NEW YORK • Joining the pandemic boom in cosmetic tune-ups, many follicularly challenged men have used their time away from the office to embark on a fresh new look of their own - a hair transplant.
To some, a recarpeted scalp is a way of turning back the clock to a glorious youth. To others, it is a business move, a way to burnish their image so as to rearm themselves for a return to the corporate trenches. But to many, it's… well, a little awkward.
"Always, the dilemma is, what are people going to say?" said Mr Robert Golden, 51, a tax adviser in Los Angeles who sprang for a hair transplant last winter while working remotely. "Do you tell anybody you've done it?"
Men often feel sheepish about undergoing a hair transplant, at least at first, said Mr Fabien Beretta, executive director of the Beverly Hills Hair Group in Beverly Hills, California, where Mr Golden went for his transplant. "Men are a little more iffy about getting anything cosmetic," he said. "Women talk about it openly. Guys want to hide it."
There is nothing objectively embarrassing about a hair transplant. Even so, stigmas linger. The Internet is filled with articles like Why You Shouldn't Be Ashamed Of Getting A Hair Transplant.
New hair in general, particularly toupees, have long served as gag material in movies and television shows. "Why don't you get a pair of white shoes, move down to Miami Beach and get the whole thing over with," Jerry teased George in the Seinfeld episode in which the latter bought a new rug.
This may explain why celebrities like Tom Hanks, Jude Law and Matthew McConaughey who appear, uh, "less bald than they used to be", as BuzzFeed once put it, tend to remain mum about their bushy new manes, leaving tabloids to play the guessing game.
"It's like one of those old 1980s rom-coms, in which the geek suddenly gets this flashy makeover and shows up at the club," said Mr Mitchell Virzi, 29, one-third of the Los Angeles comedy team called the Virzi Triplets, identical brothers who all got hair transplants in recent months. "For a lot of guys, it can feel awkward, like you're trying on a new personality."
Then, there are the perception problems of springing for a "luxury" like cosmetic surgery, particularly during troubled times. Transplants are not cheap, averaging about US$7,000 (S$9,400), but often rising to US$20,000 or more, depending on geography, the type of procedure and amount of work that needs to be done, said Dr Akash Chandawarkar, a former plastic surgery chief resident at Johns Hopkins University who is now in New York.
To some guys, that can seem a little vain. "There's still that old stigma, where guys aren't supposed to worry about how they look and spend a lot of money on their appearance," said Mr Alex Virzi, another of the newly coifed triplets.
That does not seem to be dissuading many balding men. "It's the largest demand I have ever seen," said Dr Marc Dauer, a hair-restoration surgeon who practises in Los Angeles and New York City and has seen about a 30 per cent surge in hair-transplant procedures, and a 50 per cent increase in transplant consultations, during the pandemic. The Beverly Hills Hair Group has also seen a 25 per cent spike in inquiries in recent months. Other cosmetic surgeons interviewed reported a similar surge.
Some of this apparent boom seems attributable to the pandemic. Extended time away from the office gave men the cover they needed to slip away for the procedure, then recover away from the prying eyes of their colleagues.
There is also "Zoom dysmorphia", in which people feel the need to "fix" perceived "flaws" in their appearance spotted during endless hours of video conference calls.
"On FaceTime, Skype or Zoom, people are looking at themselves more than anyone they're talking to," Mr Beretta said. "It's like they're sitting at home all day looking in the mirror."
Then, there is the emotional drain of the past 18 months, which is enough for even people with the fullest heads of hair to find their shower drains clogging with hair. Intense stress, as well as post-viral inflammation from Covid-19, can also cause temporary hair loss known as telogen effluvium.
Whatever the traditional hesitations, the old shame over new hair may be fading, especially in this age of oversharing. It helps that the post-surgery results are not as stark as they once were. A popular method of hair transplants these days - follicular unit extraction, in which surgeons plant individual follicles from the back of the head onto the top of the head - can take months to start filling in. "It's like a Chia Pet," Mr Mitchell Virzi said.
For Mr Golden, his initial trepidations dissolved quickly once he saw how much his new hair boosted his confidence among friends and even with his wife, he said. And when he finally returned to the glassy high-rise office a month ago and displayed his new tresses to his colleagues, the real shock was how little people cared or even noticed.
"To be honest, it wasn't like I walked in and people said, 'Oh, you got a hair transplant,'" Mr Golden said. "It was done so well that people didn't even really notice. They were like, 'Did you get a haircut? You look younger.'"