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A woman with alopecia wearing a blue blazer and white top sits at a computer, typing.

Brenda’s story: “I work with my hair loss rather than hide from it”

Brenda, 33, is a Changing Faces champion who has alopecia. Becoming a model helped her accept and embrace her visible difference.

When Brenda was 14 years old, she woke up one morning to find her pillow covered in hair. She found out she had a condition called alopecia universalis, which meant that she lost all of her hair at a young age.

Throughout her teenage years Brenda had to put up with endless bullying. As a result, her self-esteem became very low, and she felt isolated and lonely. She tried to cover up her condition with wigs, but the bullying at school was relentless and she was nicknamed “cancer girl”. Sometimes her wig would be torn off and used as a football or flushed down the toilet. Eventually Brenda decided to be home-schooled.

“I felt very out of place and as if I had no control over anything any more. I noticed older people avoided the subject of my hair loss, probably through fear of upsetting me. People my own age were much more brutal. I could not find a way to deal with it for the first three years and in the end I just shut down mentally and became agoraphobic.”

Brenda found that as she got older, working with children became her solace. Children were so accepting of her differences and she discovered a passion for entertaining and performing. She went on to lead a successful career as a children’s entertainer, travelling around the world working with children and young people. Even then though, there were days that were harder than others.

“Sometimes at work, I would have to fake confidence in order to get the job done, when really I didn’t want to leave my room. I’d sometimes get comments from management too, who would say things like “Oh, so you’re not wearing your wig today then?”. Once I was told I couldn’t do a show because the fact I wore a wig meant I’d take too long to do the costume change.”

In between contracts as an entertainer, Brenda would often work in retail. However, she found that people she worked with rarely took the time to understand the impact of her alopecia and regularly made her feel uncomfortable.

“They got annoyed with me for wearing a bandana and told me I had to wear a wig in order to keep the customers happy. But wearing a wig on a shop floor when I’d be under florescent lighting all day was very uncomfortable. It just wasn’t a welcoming place.”

Society constructs rules about what makes a person ‘beautiful’, but that’s all it is – a construction, not a reality. I hope to show others that beauty is not definite, we define it.

Even as a customer, Brenda is often made to feel unwelcome in stores. She gets stared at regularly, and shop assistants will ignore her in preference of other customers.

“When this happens, I take my custom elsewhere as a result. Don’t they realise how much more money they’d make if they were more accepting of everyone? It wouldn’t take much to educate people a bit more. Whether it’s by being more representative in their adverts or training their staff – making people more aware would help so much.”

Brenda feels that “being unique is something that should be embraced”. She is a model and works with campaigning organisations likes ours as well as Models of Diversity. She was delighted to be involved with the Portrait Positive campaign with Changing Faces and the photographer Rankin.

“My confidence has rocketed by a zillion miles now I work WITH my hair loss rather than hide away from it. Society constructs concepts and rules about what makes a person ‘beautiful’, but that’s all it is – a construction, not a reality. I hope to show others that the standard of beauty is not definite, we define it.

“We live in such a vibrant society and everyone’s needs should be met and embraced when it comes to fashion and beauty, but there are still so many flaws in the industry that need to change. By challenging the outdated ‘social norms’, fashion and beauty can be a stepping stone towards a more open and self-loving society.”

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