Leah VanHoose stands out in a crowd. Her captivating smile, vivid tattoos, and her characteristic outfit of tight, short shorts and high socks could easily turn the attention of an entire room to her infectious optimism. Though for the last seven years, she has also gotten attention for her hair, or lack thereof.
“In early 2007, I was getting fat,” Leah admitted. “I signed up for a marathon. It was on my bucket list so I thought I better take care of it as soon as possible. After running the marathon I realized I’m never running that far again, ever.”
Not getting the results she wanted, Leah decided to open her own CrossFit gym. “All my life I’ve wanted to help people and I never knew how I was going to do that. I went to nursing school briefly and realized I didn’t want to wait on sick people. I went into massage therapy and did that for fourteen years, but I got tired of doing the work.” Leah laughed at herself. “Now I get to tell them to do the work.”
[Health] is very simple,” Leah offers. “I think people try for a magic pill or a gimmick. That’s not going to do it. You just have to, every day, be a little bit better than the day before, but changing is hard. I think my main goal in creating the gym was so I didn’t have to work out by myself.”
As she was putting the work into her exciting new project converging her lack of enthusiasm for her previous career with her new focus on health, Leah noticed something was changing.
“I was putting my hair in a ponytail holder and I noticed above my ears that there was a lot of space,” Leah explained. “I started feeling in the back and I found round circles in the back of my head. I started freaking out so I got on the computer and searched hair loss and Alopecia came up. The more I read the more my stomach sank. I realized I was going bald.”
“For a long time,” Leah continued, “I pulled it down, wore a hat, ponytail, just hid it as long as I could.” Eventually, the day came when Leah decided that shaving off her remaining hair was better than dealing with hiding and manipulating what was left. “We cooked a pig, drank Southern Comfort, and shaved it off. [My friends] were crying as much as I was.”
“I wore a bandana for a long time,” Leah remembered, “and frankly, I got sick of it. Being in my gym, I was able to just not wear that bandana and be around people and just be me.”
Unlike many of the changes we go through, bald can’t be hidden from anyone. And while a man with Alopecia can easily blend into a crowd with his smooth scalp, strangers seeing Leah for the first time generally jump quickly to the same, incorrect conclusion; cancer. The great irony of course, is that as Leah got healthier, she appeared to others as more and more sick.
“I think people try to relate to me, but everyone thinks I have cancer. ‘When’s your treatment? I had cancer’ or ‘My mom or my dad has cancer.’ I don’t like people thinking I’m sick, because I’m not.”
To the contrary, from the forehead down Leah is the picture of perfect health. “I love bacon, I love beer, and I like chocolate, a lot. Those three things are gifts but I try to eat as well as possible. My husband has a great garden and hunts, so I eat a lot of vegetables and fruit and venison.”
With a plucky and understanding disposition to the regular assumptions about her condition, Leah chose to see her Alopecia as an opportunity.
“After seven years, I’ve gotten to the point where I forget that I’m bald. I stand out now and I like it. I want to make a difference in the world and help people with their self-esteem. This puts me in a better position to do that; using my so-called weakness or flaw as a strength. People think I’m a lot stronger than they would had I just had hair.”
Perhaps, given the challenges and choices of her seven-year journey, that is the best word to describe every facet of Leah VanHoose; Strong.