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When Trichotillomania Leads to Bullying

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Hair twirling and fiddling is a common habit. But for many people the act of pulling hair is far more than just a bad habit — it is a clinical disorder known as trichotillomania. As a therapist who specializes in body-focused repetitive behavior like trichotillomania, or trich, I’ve seen how it affects people who have it. 

Trichotillomania affects people of all ages. It is characterized by an irresistible urge to repetitively pull one’s own hair. Although the most common place to pull is the scalp, people can focus on any part of the body where there is hair, be it the eyelashes, eyebrows, even pubic hairs. This causes tremendous shame and embarrassment for the person who has it. The world has always been preoccupied with aesthetics, with human value and worth often being judged in society by our conformity with what is viewed as attractive or beautiful. This is particularly significant in the preteen and teenage years when self-identity is still being developed and social conformity and belonging is of great significance.

Unfortunately, this is also a time when bullying behavior is rife. With the advent of the cyber-world, bullies have increased access to their victims through social media communication. Anyone who is perceived as “different” to their peers is vulnerable as a target for bullying, and a condition like trichotillomania is no exception.

The Target of Bullying

Repetitive hair pulling can lead to baldness, or the person may even have no eyebrows or eyelashes. The negative impact on the person’s appearance often leads to the individual going to great lengths to cover up their hair loss. While covering up may hide bald patches, dressing in a manner that is not in line with the latest fashion trends or is frowned upon within the individual’s peer group can also be a target for bullies. People who have trichotillomania also often withdraw from social environments where they feel their appearance may be harshly judged, such as going to the beach, public pools or parties. This can lead to the individual being labelled as nerdy, socially awkward or introverted. These labels are also popular targets for bullies. In my online therapy program, I have come across many people with trichotillomania who express feeling alone and socially isolated because of this condition. This further perpetuates the cycle of pulling as it is often triggered by the experience of negative thoughts and emotions.

Dealing With Bullies

There are numerous websites and support programs worldwide trying to tackle bullying in schools. One website lists a few simple strategies offered by students who have been bullied on dealing with these situations.

Of course these are general strategies that do not address the specific issues that someone with compulsive hair pulling may be dealing with. If you are struggling with trichotillomania and are being bullied, the most important step you should take is to seek help and support for your condition first. Having someone you trust who can support you in dealing with this condition will have a positive impact, while simultaneously providing you with support for the bullying.

One young woman named May Brown decided to break free from the silence of this condition by uploading a video confession expressing what she had been going through. May had been nicknamed by her classmates as “Baldy” because of her bald patches. To hide her bald patches, she’d wear hair slides or hats. Since her video confession, she has received messages from people around the world asking for some pieces of advice on how to cope with this condition. Others would also share their trich stories. May has found strength in this new found support system and her openness about her condition has also helped her deal with being bullied in a more assertive way.

If you’re being bullied because of your trichotillomania, don’t be afraid to follow in her footsteps and speak out.

Originally published: August 31, 2016
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