go in and get a head of hair and just read "War and Peace" in the chair and be done, like going to the barber in "2001: A Space Odyssey."

But I guess they were really busy because they didn't call back. Maybe that's a good thing because then I would have been the one to break the bad news to them. You see, there is a major flaw in their concept. And that is this: Your hair should be your own. Hair that is not yours does not belong on you. That's why when someone's hair gets on us we brush it off.

Rather than consider the far-reaching implications of this research, most people see in this only a potential cure for baldness. Besides, I don't think baldness is so bad. Blandness is worse. Men get depressed when their hair falls out. But they don't seem to get depressed when they find themselves saying, "I'm just statusing you on our huddle to be proactive." I'd think a man would be OK with losing his hair but would want to shoot himself when words like that come out.

Dr. Gary Hitzig, a prominent hair-replacement surgeon on Long Island, says that deep depression sometimes accompanies the loss of hair. He himself went bald at 18 and got depressed. I say, Look on the bright side: If you're bald, chances are you have not been castrated. Castratti never lose their hair. Next time you see a handsome young man with a great complexion tossing back his thick, silky mane, think about that.

But then there are many things beyond my understanding. Like those people who obsess over their hair loss.

I have thinning hair but it does not bother me. I like hats. I say if your head looks stupid, put something on it. But men do not seem to like to wear hats.

According to the 1923 World Book Encyclopedia, which I often consult in matters of serious scientific inquiry, "The wearing of close fitting, unventilated hats or caps, and the use of too much alkaline shampoo are said to cause baldness. But in all cases the leading cause is that the hair fails to receive proper food, as a result of poor circulation of blood in the scalp."

That is, of course, entirely incorrect.

The excellent tome goes on to say, "Women wear their hats fewer hours daily than do men, which is also to their advantage, and their headwear is lighter and better ventilated."

Hats do not cause baldness. Baldness has nothing to do with poor circulation to the scalp. Baldness occurs because of an inherited sensitivity of hair follicles to the hormone DHT or 5-dihydrotestosterone.

I say wear hats. You can buy them in stores. You don't have to go to a doctor to get one. They can be expensive, but they're less expensive than surgery. There were over 200,000 hair transplant procedures performed in the United States in 1998. Hair transplantation is estimated to gross upwards of $500 million a year. It's the No. 1 cosmetic surgery for men. (For women the top ones are the chemical peel and sclerotherapy, which is when they do things to your veins. You might think with all the hoo-haw about boob jobs that they'd be up there, but all told there were only about 105,000 boob jobs in 1998, while there were more than 800,000 chemical peels.)

Scientists say females choose mates for their survival potential. Thus muscular, good-looking rich guys with clear skin get chicks. That's how our genes try to survive. So it was a rare glitch -- and quite possibly a biological quirk that will ripple down the genetic stream for untold generations -- when skinny, long-haired guys with bad skin and glasses became desirable mates in the 1960s. It was because for that brief time, long hair was a sign of survival potential, because if you had long hair, you were not in the Army. So your chance of dying in a rice paddy in an undeclared war of dubious provenance was lower than that of a short-haired guy, who might be in the Army, or about to be in the Army. At least you could tell that he wasn't categorically opposed to being in the Army.

Now as then, single men must generally signal their suitability as mates by careful grooming and display behaviors involving hair, shoes and a wallet. Married men such as me can relax somewhat in their grooming and display behavior. My hair has not for many years occupied a central role in my romantic life. Nor has it for many years occupied a central place on the top of my head.

Cary Tennis

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