The recession has caused patient volume at cosmetic-surgery facilities to fall by a third, according to the American Academy of Cosmetic Surgery. With money so tight, it's hard for many people to contemplate spending thousands of dollars on face-lifts or boob jobs.
But when I attended an open house at the New Hair Institute in Century City last weekend, I found a waiting room full of guys who were willing to spend as much as $20,000 apiece to restore what nature was taking away.
In many cases, the motivation is vanity or self-esteem. But increasingly these days, another incentive for men to undergo hair-transplant surgery is a desire to be more competitive in a challenging job market.
"Society discriminates against bald people," said Dr. William Rassman, who runs the New Hair Institute. "If you have two people coming in for a job, and one of them is partly bald, you'll think that the one with hair has more youth and vitality."
In response to my skeptical look, he added: "Many full-headed people have a hard time understanding the problems of balding people."
I heard that a lot in speaking with the two dozen or so guys at the open house, especially when I'd point out that a shiny scalp hadn't hurt the likes of Bruce Willis or Charles Barkley. Some of the men agreed to let me use their full names. Others wanted only their first names used.
"You can't understand," said David, a 39-year-old UPS driver, making me uncomfortable with the way he kept checking out the top of my head. "You have a full head of hair."
He said a more youthful appearance would definitely improve his chances if he had to start looking for work -- which he hopes won't happen any time soon, but you never know with the way things are.
"I wouldn't feel intimidated if I had to compete with someone younger," David said. "A full head of hair makes all the difference."
With hair-transplant surgery, healthy hair is removed from the back of the scalp and replanted up top. Sometimes it grows in nice and evenly. Other times, you have to grow it long where it takes root and settle for a comb over.
And other times, judging from some websites out there, things can go very wrong and you're worse off than when you began. Potential patients will want to shop around carefully.
Rahul Gupta, 28, works as a mechanical engineer for a company he'd rather not name. ("We do a lot of defense work," he explained.) Like David, he's mindful of how a hirsute appearance can influence one's career prospects.
"If I have to go to a job interview, I would want to impress them," Gupta said. "My hair would definitely affect that."
To my eyes, he looked just fine. Maybe a little thin up top, but nothing extreme. He still had hair.
Gupta shook his head. "All I see when I look in the mirror is a receding hairline. Whenever I meet someone, the first thing I think is that they're looking at my hair."
Insecurity is clearly a big factor when it comes to balding -- and you could argue that places like the New Hair Institute prey on that insecurity by advancing the notion that people's lives will be improved with costly cosmetic surgery.
Rassman, who opened the facility in 1992 and is co-author of "Hair Loss & Replacement for Dummies," said his goal wasn't to exploit men's fragile egos but to offer a chance for guys to lead the lives they'd been denied by a cruel turn of genetic fate.
According to the online Medem Medical Library, 25% of men show signs of baldness by age 30 and two-thirds by age 60. Hair loss affects roughly 40 million U.S. men.
"All we do is put men back where they were before baldness hit," said Rassman, who admitted he'd undergone a hair transplant to cover up a bald spot on the back of his head.
"Look at George Clooney. You take away that nice hair, he's absolutely not going to be the same person."
On the other hand, Sean Connery has remained pretty studly over the years, so who's to say Clooney couldn't pull it off as well?
At the open house, I met a number of Rassman's former patients. The best-known was L.A. sportscaster Steve Hartman, 50, who has bragged about his hair-transplant results on the air.
"Appearances count in everything," he told me. "It doesn't matter whether you're in television. Hair gives you confidence."
Then there was musician Marque Strong, 52, whose long blond hair stood out among the thinning pates and comb overs elsewhere in the room. He said he knew his rock-star career was in trouble once baldness started creeping in about a decade ago.
"For the kind of music I do, you need to shake your hair," Strong said. "It's really important."
These days, he's fronting a Led Zeppelin cover band. "Without the surgery, I'd have had to cut my hair real short and get a day job," he said.
Before I left the open house, I encountered Michael, 31, standing off to one side, a baseball cap pulled low on his forehead. He was sizing up the hair-invigorated bravado of guys like Strong and Hartman.
Michael, a real estate investor, told me he doesn't enjoy looking older than his age (although, when he finally offered a peek under his cap, he looked to me like a guy in his early 30s with thinning hair).
Michael said that for people in real estate or sales, appearances are crucial. He acknowledged that getting hair transplants amid the current economic downturn might not be very wise, but it could make all the difference if it improves his business.
"Certain guys can carry off baldness," he said. "I'm not one of those guys."
I shared Michael's words with Rassman. He seemed pleased.
David Lazarus' column runs Wednesdays and Sundays.
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Are balding men at a disadvantage?