Wayne Rooney’s magical hair transplant

By Sean Carey

What a difference a year can make. For example, in the life of Wayne Rooney. In 2010 there was endless speculation about whether he would be leaving Manchester United and sign for Real Madrid (a new contract ensured that he didn’t). This year the headlines are all about his new hair transplant.

The 25-year-old Liverpool-born England striker has been losing the hair on his head for some time. In 2009, it was reported that he was taking the drug finasteride, produced by US company, Merck, and sold under the brand name Propecia. It blocks the conversion of testosterone into dihydrotestosterone (DHT) and helps to prevent further hair loss. It even promotes hair re-growth in some people. Evidently, in Rooney’s case the pills didn’t work. So he took more drastic action: a hair transplant operation.

According to press reports, Rooney spent around £30,000 on the operation in a clinic in London’s Harley Street. That’s a significant amount for most people but very small change for the soccer superstar, who is reputed to be on £200,000 a week.

The operation involved taking hair follicles from the back of his head and transplanting them to the top and front. The results certainly look impressive – at least so far. According to his own account on Twitter, Rooney is as pleased as punch: “The new hair is coming on people” he announced to his followers last week. “Swelling gone down #hairwego.”

However, the even more interesting aspect of the story is the ostentatious public declaration. It appears that the embarrassment attached to hair replacement at least amongst some segments of the UK’s male population has disappeared. Simply put, a hair transplant is no longer a source of shame. Instead it provides an opportunity to communicate and celebrate with members of an abstract, diffuse peer group using diverse global social media platforms.

And Rooney is not the only celebrity to come clean about his surgical intervention in recent months. The Northern Irish actor, James Nesbitt, reckons that he got his life back on track after two procedures at the Hair Restoration clinic in Dublin. So grateful is he that he made a video for the clinic’s website. Furthermore, he reckons that the procedure allowed him to get new acting roles, including a part in the recently released film, The Way, directed by Emilio Estevez.

An economic incentive was probably an important aspect of Rooney’s decision to undergo cosmetic surgery. A full head of hair will make it much easier to attract lucrative sponsorship deals, especially if he is up against other global soccer superstars like the naturally hirsute Lionel Messi of Barcelona and Cristiano Ronaldo of Real Madrid.

Over 50 years ago the noted British social anthropologist Sir Edmund Leach wrote a classic article called, “Magical Hair.” He analyzed cross-cultural patterns associated with long and short head hair, especially of males. He pointed out that head hair, its treatment (whether groomed or messy), and its abundance or absence is often a symbolic marker of social and, also, spiritual power. For example, the shaved heads of Hindu male ascetics symbolizes their detachment from worldly, including sexual, attachments. Interestingly, the same message is conveyed by wildly long, matted, and uncontrolled hair of other Hindu male ascetics. In these cases, both the absence of head hair and abundant wild head hair put the person outside the bounds of everyday life.

What would Edmund Leach say about Wayne Rooney’s expensive hair operation?

Leach could not have anticipated, at the time he wrote his essay, the phenomenal progress in medical science that now allows individual follicles of hair to be moved from one part of the body to another. This procedure not only increases an individual’s chances of finding work (actors) and gain corporate sponsorship (sportsmen), but also produces a fortune for a small army of cosmetic surgeons and their employees.

Now that’s magic.

Dr Sean Carey is a research fellow at CRONEM, Roehampton University

(A version of this article has appeared on the Anthropology Works blog)

* Published in print edition on 17 June 2011

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