southasia 01 - By All Accounts, Hair Loss Is On the Rise in South Asia

A CONFLUENCE OF FACTORS CONTRIBUTE TO WIDESPREAD “HAIR FALL” — AND THINGS MIGHT GET WORSE, EVEN AS THE REGION GROWS MORE PROSPEROUS.

So many people, so much hair — and so much significance attached to hair loss.

It is hard to overstate the importance of hair on the South Asia subcontinent. Equally difficult is summarizing anything about such a huge region of the world where the population is both large and stunningly diverse. Hindu religion and culture dominate India, the single-largest country of the region, with more than a billion inhabitants. But a full 700 million people in the surrounding countries (Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Maldives, Pakistan and Sri Lanka) practice Islam, Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, Jainism, Christianity and Sikhism. Within each country and religion are divisions of culture, ethnicity, tribe and social class.

This editorial team, based in the United States, took an in-depth look at the broad topic of hair in South Asia. What we found was that hair health is intrinsic to spirituality, virility, beauty and even entertainment and product marketing in India and the surrounding countries. Perhaps more than in Western society, its loss — more commonly referred to as “hair fall” — can be devastating.

Adherents of a minority religion in the region, Sikhism, are unabashed about the high role hair has in their faith. The Sikhs at most compose only about 2 percent of India’s population (20 million people), but that religion’s regard for hair might speak to a broader reverence held throughout the subcontinent.

Sikh men do not cut their hair, because, says the creator of Sikhism101.com, it “is an act of acceptance of God’s will and living as nature intended, sustaining the individual in higher consciousness … The unshorn hair is regarded with the highest importance in the Sikh religion and is one of the basic requirements for a Sikh.”

More broadly, all economic castes and classes of the region regard a full head of dark hair, for men and women, as an important marker of beauty, vigor and youth. This is celebrated in the cinema of Bollywood, in the burgeoning subculture of beauty competitions and in the retail sector, where hair care products and processes have proliferated in the past two decades.

But owing to adverse economic conditions affecting a full 40 percent of India, hair health is challenged — on a massive scale. This is a country with a large population in poverty, with parallels in neighboring Pakistan, Bangladesh and the other countries, where markers of destitution are even more present — to such a degree that all the essentials of health by Western standards are lacking. Important to this discussion are several factors that all result in hair fall: inadequate nutrition, pestilence, overcrowding and poor water quality coupled with psychological and physical stress.

But poverty alone does not bring about hair loss. Several countries are on an economic rise, and yet with an improved standard of living by classic definitions (better access to food, housing and steady employment), there already are signs that modern stresses associated with affluence can lead to hair loss as well. Dermatologists and hair loss specialists tell us that they believe there is an uptick in the population of people experiencing a loss of hair, and that perhaps women are experiencing this to a greater degree. Added to this, a developing consumer culture of beauty, for men and women, has literally millions of people scrambling for hair loss cures.

These are fascinating and sometimes consternating dynamics. Extremes of wealth and poverty, traditional ways and modern means of addressing hair loss and a mosaic of cultures that prize beauty — including some segments that hold hair in sacred regard — can inform all of us about hair and hair health in the near future. The subcontinent countries are on the rise in this new century. Their reverence for hair — ideally dark, thick and tempting — is 1 billion people strong and growing. What is discovered in India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Sri Lanka might one day impact people in Indiana, Birmingham, Pittsburgh and San Francisco.