BELFAST—When Ann Hedly Rousseau was a little girl, she lost all of her hair due to alopecia areata, an autoimmune disorder causing hair loss on the scalp, face and sometimes other areas of the body as the immune system attacks the body’s hair follicles. Growing up in the 1970s era of Holly Hobbie, her family found an easy solution by giving her a mop cap, a sort of floppy bonnet that covered her whole head. Throughout childhood, her hair grew back in and fell out repeatedly, though by age 21 she had a full head of hair and it stayed for 20 years. By age 41, however, alopecia began attacking her hair follicles again.
At that point, she contacted her friend, Belfast filmmaker Nicolle Littrell, who set out to explore Rousseau’s journey through a documentary.
“When I lost my hair more than a year ago, I completely panicked,” Rousseau said in a promo video for the documentary, Mop Cap: an Alopecia Story. “And it wasn’t because I didn’t know what was going on. I knew exactly what was happening and I was losing my hair again.”
“At first, we weren’t sure where this project would go or who the audience was, possibly just Ann’s inner circle and the alopecia community she was connected to,” said Littrell. “Ann just knew she wanted to document what was happening to her. She ended up shaving her entire head on camera.”
Littrell, who is also on the faculty in the Women's, Gender, and Sexuality program at the University of Maine, was interested in exploring how Rousseau chose to face her challenge. Mainstream American culture often equates hair with femininity and beauty; particularly long hair.
“Right away, when we started filming, we knew there were themes in here that were universal around gender, appearance, and the definition of beauty,” said Littrell. “Men can be bald and it’s considered cool and sexy, but why do we have the opposite reaction when we see a woman who is bald?”
Rousseau, a yoga teacher, a wife and a mother to three boys, had the daunting task of answering these questions for herself. Unlike one woman who chose to shave her head in our 2012 story Belfast designer redefines notions of beauty by going bald, Rousseau had no choice to keep her hair.
She wasn’t alone. As many as 147 million people are affected by alopecia. But in a small town, she worried about others’ perceptions.
“When I knew I was losing my hair again, I wasn’t sleeping well; I was constantly worried about it,” she said. “I was trying to figure out, ‘How was I going to be who I thought I was in my role as a mother and a person in the community when everybody knew me with hair?”
Somewhere in the midst of her panic, Rousseau woke up in the middle of the night with serenity.
“It was a moment of peace inside a panic attack,” she said. “It was a feeling of, ‘Oh My God, this is going to be great. I am going to have fun with it.’’”
She was not going to wear a mop cap again.
“I knew this was going to be an experience that other women who might be panicking about something in their lives would connect with,” said Rousseau. “I thought at least it would help them see someone else go through such a difficult moment. Everyone goes through changes that makes he or she feel one’s identity is shifting.”
There were people who were afraid to talk to her about it; afraid to offend. Others assumed she was sick. Many times, people were compassionate, but then there were the curious questions that revealed traditional expectations of women and beauty. “What does your husband think about your loss of hair?” was a common question from women.
Rousseau’s husband appears infrequently in the film, a deliberate decision by the filmmakers, as they wanted to portray a woman’s perspective of such a public identity shift without too much focus on the male perspective, particularly how a women's changed appearance needs to be "validated" by a man.
Littrell had an immediate connection to the film project’s themes.
"Loss and change are universal themes for most people,” she said. “At the start of this project, I was going through a personal loss and found so much resonance and connection with Ann’s story. I have a full head of hair and I'm also in my 40s. We get to this point where our appearance changes and our egos are wrapped up in those changes. We age; we get wrinkles; our bodies change. Why does this so negatively affect our self-image, especially as women? I don’t know if our film answers any of these questions, but we definitely explore self-acceptance as a path to moving through it.”
“The experience keeps unfolding; that’s the good news,” said Rousseau. “When you get good at accepting change, it gets easier. My advice is to start practicing accepting change in every way. One of the most difficult times in my life has turned into the most freeing, to let go of old stories about myself and just allow myself to have a whole new experience. I’m not going to wear a wig. I didn’t know what it was going to be like to live in my 40s as a bald woman, but I was going to find out. I wasn’t going to hide from it.”
The film spanned a year and a half of filming before being condensed down to a one-hour film. This past month, Littrell and Rousseau wrapped up a successful IndieGoGo crowdfunding campaign to take the rough cut of the film and transform it into a finished documentary. Their goal was $10,000. They ended up collecting almost $1,500 on top of that.
The Maine International Film Festival has chosen Mop Cap: an Alopecia Story as one of its selections to premiere on Sunday, July 16 and Saturday July 22 in Waterville. Littrell said that they are also working on bringing the film to the Midcoast to screen in the fall.
Kay Stephens can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org