Lindsay Walter was rightly glowing in April after winning her first 48-hour ultramarathon: the Upstate Ultra Country Mile, where she spent two solid days repeating a Parkrun-sized trail loop in South Carolina and ended up running just over 160 miles – nine more than the first-placed man. It didn’t take long for the 31-year-old health coach’s bubble to be rudely popped, however, when not long afterwards a woman shouted at her for being in the wrong public bathroom because ‘you’re a man’.
It’s one of many common misconceptions that Walter faces as a woman with alopecia universalis, an autoimmune condition that has left her with no body hair since the age of two. In every other respect she’s perfectly healthy, as her 48 marathon medals suggest, but a lack of awareness around the condition leads some who meet her to assume incorrectly that she has a life-threatening illness. ‘Most people do come from a place of trying to be nice, but if you think I have cancer, you can keep that to yourself,’ she says with a smile. ‘I don’t need you to tell me how “healthy” I look today.’
The world had a chance to learn more about alopecia back in March, of course, when the actor Will Smith hit the comedian Chris Rock on stage at the Oscars ceremony. Rock had made an insensitive joke about Smith’s wife Jada Pinkett Smith’s head, which she had shaved following an alopecia diagnosis in 2018. Subsequently the world’s media focused entirely on the violence – a big waste of a teachable moment, according to Walter.
‘It seemed like no one was talking about the real victim in that situation, who was Jada. That hurt she must have felt – I felt that to my core,’ she says. ‘I know what it’s like to be in a setting where you’re humiliated and embarrassed and you don’t know how to respond. But there was also a huge missed opportunity to educate on alopecia.’
Walter’s earliest memory is of attending pre-school wearing a wig, a disguise that stayed taped on throughout her education, including a successful spell as a college basketball star at the University of Minnesota Duluth. It wasn’t so realistic that people didn’t know, and she was also missing her eyelashes and eyebrows, so bullying was common. ‘At that time, social media wasn’t a thing, and there was no one else in my family, school or community with alopecia. Not having anyone to talk to was super hard and isolating.’
Naturally she tried to keep a low profile as a child. It’s much more recently, and partly thanks to running, that she has found that she isn’t truly an introvert.