WHEN a young client was initially very shy in a wig fitting, Beth Wood reassured her by showing her own patches of hair loss.

"She was really worried," Beth said, "I said, 'I'll show you my patches, if you show me yours.'"

Having lost her hair to alopecia as a teenager, Beth, the stylist and sales manager at Betty Brown Wigs in York, has a better understanding than most of the extent to which hair loss can shake people's sense of identity.

"I tried to hide my hair loss for a while because obviously at 14 I didn't know what was going on and I was quite embarrassed about it. And then my mum sat me down and asked what was going on," Beth said.

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"So I started having lots of treatments and I had to go through to Pontefract every week for a treatment called DCP, which is a liquid they put on your scalp and it causes a kind of eczema, an irritation to stimulate the follicles into working again. It wasn't very nice but it can help. Unfortunately for me it didn't.

"It was awful because all my friends were starting to colour their hair and have all these funky styles and I couldn't. I felt like I really stood out. I didn't let it get me down, I was quite a strong person when I was younger.

"It got to the point I didn't have anything on top and I started wearing a cap to school because I was told my hair would come back soon so not to get a wig."

She recalls with dismay how a surprise Year 11 school photo at Malton School shows her wearing a cap among her peers. At 15, she gave up on the doctor's prediction her hair would soon grow back, and found a wig.

Years later, having trained as a hair stylist and working in York, Beth was invited to work at Betty Brown Wigs by its owner Emma Romans.

The busy Clarence Street shop sees up to 12 women, and sometimes men, a day, giving each hour-long, private appointments.

On the whole, their clients have lost hair through alopecia and trichotillomania (a condition where a person feels compelled to pull their hair out), and through chemotherapy. They also have a number of transgender customers.

"I was always interested in hair and beauty and I thought I don't want to not do that because of my hair," Beth said.

"I never thought I would end up working in a wig shop but I'm glad I have done, it's really helped and people always say thank you. Because of my experience they can trust me a little bit more.

"If people are struggling, they can go out feeling better about themselves. Your hair is a big part of yourself and you take it for granted."

Wigs cost from around £100 to up to around £600, with staff trained in cutting and styling wigs to suit each client. Alopecia patients are entitled to two NHS-funded wigs a year, Beth said, which is something many people don't know about.

There's a lack of information, and understanding in general, about alopecia, she said. "I remember my mum and dad getting frustrated as we were getting passed pillar to post, I don't think anyone wanted to take responsibility for it. If you get referred to the right people things get done. Dermatologists and trichologists are always good to see. They do show an interest and they will try and find a cause."

Now 26, Beth's hair grows back cyclically and she doesn't currently wear a wig.

Her worries about whether she would keep her hair returned when her boyfriend Paul proposed. The childhood sweethearts got together as teenagers.

As she was preparing for their wedding (pictured above) , Beth couldn't help but worry about her hair, and had included the wigs she may need in her wedding planning.

"My main aim was to have my own hair for my wedding," she said, "With a wig you can't really wear it up. Luckily by that point my hair had covered enough so I could wear it up."

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Her manager Emma carefully styled Beth's hair to cover any patches ahead of her wedding at Byland Abbey in Coxwold last year. "I felt really good in that I could be a normal bride," she said, "The day was fantastic, there was lots of dancing."

For the foreseeable future, Beth said she's delighted to be working at Betty Browns. "It seems the perfect job for me really," she said, "I never thought I would see myself in a wig shop with this condition but it is the perfect job."

- Betty Brown Wigs runs a regular alopecia support group. Anyone who suffers from hair loss is welcome and people from all age groups attend the meeting. The next group meets at the Clarence Street shop on Wednesday, January 25, at 5.30pm. If you'd like to attend, please call Betty Brown on 01904 674242 to ensure there are enough chairs and cups of tea. If you have recently experienced hair loss and don't know what to do next, the shop is happy to advise. You can also email enquiries@bettybrownwigs.co.uk