When Women Go Bald

A scientist’s painful battle with balding drives her pursuit of the genetic basis for extreme hair loss.

  1. On a Friday morning last June, Efrat Fadida threw a denim jacket over her white summer blouse and caught a ride with her father from the small Israeli town of Gedera east to Jerusalem. Walking into Hadassah University Medical Center, the 25-year-old cut a striking figure: high cheekbones, a square jawline, and a scalp as bare as the day she was born. Fadida suffers from alopecia universalis, a genetically influenced autoimmune disease that can strike at any age, causing all the body’s hair to fall out. She had come to Hadassah to meet a team of gene hunters.

    “I’ve had this disease a year,” Fadida told the researchers, speaking in simple declarative sentences and using her fingers to draw quotation marks around the word disease. “It started in small bald spots. It became very big, so I decided to shave my head. The only thing that bothers me is that I don’t have any eyebrows or eyelashes. I’ve learned to love myself.” What she didn’t say was that she hadn’t always been so accepting, although four others in her family have the same disorder. As Fadida’s hair began to disappear, she grew skittish about shampooing. She worried that her boyfriend would leave her. For the first month she cried constantly. Today, living with supportive parents, she no longer dates her boyfriend and remains wary of others’ reactions. “I put makeup on, but I still look like an ill person,” she says. “When people see me, they think automatically that I have cancer.”

    Recently, geneticists have started...

Originally published in Discover, February 2006