Dance student Emi Matsushita had the kind of hair that turns heads on the street.
It was also a tool in the Stratford resident’s artistic arsenal, used as creatively as a leg or arm.
Then it began falling out.
The 31-year-old first noticed bald patches in her thick, dark tresses following a turbulent few years that saw her move to a new city, change careers and go through a divorce.
Her initial reaction was denial. She wasn’t completely bald, and she convinced herself that the missing hair would grow back.
But as time went on and the patches remained, she sought advice and a doctor confirmed her fears – she had developed alopecia areata.
The condition stems from a problem with the immune system and causes patches of baldness on the scalp and other parts of the body. It affects one or two people in every 1,000 in the UK, and is most common in people aged 15-29.
The University of East London student will share her story on Channel 5’s Don’t Tell the Doctor on Thursday, March 9.
She said: “There is no reason why it happens, but there are triggers they think could be factors, and they think stress could be one reason. I was going through a divorce. If I had to guess what made it happen, it was maybe that life change.”
Hair loss caused by alopecia areata can grow back, but in Emi’s case it has not and she decided against medical treatment as her hair remain thick enough that she can somewhat cover her baldness.
However the hair loss was especially traumatising for Emi because after years of short hair she had made a deliberate decision to grow her tresses long following her divorce. Her flowing locks became a symbol of the personal metamorphosis she was undergoing and also formed part of her identity as a dancer.
She said: “It’s an accessory when you’re dancing. You can do things with it.
“And I had strangers come up and ask where I got my hair done. I never styled it – I would just wake up and walk out the door. But people would be like, ‘Oh, I love your hair. Can I take a picture to show my stylist?’
“It just really boosted my confidence during that time of my life.”
Don’t Tell the Doctor features young people seeking treatment for medical problems that have largely gone untreated.
Viewers will see Emi explore treatments such as acupuncture, support groups and wigs with the help of the programme’s Dr Tamara Cohen.
You will have to tune in to see of any of the treatments work but Emi said whatever happens she will not let her alopecia keep her down.
She moved to the UK from the United States last year to pursue her dream of a career in dance and is in her first year of study in UEL’s Dance: Urban Practice programme.
Emi said she’s interested in dance as a tool for positive social change, and could see herself as a choreographer or coach.
“I do feel self-conscious when I go outside without a hat on. But I think that’s normal. Every woman feels self-conscious some of the time. But I won’t hide myself.
“I’m aware that people may be staring at my head but I’m not going to cover it up because I’m embarrassed.”
You can watch Emi in Channel 5’s Don’t Tell the Doctor from 9pm on Thursday, March 9.
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