Abbie Finlayson has to wear a wig after losing all her hair to alopecia while still an infant
LIKE many little girls proud of their flowing long locks, Abbie Finlayson loves to twirl her hair around her fingers. She sits with her legs folded underneath her, smiling broadly, twisting strands of her long blonde mane.
Long hair makes her feel “girlie”, says the eight-year-old with a broad smile. She plays with it a little more and then, in one flowing movement, her hair is gone and she is sitting, completely bald, still smiling.
Moments later, she’s flicking long, deep brunette strands, pushing wispy tendrils behind her ears. Another quick change and she’s posing happily, this time with soft beige tresses that flow over her shoulders. Blink, they’re gone and now she’s looking at her image in the mirror as wig stylist Margaret Lornie flicks the brightest reddest hair out of her eyes.
She laughs and smiles through it all, but mum Paula knows that there is absolutely nothing her pretty and remarkably accepting little girl would like more than to be sitting, playing with her own hair.
Instead, she has the rare condition of inherited alopecia – for just as Abbie’s hair fell out when she was an infant, her father John lost all his hair when he was three. Since then not a spiky strand has reappeared, making Paula suspect the chances of eight-year-old Abbie ever needing a trip to a conventional hairstylist are virtually non-existent.
“She said to me once that if she could have anything in the world, what she’d really like would be to have hair,” says Paula, as Abbie cuddles the purple teddy she calls Sparkle and logs on to play Minecraft, her favourite iPad game.
“I did get a lump in my throat at that because I don’t think that’s ever going to happen. So I’ve always said to her to just tell anyone that asks why she has no hair that it just doesn’t grow.”
While Abbie sits in a private room in wig consultants’ A&A Studio in Inverleith, peering at her reflection in her bright red fun wig, Paula pulls out a set of photographs that reveal her daughter as a young baby with silky fine, light brown hair and the longest eyelashes she had ever seen.
Abbie was only 18 months old when a small patch at the back of her head seemed to thin out – perhaps, thought Paula at the time, simply the result of her head rubbing against her cot mattress. “Then I happened to notice that her eyelashes were coming out. That was when I realised that, like her dad, she had alopecia” she adds.
“I was gutted. She was losing her eyelashes, she had the most beautiful, long eyelashes and it was such a shame.”
Although John’s sister has also had alopecia since childhood, the Livingston couple had been convinced the condition was not one that could be inherited. “I was gutted for her,” recalls John, 40, a painter and decorator. “It was quite sad to think she was going to grow up without any hair.
“It never really bothered me. At school it was never a problem and I never had anyone calling me names, but it’s different for a girl.”
Indeed, girls’ magazines, celebrities, pop stars and television personalities almost all sport flowing locks, he nods. “But Abbie is quite a strong girl. Hopefully she’ll be fine at high school and when she’s older, but right now she deals with it fine.”
It’s not entirely clear what sparks alopecia universalis – when hair, eyelashes and eyebrows rapidly disappear and fail to grow back – although it’s thought to be an autoimmune condition. It is the most serious form of alopecia areata and affects one in 200,000 people.
Three years ago scientists in New York announced they had found eight specific genes linked to alopecia areata, raising the possibility of developing drugs that might target the mechanism behind the disease.
Not that Abbie seems terribly bothered – she’s happy to make her regular trips to see wig stylist Margaret.
“Sometimes younger children who have lost their hair and don’t know any different tend to cope better,” says Margaret. “But it can be quite emotional to see slightly older girls come in. It’s nice to see them smiling again – it’s the nicest part of the job.”
Abbie was at nursery when she first asked for a wig to replace the hats she normally wore, recalls Paula, 39, who works in patient transport for the ambulance service. “If she hadn’t asked, then I wouldn’t have gone ahead.”
Her first NHS wig came from another supplier, but it was thick, heavy and a bit big, so wasn’t entirely successful. Abbie faced having to keep it for three years before it could be replaced.
The family then heard about the Little Princess Trust, a nationwide charity that helps provide custom fitted, wigs made from real hair for youngsters who suddenly find themselves – perhaps as a result of cancer treatment or alopecia like Abbie – minus their crowning glory.
Since then Abbie has had two wigs through the charity, while the NHS policy towards young hair loss patients has relaxed so they can now receive a new wig every year.“A lot of people don’t realise that she’s wearing a wig, it looks so natural,” adds Paula.
Abbie can tie it back, pop in hair slides, pleat it, or put it in bunches, experimenting with her look just like any little girl. But when it comes to PE at Harrysmuir Primary School, holidays abroad when it’s too hot to wear and swimming, the wig stays off.
It helps that celebrities like Jessie J – who shaved her head for charity – and more recently Doctor Who star Karen Gillan, whose red hair was cut off for a film role – have suddenly made the smooth look quite trendy.
“Abbie just accepts the fact she has no hair, it really doesn’t bother her. And she’s never had anything nasty said to her. We know that might change once she gets to high school and beyond, but she has a great circle of friends,” adds Paula.
“I keep just saying to her that, after all, it is only hair.”
n The Little Princess Trust provides wigs for children affected by hairloss. For further details, go to www.littleprincesses.org. Wig specialist A&A Studios at 8-10 Tanfield works hand in hand with the charity and the Teenage Cancer Trust, which also supplies wigs for older children. For details, go to www.aastudios.co.uk