An Airdrie resident who was diagnosed with alopecia 20 years ago – an autoimmune disorder that causes hair loss on the scalp, face, and body – is speaking out to raise awareness of the condition and to provide support to those are newly diagnosed.
Kristen Vaccher was given the official diagnosis of alopecia after her hair began to fall out in clumps at the age of 13. She said she went to a doctor after noticing an unusual amount of hair loss while taking an oatmeal bath during Christmas break.
“I soaked in the bath for a little bit and then I got up and all of a sudden I realized there’s hair all around me in the bathtub,” the Luxstone resident said. “My 13-year-old brain, I was thinking, this is the oatmeal bath [causing this].”
Vaccher said later that night, during a game of cards with her family, her mom discovered she was losing clumps of hair and booked her in to see a doctor. Her dad took her to the appointment, where she was advised she probably had alopecia and might lose 30 to 50 per cent of her hair.
“I sat there like, ‘What? That’s half my head,’” she said. “I was kind of flabbergasted and so was my dad.”
Thereafter, an appointment was made with a specialist who confirmed Vaccher had alopecia areata, a disease that occurs when the immune system attacks hair follicles causing hair loss in patches or clumps, usually the size of a quarter.
Vaccher said the disease soon progressed to alopecia totalis, resulting in hair loss across the entire scalp, and then further progressed to alopecia universalis, which is a more advanced form of alopecia totalis that results in hair loss across the entire scalp, face, and body.
“So no nose hair, eyelashes, eyebrows, leg hair – like nothing,” she said.
Currently, Vaccher said she has approximately 10 per cent of the hair on the top of her head, but doesn’t have any leg hair to speak of.
She does, however, have eyelashes and eyebrows.
“I mean, they’re a little sparse, but they’re there, and I grow that pesky armpit hair, of course,” she said with a laugh.
Vaccher said to this day, she still does not know why she lost her hair.
“Alopecia is a very confusing disease,” she said, adding medical tests ruled out possible thyroid or hormonal issues.
Dealing with the initial diagnosis during her teen years wasn’t easy, Vaccher added, and she often experienced bullying and mean comments from fellow students at school.
“I used to sit in the front of class, but I moved to the back because my hair would fall out all around my chair and I’d stay back to pick it up so it would be less embarrassing for me,” she said.
She added she cut her hair to shoulder length and wore a bandana to cover the bald patches initially, but the school administration soon determined bandanas were no longer allowed in her school.
After obtaining special permission to continue to wear her bandana to school, she dealt with discrimination and rumours regarding her condition.
“I did get [the bandana] pulled off by a kid in the middle of the hallway and he spread a rumour that I had cancer,” she said.
She added in her middle school years, she lost several friends and experienced disappointment when a crush lost interest in her because of her condition.
Once Vaccher reached high school, she determined she would wear a wig to school to hide her disorder, as to not to deal with bullying any longer.
“I put on the wig, went to high school, and kind of sat under that wig for 18 years,” she said. “And then 2020 happened and I was sitting at home, and I was just like, ‘I have a really good job, good relationship with my husband of 15 years, but something’s missing, something’s not feeling right.’”
She said the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic led her to assess what is most important to her, and as a result, she decided she needed to reveal her “authentic self” to the world, which meant showing up with or without a wig or head wrap on.
“It shouldn’t be anybody else’s choice, it shouldn’t be dictated by society, and I shouldn’t have to feel alone in the fact that I have a health condition that I can’t control,” she said.
Vaccher decided she needed to speak out about the condition to encourage others who are also diagnosed with alopecia after hearing several stories of young girls who were recently diagnosed with the condition and are struggling to accept themselves.
One story involved a young girl who committed suicide because of the bullying she received due to her medical condition.
“That really spurred me even further because she was bullied because of her alopecia to the point where she took her own life,” she said. “For me, I don’t want anybody to go through alopecia alone. Had we just been able to reach her, I think we could have had a totally different outcome, and that comes with awareness.
“So that is what spurred me to start wanting to share on social media my bald head and just be proud of it.”
In the first year of her alopecia awareness journey, Vaccher has become involved in social media support group, The Baldtourage, which is a community of women who have experienced hair loss. The group was started by Christie Valdiserri, the first bald Sports Illustrated swimsuit model.
Vaccher has been mentoring other women and girls diagnosed with alopecia through the community.
“When there’s 147 million people worldwide that have alopecia, something’s got to be done,” she said. “Awareness has to be brought to this disease because although it’s not fatal, it is still a huge mental journey.”
She reached out to a member of the social media support group to see about the possibility of starting up a podcast centred around living with alopecia and the various relational pitfalls that come along with it. A year later, she said the show has received more than 15,000 downloads and has close to 1,800 followers on Instagram.
“I just think it’s so important that we spread kindness as the world moves forward and that we stop picking on people for things they can’t control or differences in general, because who wants to be normal these days?” she said.
For those interested in following Vaccher’s alopecia awareness journey, visit her Instagram @alo.peaches, along with her podcost which she co-hosts called @thosebaldchicks.