There are those who say it began the day nearly a decade ago when the incomparable Michael Jordan shaved his head.
As the galactic superstar of pro sports and the media, Mr. Jordan's tawny, smooth head is credited with being a major influence in changing the image of baldness, at least among many young men in the United States. Shaved or bald heads that used to be seen mostly as indicative of a character flaw, or ignoble, or only for old duffers, are now downright cool.
While most older and middle-aged American men continue to love their hair, and spend millions to save it, more and more young men and teens are stepping out of barbershops and styling salons with gleaming heads. Or at least with haircuts that are a little more than peach fuzz with an attitude. It started with Jordan, say the experts.
"Yeah, we get more young people who want it shaved all off these days," says Dave Alexander, a barber at Big League Barbers in Athens, Ga. "And a lot more people want it short too. It's a jock-type of thing to do, like Jordan. And movie stars are doing it. Black kids have been doing it a long time, and the white guys are catching on."
But some cultural observers insist that voluntary baldness has not and will not uproot society's long love of hair. Hair trends always come and go, they say, and if anything, many more kinds of hairstyles are now acceptable in a diverse society.
An option instead of a taboo
Dave Beswick, author of "Bald Men Always Come Out on Top," (Ama Publishing) thinks each decade, since the 1950s, has a general hairstyle that fades into the next generation. "In the '50s everybody quietly followed the leader," he says. "Then in the '60s and part of the '70s it was adolescent rebellion and long hair. Then came the 'me' generation, and now baldness is seen as an option instead of a taboo."
Historically, mankind has always tried to express individuality through hair. "Some youths may be going for shaved heads, but for the vast majority of the people in the US and worldwide, hair still has a mythical meaning in terms of style, attractiveness, and youthfulness," says Jerome Shupack, professor of clinical dermatology at New York University Medical Center in New York.
"In fact, if you tell most people that you might have something that will help them to prevent baldness," he says, "they will sacrifice and scrape together the money to do it."
But for Philip Koebel, who shaves his head, baldness is almost a political alignment with Jordan. "People get in arguments with me over Jordan," he says, "about whether or not he is actually bald or shaves his head. I say, what's the difference? I know when I shave my head it's very liberating and a revolutionary little act."
Mr. Koebel is the owner of BaldWild, a Pasadena, Calif., company marketing gel and moisturizer products for bald men.
Other athletes like Charles Barkley, Shaquille O'Neal, Andre Agassi, George Foreman, and the entire Indiana Pacers basketball team have also gone the bald route like Jordan. In Hollywood, among actors who shun the tinsel town staples of hair transplants and toupees are Bruce Willis, Danny De Vito, Patrick Stewart, Sean Connery, and Lou Gosset Jr.
"Skin is in," claims John Capps, president and founder of the Bald Headed Men of America, with more than 20,000 gleaming members. "The few, the proud, the bald," he says
Skin may be in, but still not too far in. Fortune magazine says American men spend $9.5 billion a year on beauty products and treatment, including remedies for hair loss. A 1992 research report by Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va., found that 85 percent of 145 balding men were self-conscious, felt helpless, and envied men with full heads of hair.
But in many neighborhood barber shops of America, in contrast to the hair transplant salons of cities, short is becoming best and bald is becoming better.
In Broomfield, Colo., at Louie's Barber Shop, Gary Chacon is amazed at the number of young people who want to terminate their hair. "We get a ton of kids in here," he says, "and they say they don't want to mess with hair because they are into sports and it just gets in the way."
For adults, Mr. Capps says anybody who used the old-fashioned comb-over is not just folliclely deprived. The comb-over covers a bald spot with 25 strands of hair, or it is hair pulled from the back of the head to camouflage the naked front. "Let's face it," Capps says, with suspicion. "A comb-over is a coverup probably covering up something else. I say, be bald and be bold."
For Bob Seibert of Burlington, Ky., short hair was always more preferable than long hair. Five years ago he shaved off all his hair. "It was personal preference," he says. "People say I'm nuts, but I don't spend much on shampoo, and it's low maintenance."
In Tyler, Texas, Donald McClain's barber shop has been open for 36 years. Haircuts are $7, going up to $8 in January. "I had three guys this morning who told me to take it all off," he says. "Then a guy came back, and said it wasn't close enough in spots, so I shaved it again so he'd look like Jordan."
He says requests for shorter haircuts started about four years ago. "Even guys over 40 come in and say they're tired of fussing with their hair and want it all off," he says. "It gets hot here, and they want a cooler style."
Susan Kettering, a hair transplanter at Advanced Hair and Image Design in Pittsburgh suggests that men think carefully before parting with a full head of hair or the lingering fringes.
"You have to take into consideration your head shape and your facial structure," she says. "The majority of people do not have a perfectly shaped head like a Michael Jordan, and you might not look as good as you think. Frankly, I don't think there is a big trend out there because after 22 years in this business, many more people are still trying to replace hair than get rid of it."
Her clientele includes many men over 50 who are now thinking of themselves after their children have graduated from college. "They say, OK, now it's time for me," she says. "They say, I've taken care of my family. I want hair."
'Hair is becoming obsolete'
For Mr. Beswick, hair is finished as a utilitarian presence. Man, once a hairy hunter, is now entering The Age of Vanishing Hair.
"Hair is becoming obsolete," he says. "The use of hair is now pure adornment. It used to help guard us from the elements. Now we live in houses, wear hats, and wear creams on our heads. Hair is a matter of choice."
At this year's annual convention of the Bald Headed Men of America in Morehead City, N.C., women were the judges in deciding the best "overall appearance" of a bald head. "First they feel the shape of a head," says Capps, "then they look at it from a distance to see the twinkle in the eye, and the twinkle in the smile. All this blends together and becomes as pretty as a full moon."
The winner was a gregarious Leo Lane, an Australian priest who celebrated his smooth victory by offering a blessing for every bald head at the convention.