In 2009, frustrated and disillusioned with modern hair-care, I turned to paleo. For five years my hair was a touchstone for, and icon of my journey. Then in early July, after months of internal conflict, I let my father cut it all off.
For all of the hemming and hawing that preceded the decision, since I pulled the trigger I have never for a moment regretted my decision.
Though I deliberated far more than necessary, all of the second-guessing allowed me to crystalize my thoughts on human hair and hair care. I will now present these thoughts to you, dear internets.
The saga of my hair
In a way, the paleo chapter of my life was sparked by frustration with dandruff. I had immersed myself in dietary eccentricities much earlier and had long been citing evolutionary logic when explaining my gustatorial peculiarities, but I was not aware of the paleo phenomenon until I saw John Durant on Colbert report. From that instant I was sold but, as anyone who has made radical changes to their diet has no doubt experienced, despite my complete acceptance of the concept, it took a motivating experience to jumpstart actual change.
At that time I was eating what might be described as lax SCD plus rice and I was pretty satisfied with my health. Not only was my IBS-D well managed, but I had not had one of my (once common) chronic sinus infections in ages, and my chronic adult acne had improved to a point that I was willing to live with. I felt that my diet was fairly well dialed-in. I agreed with this paleo concept that John Durant had laid out, but I wasn’t yet motivated enough to disrupt the dietary patterns I had fallen into.
For me, this all changed in an instant, standing in the middle of the shampoo aisle at the local CVS. Over half the shampoos being sold, I realized, were dandruff shampoos. This meant one of two things: either dandruff was a normal part of the human condition (and therefore not worth trying to conquer) or dandruff was a symptom of disfunction, meaning a majority of people were doing something wrong.
I suspected the latter and was suddenly determined to move myself into the asymptomatic minority.
I have been plagued by seborrheic dermatitis quite literally all of my life. From my infancy, when I had the worst case of cradle cap people had ever seen (while still exclusively breast-feeding!), to the present moment, I can recall only three periods when my scalp was flake-free. The first was my senior year in college, when I was shampooing with Head and Shoulders almost every other day. I’ll get to the second and third episodes later, but suffice it to say that they were not easily achieved.
Growing up I had a whole constellation of seemingly unrelated symptoms which I consider evidence of deeper dysfunctions. But as the symptom first to appear and most resistant to change, I’ve come to consider dermatitis as my foundational symptom. Not the primary dysfunction to be sure, but the clue that gets closest to the root of all my issues.
Beginning the experiment
Though I did not make the distinction in my mind at the time, when I set out on my new paleo experiment I was effectively setting out to test two related ideas: that hair is an indicator of robust health, and if robust health is achieved hair will be attractive as a matter of course.
The second idea was premised on the assumption that, given the proper inputs, the body seeks then maintains homeostasis. In such a model, symptoms are mere manifestations of deeper dysfunctions. If you believe that a symptomatic body “wants” to achieve homeostasis but cannot, then I believe it follows that one should strive to disrupt these homeostatic processes as little as possible while still targeting the underlying condition.
As I see it, a symptom suggests one of two possibilities. Either the body has misidentified the proper homeostatic “set point” or the body correctly identifies, but is unable to defend, the proper “set-point”.
In the first case, treating a symptom is likely to cause the body to work even harder to defend its mistaken goal and you end up fighting yourself.
Treating symptoms in the second case is less counter-productive, but if symptoms hint at deeper dysfunctions, then erasing symptoms effectively mutes potentially helpful feedback about the state of the underlying issue.
I see a lot of derision aimed at homeopathy, and perhaps much of it is deserved. But if my (minimally informed) understanding is correct, and a core principal of homeopathy is that homeostasis should be disrupted as little as possible, and another is that the innate drive to achieve homeostasis should be leveraged whenever possible, then I will remain very sympathetic to the practice no matter what Mark Sisson says.
The shampoo racket
The mainstream approach to health and beauty is quite the opposite.
The body secretes a certain amount oil on the skin and hair and has mechanisms to manage this amount of oil. For most of my life I had very oily skin and saw no other choice but to accept it as who I was. I used expensive face-washes daily, but I never expected them to have any impact on my skin’s oil secretions.
Weeks after going low-carb paleo (too low-carb as it turned out…) the oil had completely dried up and the moderate acne which I had resigned myself too had all but disappeared. My oily skin was a symptom of a deeper problem that no amount of face wash was ever going to cure. When we strip the natural oils off of our skin or hair we must expect our body to secrete more.
But that is not the only flaw of our obsession with soap. Soap and shampoo are blunt instruments which wrench our skin from too oily to too dry. Uncomfortable without any oil, we then shell out more money for scented conditioners and moisturizers. Perhaps not recognizing these foreign oils, or expecting another impending drastic de-greasing, our body cranks out even more oil. Rather than allow our body to achieve and maintain homeostasis we shell out to Johnson and Johnson at both ends, rinse, and repeat.
I wanted to break myself out of this cycle.
For five years I eschewed shampoo and let my hair grow out. Last week, in an admission of defeat that was long overdue, I cut nearly all of it off.
By and large, I still agree with my earlier assumption. I would amend it only by saying that hair is a costly indicator of a healthy body. I cut my hair not because I’ve lost faith in my homeostatic mechanisms, but because I have to admit that I’m 1) not yet fully healthy and 2) not willing to invest the energy necessary to keep long hair attractive.
On social grooming
Admit it or not, we are social groomers at a very deep and instinctual level. Why else would we so enjoy petting dogs and cats? Why else would I find someone else’s fingers on my scalp so intensely pleasurable?
There are fewer and fewer contexts these days in which it’s acceptable to stroke a fellow human. I think this can be regarded as just as big of an evolutionary mismatch as industrial seed oils or processed sugar.
With this in mind, I think we have to think critically about why our hair grows long in the first place. Sure, fur helps mammals adapt to their environment, and perhaps this was the initial “purpose” for which it was selected. But it is also clear, as I suggested earlier, that fur plays an important role as a signal of health and vitality. Since the most reliable signal is a costly signal we can expect an attractive coat of fur to be difficult to maintain.
At some point our ancestors lost their fur. Perhaps it was to more efficiently shed heat for persistence hunting. Perhaps it was to ditch lice. Perhaps it was because people had taken to wearing skins. Whatever the reason, our ancestors suddenly had less fur to maintain, lowering the cost of maintenance and thus the reliability of the signal. Long hair, I strongly suspect, evolved to raise the cost of maintenance and improve the reliability of the signal.
Should we expect a healthy body to maintain beautiful hair as a matter of course? Yes, but only in the context of healthy ancestral behaviors. Remember that modern hunter-gatherers only work 15-20 hours per week and, given how much we enjoy grooming and being groomed, I think we can expect healthy ancestral behaviors to have included a lot of social grooming – when there was time for it.
I think we can assume that, though early humans would have greatly enjoyed social grooming, food, water, and shelter would have been higher priorities. Good hair and regular grooming would have thus signaled a healthy situation, (certainly to others, and possibly even to ourselves?).
Perhaps one modern hack would be the social grooming equivalent of a laughing club, where members got together and groom each other’s hair. I imagine many girls are already doing something along these lines – I would have jumped at such an opportunity myself except…
Disgust, shame, and standards of beauty
… I am deeply ashamed of my seborrheic dermatitis. For much of my life it was so bad that if I rubbed my scalp the flakes were as thick as falling snow. I would expect strangers to recoil at this sight in disgust – and I think they would be correct to do so.
Is beauty a cultural construct? Sure – to a certain extent around the margins.
Are young women today presented with a standard of beauty which, beyond being nearly impossible to achieve, is often not even healthy? Absolutely, but this does not refute the idea that beauty and health are intimately linked.
I’ve never struggled with obesity, but I have struggled with terrible acne and dermatitis, and I believe we find all three unattractive for a very good reason – they are symptomatic of a dysfunctional system. We cannot see through to the core dysfunction, but we see its manifestations, and they repel us.
Cutting it off
My paleo experiment to achieve attractive hair through robust health alone was unsuccessful, and it was time to admit it.
Given the failure of the experiment, cutting my hair made sense for a number of reasons.
First, it muted a signal I didn’t want to send. For too long my long hair advertised a lack of health and grooming. While I don’t have health, groomers, patience, or a willingness to get back on the shampoo train it’s best to send no signal at all.
Second, it allowed me to address the symptom more directly. Does this mean shampoo? Absolutely not. Have I given up on the holistic approach? No, but at this point, I see no other choice.
For the second time I have begun treating my scalp with topical honey, this time followed up with coconut oil.
When I cut my hair the dermatitis was so bad that I refused to go to the barber. I was going to buzz my own head, but ended up allowing my father to take a crack with the scissors. Following the honey and coconut oil treatment, my scalp and eyebrows were clear in under a week.
Do I think I’ve cured anything? No, the last time I stopped the honey treatment the dermatitis came roaring right back.
Am I at all cautious? Certainly. I suspect the last round of treatment overburdened my liver and gave me a case of non-infectious epididymitis. That was nearly two years ago and I’m still mopping up the aftermath. (I hope my suspicion of toxicity from copper buildup in my very thoroughly irrigated, but never shampooed hair proves true!)
But do I have any second thoughts? None at all. For all the time I spent pre-grieving for my long locks, I have not once looked in the mirror and regretted my father’s handiwork. And, more importantly, within a week of beginning my second honey treatment my scalp was clear for what may be only the third time in my life.
I know this doesn’t mean I’m fully healthy, (after writing a draft of this post I went though one period of perhaps three days without treatment and my flakes were immediately back! Not exactly encouraging…) but sometimes even faking it can feel great.