Last week, a Humans of Bombay post brought me to the brink of tears. The transformational story of Ankita Wadekar — a social media manager in Maximum City — whose battle with hair loss is more about a human story of survival and sheer grit. Perhaps, also a mirror to just how insensitive we are towards women who don’t conform to stereotypes of beauty. “I was diagnosed with Alopecia in Class VII. Children in my class poked fun and bullied me. I don’t blame them…we are not sensitised enough.” An autoimmune and hormonal disorder, Ankita’s mother first noticed a small thinning spot on her head and brought it to the doctor’s attention. “Your body starts attacking your hair follicles, considering them a harmful external element. That’s how the hair loss happens,” Ankita explains, saying that in six months she had almost lost most of her hair. “I maintained a distance from people thanks to the discrimination I faced. At an age when girls my age were flirting with boys, I went into a sort of self-imposed hiding…possibly, it was a defence mechanism.” Ankita was scared of filling out job applications that always asked about medical conditions. As part of the curative treatment, Ankita was recommended steroids; she played along seeking a sense of restoration to her old self, having to endure painful scalp injections. The side effects ranged from increased facial hair to swelling. The treatment however seemed to click, briefly, as Ankita grew her hair down to her waist in Class 11. Excited at the new phase in her life, Ankita started planning her career goals; everything centered around her hair growing. However, the condition attacked her again in the final year of her graduation. “I was broken,” admits Ankita who turned a social recluse, just stepping outside to consult her doctor and even dressing and behaving androgynously. “I would talk, walk and dress like a boy, so no one even looked at me. I became a socially awkward person and I still am somewhere,” she adds. “I would run in the reverse direction if any guy seemed interested in me as I assumed he would back out if he discovered my condition. And I didn’t want to be hurt.” Five-and-a-half years ago, Ankita began wearing a wig made by an artist that she washed carefully every two or three days, after which she was extremely conscious that her hair was looking flat. A year and a half later, she started working in a digital marketing firm. Ankita lacked the confidence to remove her wig, until one morning while commuting in the Mumbai local, someone tugged at her wig and it slipped off. After a feeling of initial numbness, and overcome with emotion, Ankita returned home, telling her colleagues she wasn’t well. It was a phase of severe depression and self-doubt that Ankita now terms a much needed “kick in life.” A couple of days later, clad in a floral dress, she made her first public appearance. “I no longer wanted to be invisible. I didn’t want people to ignore me assuming I was a boy. A lot of people gave weird stares. Some women whispered that I must be the rebellious kind to chop off all my hair. That day my biggest achievement was that I wasn’t looking down in fear or embarrassment, I was making eye contact after a long time,” she recalls. “There is enormous pressure on women to look good and thus conform.” “I was scared to get intimate with men, because along with the fear of being scarred by rejection was this overwhelming guilt about my appearance. We hear a lot about what makes a woman — her thick hair, brown eyes or curvy frame — but a woman is so much more than that. She is strong, relentless and fierce, and her appearance can never represent all of that. Because of my condition, I have learnt acceptance is key. I remember today how after college I took an entire year off and sat at home because I was scared of filling out job applications that always asked about medical conditions. Now, because of the same fear, I have learnt to fight against it. Alopecia doesnt define Ankita.” (A version of this op-ed appeared in print in daily O on March 10, 2016) The writer is the author of Faraway Music, Sita’s Curse, You’ve Got The Wrong Girl and Cut!