According to WebMD, two-thirds of American men will suffer some degree of appreciable hair loss by the age of 35. That figure rises to 85 percent by the time they’re 50, which means that balding is one of the most normal things in the world as far as men are concerned.
Yet, despite the self-evidence of this fact, male-pattern hair loss is widely treated as something tragic that needs to be hidden away under a hat or an expensive hair transplant. As such, it’s very rare to hear anyone argue that baldness should be actively embraced. However, there is one Englishman with a receding hairline who is trying to change the conversation around balding.
Harry James is the 29-year-old founder of Baldcafe, a YouTube channel that he launched in June 2018 as a forum where balding men can congregate for useful advice for coming to terms with their hair-loss anxieties. James produces a vast amount of varied content, from reviews of hair clippers to interviews with practitioners of hair-loss treatments, but by far the most popular feature of his channel are his interviews with other receding men, where his guests open up about their personal experiences of hair loss. And although he bristles at the term “support group,” that’s probably the best way to describe Baldcafe, which has attracted some 45,000 subscribers and clocked up 11.4 million views in its two years of existence.
“It can honestly be simplified to men talking about an issue that most people find difficult to talk about,” James tells me, summarizing Baldcafe’s raison d’etre. “Just having that conversation brings that problem into the real world for them, rather than allowing it to fester in their negative thoughts. This really allows them to think about it clearly and just put it past them.”
Baldcafe developed entirely by accident. Several years ago, James made a hobby out of reviewing smartphone apps on YouTube, which led to one of his friends suggesting that he review a photo app targeted at men that allows them to manipulate their appearance by adding fake abs, hair, facial hair and other cosmetic features to their pictures. James, who (to great anguish) first noticed that he was losing his hair as he approached his 26th birthday, felt the app cynically preyed on men’s insecurities. This compelled him to film a video where he opened up about his personal battles with hair loss, in the hope that it might offer some consolation to other balding men.
“The first video was me saying something like, ‘Hey, here’s my story about how my hair fell out,’ and I kind of mentioned the app as well,” James recalls. “I was just like, ‘I saw this app where you have to change yourself to feel like people are going to like you and it’s total bollocks. If you’re feeling like shit because your hair is falling out, you shouldn’t be. It’s completely normal, it happens to so many men,’ and I just kind of realized that this isn’t something that people spoke about openly. Therefore, so many guys were feeling like they were on their own with this.”
The response was overwhelmingly positive, and James found himself reading through a steady stream of comments from viewers who felt comforted by his experience. He felt that the logical next step was to film an instructional video on how to shave your head effectively. This led to viewer requests for more videos, and thus, Baldcafe was born.
“These guys, they have so much doubt about it, so much negativity built up in their minds about it. But then they see other guys who are like, ‘Listen, when you actually do it, it’s fine and it feels so much better.’ So, for the first time, they’re like, ‘Hey, maybe they’re right,’” James tells me. “It’s honestly life-changing for most people. It’s almost like a confession: Once it’s out there, you feel so much lighter and so much better about it.”
James has an affable and relentlessly upbeat persona that reminds me of other famous British on-screen personalities, such as TV chef Jamie Oliver or YouTube fitness guru Joe Wicks the Body Coach. But James wasn’t always so at ease about his thinning hair — he tells me that he went through nearly a year of intense grief before he finally took the plunge and shaved it all off.
“I developed what I would describe as a tick,” James confesses. “I would constantly be playing with hair around the crown, trying to get it spread evenly, and if a gust of wind would make it move, I’d instantly play with it. I would keep doing that every two or three minutes. I couldn’t stop doing it. When I finally clocked myself doing these things, I was like, ‘Wow this is really becoming an issue for me.’ Once I realized it was affecting me really negatively, I wanted it done and over with, which is why I shaved it all off.”
The ritual of shaving one’s head is a central feature of Baldcafe, and the channel is full of videos of guys buzzing away their receding hair, actively embracing baldness for the first time. James argues that there’s a symbolic value in this since, in a society where baldness is widely treated as a sort of cosmetic leprosy that needs to be cured, shaving your head sends a signal of defiant self-acceptance.
As for why it makes men feel like lepers in the first place, he theorizes, “Up until the point that men begin to lose their hair, for a lot of guys, they’ve been getting stronger, taller, wiser, everything’s been going up, up, up in their life and then BOOM — hair loss comes along. It’s almost the first thing that’s going the other way. It’s where it starts going downhill and then you start thinking about all the other things that might go the same way too — that you might get weaker or less attractive, etc.”
James tells me that through the many dozens of conversations he’s had with balding men, he has found that the panic around hair loss can almost always be boiled down to a single factor: “Am I ever going to get laid again?” (to use his words).
“They think that just because they don’t have the Jason Statham epic jawline that it’s going to look bad on them, and they’re often like, ‘Oh, I have a weird shaped head,’” says James. “Other than that it’s, ‘How is my family going to react? My friends, my colleagues…’ — it always comes down to how other people are going to react to it.”
“Those were the same fears that I had,” he continues. “I just had this vision of how ugly I was going to look, how my girlfriend was going to dump me, how I was never going to get the job that I wanted, how people would be laughing at me in the street. I’m pretty sure that most guys, when they’re losing their hair, are doing the same thing. That then transfers to covering it up. They don’t want people to see it, they don’t want to talk about it and it just turns into this epic struggle that can go on for years and years.”
It’s a testament to the transformative power of Baldcafe that men who’ve struggled with crippling insecurities as a result of their balding scalps often find the confidence to appear on the channel, speaking openly about their hair-loss heartache to the world. “Basically, every guy who gets in touch with me says, ‘I would love to share it because your videos helped me, and I want to do my part and share it with other people,” says James.
Male anxiety around hair loss might be a byproduct of irrational insecurities, but these fears don’t come from nowhere. In pop culture, bald men are very rarely presented in a flattering light, and the few who are are almost always perfectly-chiseled action heroes like Statham and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, who compensate for their receding hairlines by transforming themselves into absurd caricatures of hyper-masculinity. For James, these media-driven stereotypes are one of the main reasons why so many men struggle to accept baldness as a fact of life.
“You’ll see it in a lot of comedy sketches, or the characters that play the bumbling buffoon of a dad on TV will be bald, rocking a horse shoe [balding pattern],” he says. “It just kind of goes with that image, and it puts a lot of men off when they start losing their hair, because they think that that’s the guy they’re going to turn into.”
James is hopeful, however, that this will change, pointing to the body positivity movement as a model to follow. But again, first men have to be okay with admitting that the hair atop their dome isn’t as thick as it once was. “If men aren’t willing to show vulnerability and refuse to talk about it, it means that nothing will change — and they’ll just struggle with it in silence until they’re desperate and don’t know what to do.”
And that rarely ends well for anyone.