I have had alopecia universalis since I was 1½ years old, which means I am incapable of growing any hair whatsoever. Alopecia universalis is an autoimmune condition in which my immune system attacks my hair follicles, as it sees them as “foreign” or harmful to me. I am completely bald, and wore a wig from ages four to 18. That’s 14 years of hiding under a helmet of fake hair, forming ideas about myself that I would later spend the next 20 years trying to let go of.
The wig was decided upon by my parents in collaboration with a child psychologist and was meant to be a tool to help me better adjust to school and protect me from teasing. However, the wig also became the root of the unfortunate idea that I was missing something. The notion festered, and I made decisions about myself. Some of these decisions included but were not limited to: I was bald, so things weren’t going to come easy, I was going to have to work harder than the girls with hair; the only way I could really succeed in life was with a dazzling personality, in which, you immediately felt safe, comfortable, loved and seen in my presence. Underneath it all, and at the core, I believed that as a bald person, I was inherently a failure, and I had to do whatever it took to never fail, in any other way, ever again.
As a young child growing up with these problematic ideas, I also had a robust fantasy life. I made up stories. I loved art class. I liked to make things. My love for making things transformed as I grew older, it went from papier mâché to plays and performance art. I produced films and runway shows and parties and photo shoots and so on. I wore a multitude of professional hats until I was 33 years old. I was always making things that felt true to me, but I was scared of making my own things. I was a producer, facilitating someone else’s vision at every turn while forsaking my own. I couldn’t handle the rejection that comes with being an artist.
After all of the years working for other people, I still had no clue what my own vision was. I just wanted you to love me and not to make any mistakes. At 27, the proverbial return of Saturn, I bottomed out on one last film project, and began to look inward at all of these old ideas. I embedded myself in self-help, a rigorous tour on the psychoanalytical couch, meditation and a spiritual practice. A slow, steady shedding of the old operating system was in progress and in that it became clear that I really wanted to be a film director. I began to quietly write scripts on the side, tentatively pushing my creative voice forward. Six years ago, the universe did for me what I couldn’t do for myself. A director was fired and I was hired. I was plopped behind a monitor to direct a short fashion film that I wrote, and I have not stopped directing films since.
I am not sure if I would have taken this circuitous route to directing if I had hair, I’m not sure if the road was winding for me because I was in so much fear about myself, but I imagine my alopecia must have played a role. The thing that I know is that, I am who I am because I lived for so long hiding under a wig, trying desperately to ensure that you felt comfortable, safe, loved and seen in my presence. I had to make you my ally. Being a bald person, I gathered a great capacity for empathy — I know what it’s like to have to accept something that will never change. Ironically or not, these are the traits I believe are important in a skillful and effective director.
My biggest obstacle in all aspects of my life has always been my self-doubt and fear. I have always been my own worst enemy, my harshest critic, my most demanding boss. I have historically gotten in my own way. To this day, I have to remind myself that I no longer believe in those wretched ideas. It usually happens when I am in the midst of a challenging project or during some great success, the old ideas will try to seep back in. I lock myself in the nearest bathroom and I look in the mirror and say “Rachel Fleit, you are not 16 years old, you are not 40 pounds overweight and hiding under a wig, you are strong and talented, you have run two marathons, you are extremely capable and uniquely qualified.”
When I am vulnerable or flying high, the fear sees an entry point. I recently made a decision to befriend the fear. It fuels my work. I bring all of the years of hiding, and the self-hatred, with me when I show up on set. Sometimes I wear a turban on my head to protect myself from the sun or when I know I’ll get very sweaty; or I’ll wear a hat in the winter when it’s cold. But I often choose to keep my head uncovered when I’m directing someone new. Showing up bald is a visual cue, a subliminal message for my documentary subjects or the actors I am working with. This is who I am, this is all of my pain, this is all of my fear, I am exposed and it’s safe for them to be, too. I believe my alopecia has become my wild card in my career — it’s my friendly and warm secret weapon.
Rachel Fleit is a New York City-based writer and director who is currently working on a feature film starring a protagonist who has alopecia. You can see some of her recent work, “Barbara and Stanley: A Modern Romance” and “Gefilte” on Nowness.