Leeds Beckett research highlights negative impact of viewing baldness as a “disease”
The team analysed 37 psychosocial impact studies on male baldness to assess how much the condition is being presented as a medical problem and not merely a natural part of the human aging process.
Although male baldness is physically benign, they discovered it is increasingly described as a “disease” based on claims by psychologists that it is profoundly psychosocially distressing.
Senior Lecturer at Leeds Beckett University School of Social Sciences Dr Glen Jankowski was the lead researcher: “I know from my PhD how much pain men can experience when they dislike their appearance, including their baldness, and we wanted to see if this issue is actually being amplified by studies treating it as a distressing medical problem. “
Their research revealed more than three quarters of baldness studies (78%) likely had commercial influences, some of which were hidden. A similar number represented baldness as a disease (77%), more than two thirds (68%) were conducted on biased samples and 60% advocated for baldness products or services.
The aim of health psychology is to promote people’s wellbeing but in the case of baldness research, this study questions whether there is a risk that the opposite could be happening; in trying to understand the negative impact of baldness could there be an element of self-fulfilling prophecy?
Dr Jankowski thinks it’s important psychologists challenge baldness medicalization so that men can make informed choices about what, if anything, they do with their baldness: “Research on baldness is mainly commercially funded by those with a vested interest in ‘curing’ or ‘treating’ it, and for this reason baldness is often presented as more distressing than the data actually shows.
“Our analysis shows that the cause of their pain is often linked to the cultural messages men receive about their appearance rather than any innate feelings they have about losing their hair.
“If the overriding message is that baldness is a problem, bald men will come to view it as such.”
Dr Hannah Frith from the university of Surrey who also worked on the project said: “As psychologists we have a responsibility to hold ourselves and others accountable for unnecessarily transforming what are normal features of life for many people into medical problems requiring a commercial fix.
“At the same time, we also need high quality research which is able to pinpoint which people become distressed by their appearance, under what circumstances, and to identify effective ways to alleviate this distress.”
The research also raises concerns over selective sampling in many studies of “intervention-orientated” men, and through the implicit and explicit advocacy of cosmetic and pharmaceutical products and services.
Read the full study here.