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UEL dance student to appear on Channel 5's Don't Tell the Doctor

Emi Matsushita speaks about life with alopecia on 9 March episode


University of East London dance student Emi Matsushita had the kind of hair that turns heads on the street. A dancer, her hair was also a tool in her artistic arsenal, used as creatively as a leg or arm. 

Then it began falling out.

Emi, 31, first noticed bald patches in her thick, dark tresses following a turbulent few years that saw her move to a new city, change careers and go through a divorce. 

Her initial reaction was denial. She wasn’t completely bald, and she convinced herself that the missing hair would grow back. But as time went on and the patches remained, she sought advice. A doctor confirmed what she already suspected from her own internet research – Emi had alopecia areata. 

She said, “There is no reason why it happens, but there are triggers they think could be factors, and they think stress could be one reason. I was going through a divorce. If I had to guess what made it happen, it was maybe that life change.

On 9 March, Emi will appear on Channel 5’s Don’t Tell the Doctor programme, which features young people seeking treatment for medical problems that have largely gone untreated. 

Alopecia areata stems from a problem with the immune system and causes patches of baldness on the scalp and other parts of the body. It affects one or two people in every 1,000 in the UK, and is most common in people aged 15-29.

Hair loss caused by alopecia areata can grow back, but in Emi’s case it has not. Following her initial consultation with a doctor, she decided against medical treatment.

Emi’s remaining hair is thick enough that she can somewhat cover her baldness, and on Don’t Tell the Doctor she explores treatments such as acupuncture, support groups and wigs with the help of the programme’s Dr Tamara Cohen. 

The hair loss was especially traumatising for Emi because she had made a deliberate decision after her divorce to grow her hair long. A no-fuss sort of person, she had kept her hair short for most of her life, and her newly long hair became a symbol of sorts for the personal metamorphosis she was undergoing at the time. 

Emi said, “After I got divorced I started dancing more, and so my hair was out there more, and it became part of my identity as a dancer. It’s an accessory when you’re dancing. You can do things with it.

“And I had strangers come up and ask where I got my hair done. I never styled it – I would just wake up and walk out the door. But people would be like, ‘Oh, I love your hair. Can I take a picture to show my stylist?’

“It just really boosted my confidence during that time of my life.”

But Emi, a Stratford resident, is not letting her alopecia keep her down. Last year, she made the decision to move to the UK from the United States to pursue her dream of a career in dance. Now in her first year of study in UEL’s renowned Dance: Urban Practice programme, Emi said she’s interested in dance as a tool for positive social change, and could see herself as a choreographer or coach.

Emi said, “I do feel self-conscious when I go outside without a hat on. But I think that’s normal. Every woman feels self-conscious some of the time. But I won’t hide myself. I’m aware that people may be staring at my head but I’m not going to cover it up because I’m embarrassed.”

You can watch Emi in Channel 5’s Don’t Tell the Doctor at 9pm on 9 March.