When you meet Ain Earle for the first time, there is something so striking about her: and no, it’s not the fact that she has no hair. In fact, sit down and have a conversation with Ain for ten minutes, and you’ll pretty much forget that she has no hair. But it took Ain years to face that herself, stemming from a years-long battle with alopecia.
Alopecia, for those who don’t know – and most don’t, – is an auto-immune disease, where your immune system attacks your own body, namely your hair follicles. What results is hair loss: in patches, clumps or worse, all over. They say that stress can trigger it, but that’s not the only cause. But right now, Ain says, there’s treatment but no cure.
So when Ain’s grandmother passed away in August 2004, she was understandably stressed. Combined with a rough semester at school, Ain’s hairdresser discovered some spots on her scalp. This wouldn’t have been particularly concerning besides the fact that Ain had long, healthy hair: dreadlocks all the way down her back. The then-20-year-old kept it secret: telling only her sister.
But as the spots grew larger, and realizing that these patches weren’t thin or broken hair, but instead a patch of zero hair at all, she decided to tell her parents, and they began to visit different doctors. The first, a general practitioner, diagnosed her with ringworm, something that confused her even more than the hair loss – how would she have gotten ringworm? Looking for a second opinion, she visited a dermatologist who diagnosed the condition as alopecia. And a second, and third, opinion confirmed it. But despite it all, through every blood test and checkup, she remained healthy.
“I was still in denial at the time because everything else was okay,” Ain explained. “So I kept thinking ‘why is this happening?’ and thought maybe it’ll grow back.”
By 2007, the spots were so much bigger that she had to cover her hair with head wraps, and by 2008, she had to cut her locs as they began to fall out one by one. And just before she moved to Barbados to do her Master’s in Tourism Management at UWI Cave Hill, most of her hair fell out. Her locs dropped on their own, and all she was left with was 2 inches of fuzz on top of her head.
One night, exhausted, she rubbed her head and her hair started to fall off into her hands. If she’d rub her hands along her arms, hair would drop. If she’d rub her eyes, her lashes would fall out. Soon, Ain was totally bald from head to toe, but she still wasn’t ready to face it.
“I still hid it for a very long time, but eventually it came to a point where I decided this is who I am and I have to accept it,” Ain added. “I decided not to wear any head ties and not hide it anymore and share my story.”
By 2011, Ain was ready to be her truest self: the Ain 2.0 as she calls it. She went out for the first time fully bald, no head ties or wraps. People were still scared, people still asked questions, people thought she had cancer and people wanted to know why she cut all her hair off. But those who needed to know knew, and that’s all that mattered to Ain.
But Trinis – being Trinis – naturally always have an opinion to share and a comment to make, and would comment on photos that event pages would share of Ain from this fete or that event. The comments would all be about her appearance, and it hurt her. By 2014, she’d had enough.
“It did hurt, I felt bad about it, because I was just being myself, but people were being mean,” she said, of what motivated her to address the comments. “So I just started to explain under the comments that I didn’t choose to look like this and that it’s a result of a medical condition. I didn’t think I was explaining, I felt like I was educating people.”
But it wasn’t until 2015 that the idea of Bald Beauty TT came about. Ain ran into a friend she’d grown up with, and discovered that her 9-year-old daughter had alopecia and was having a difficult time with it. The friend wanted to find out more, wanted to know how she dealt with it, and really encouraged Ain to do more for awareness. And so, in September 2017, just in time for Alopecia Awareness Month, Bald Beauty was born.
“We are bald, but we’re still beautiful,” she explained.
“Yes, we don’t have hair, but that doesn’t take away from our beauty.”
And Ain doesn’t subscribe to the traditional idea of beauty either. Traditionally, a woman is considered beautiful when she’s well made-up, has long, nice, flowing hair, the perfect shape and is always well-kept from head to toe. But with a definition like that, many people don’t necessarily fit into that box: and certainly not those with alopecia. Not having hair as a woman doesn’t help you fall into that traditional beauty box, and she’s even had little children think she’s a man because of what we’re taught growing up: women have hair, men don’t.
“Hair shouldn’t identify you. Who you are and how you treat people is your true beauty,” Ain said. “Being strong is beautiful, being yourself is beautiful, love is beautiful.”
It’s safe to say Ain has a particularly strong eye for what’s beautiful – and it’s evident through her love for fashion.
In 2014, along with a colleague at the time, Emma, who had worked in fashion in the UK, Ain had the idea of creating a fashion market for all of the local designers she loved to shop. Besides the big names – the Meilings, Claudia Pegus and Heather Jones who already had a big following – most Trinis don’t know about many local designers. And Ain did. She thought accessing local fashion was easy, because she know of many designers and knew where to reach them, but when people would ask her where she got her clothes, and she’d share the name of a local designer, no one would know who she was saying. So her and Emma, who was ready to get involved with the local industry, started Racked – a seasonal pop-up market.
From there, she would offer the designers little tips to make their booth better: how to set up their table, to print a sheet for mailing lists, to bring proper signage and how to speak to people. Most designers would create the stuff and bring a rack, full stop. And so, in 2015, the Fashion Arch was born. Ain knew she could be the bridge to connect the designers with customers – she knew what they were doing, she had contacts to other designers, production people, retailers and even events, and she wanted to let the creatives create, and she would handle the business and backend. By September 2016, she had enough clients and opportunities to go full time.
And with her background in tourism and tourism marketing, Ain sees this as a bridge between her studies and her passion. While our fashion industry isn’t well-known or well-established, she’s more committed than ever to help it reach its true potential.
“Trinidad is not the typical sun-sea-sand. We have that in Tobago, yes, but in Trinidad, not so much. But we have much more to offer. Outside of people coming to do the norm, fashion is an experience, and it’s yet another thing that we have to show,” she explained. “I always wanted to be in tourism, but I really loved fashion, so I look at it as fashion is the tourism product that I can help build.”
And for an industry that’s so looks-based, Ain no longer feels self-conscious about her alopecia around people. In fact, she embraces it.
“I get noticed more often and quicker than everyone else,” she said, positively. “I can walk into a room and I’ll be the first person people notice, because I look different.”
But there’s so much more to Ain than her differences. She’s the definition of a multi-faceted woman, and she’s not, and never will be, easily defined by one thing.
“Yes I’m Ain, and I have alopecia. But I am Ain, full stop,” she added.
“Being bald doesn’t define you. It’s just hair, it doesn’t define me. It has built me and made me stronger, but it doesn’t define who I am.”
And with that, there’s no other explanation needed. She’s Ain, full stop.