Shannon Cutler has been living with a secret for most of her life, but that all changed recently when she posed for a fashion shoot without her wig on.
"It was probably the best thing I ever did," said Cutler, who started losing her hair decades ago when she was just five-years-old.
"I was emotional that day. In all honesty, there were some tears. But to see other women and to see the inspiration of these young girls that were also there were truly an inspiration to me and I thought, 'You know, like, get over yourself, own it!'"
For years, Cutler hid her alopecia, with wigs, hair bands, and extensions. She kept it from her co-workers for 15 years.
The autoimmune disorder causes various stages of hair loss and can affect people of any age.
"I don't ever really remember discussing it openly. It was just something that was my part of me and something quite private," she said.
But that all changed recently when Cutler volunteered to be a part of a fashion shoot.
The shoot was hosted by Nicole Rice who owns the Sweet Jolie Boutique south of Edmonton and has a 10-year-old daughter who also has alopecia. Rice has also organized a fashion show scheduled for this weekend at her boutique
"It has been my mission as her mom to bring awareness to this because there is not a lot of funds that go to this non-profit, and we just really want her to know that she's not alone," said Rice, who runs her business out of a converted RV warehouse in Nisku.
Rice said Cutler is a customer of hers and reached out to be a part of the fashion show this year.
"This was, like, very cathartic for her, and it was very pivotal," said Rice.
"It was a very pivotal moment in her life, and she took a lot of pride in that, and you could see her walls coming down and how emotional it was for her. And to be a part of that was such an honour."
'Breaking down the stigma'
Dr. Anil Kurian, a dermatologist in south Edmonton, said the number of patients with alopecia at his clinic has increased.
"We're seeing more pronounced hair loss, hair shedding, certainly around in the last few months after COVID started," said Kurian.
"Typically we would see a few cases a day. Now I'm seeing about 10 to 15 per cent more than that. So it's a regular occurrence in my day-to-day clinic," he added.
All the more reason says Rice to hold events like this weekend's fashion show and help raise awareness of alopecia.
"We want women to know that they're not alone. We want men to know that as well," she said.
"It is absolutely breaking down the stigma and just showing that these women and men and children are productive in society and they've got so much to offer and that they're more than their hair. "