CHICAGO -- Male baby boomers are still trying to get to the roots of an issue that bugged Julius Caesar, the ancient Egyptians and before that probably cavemen gaping at their shiny-pated reflections in prehistoric ponds.
Millions are "gaining face," as singer Christine Lavin cheerfully euphemized in a tune called "Bald Headed Men," on their advance into and through middle age. And for a can-do generation that's determined to stay youthful, baldness is often now seen as another battle to be fought and won, for a price.
More and more of the estimated 50 million U.S. men with hereditary hair loss are seeking to put a lid on baldness -- evidenced in part by the boom in the hair-replacement industry.
A whopping $1.3 billion has been spent on curing baldness in recent years, $1 billion of it on transplants, according to journalist Gersh Kuntzman's 2001 book "Hair!" -- a social history of mankind's quest to end baldness.
Dermatologists attribute the increase in interest larger to boomer men, or those who turn age 38-56 this year.
Dr. Ted Daly, who's in practice in Garden City, N.Y., said men never asked about baldness as recently as a decade ago. But with interest in hair loss skyrocketing since the mid-1990s, he said, a day now doesn't go by without such a query.
"I don't think men see it as a vain pursuit now," he said.
The options are numerous, if imperfect.
Transplants produce much-improved results and can be undetectable -- for a cost of $4,000 to $30,000 or more. The two FDA-approved drugs to stop or limit hair loss, Propecia and Rogaine (or minoxidil), run about $50 a month.
There are hairpieces of all kinds and quality. Radio ads tout herbal remedies, although experts caution of quackery.
Career fears may factor into the decision.
"I just had a guy in my office, a broker, who said that with the dot-com problems and the tight job market, 'If we don't look young, we won't be able to get jobs,"' said New York dermatologist Dr. Gary Hitzig. Hitzig, 53, himself spent thousands of dollars on "lotions and potions" over the years before undergoing three sets of transplants, the last of which finally satisfied him.
Well-known TV journalist Ron Insana first donned a toupee -- the "rodent," as he refers to his first one -- in the interest of job security six years ago after a supervisor strongly suggested it.
Insana, co-anchor of CNBC's "Business Center," stopped wearing a hairpiece for good three years later, startling viewers one day in August 1999 and becoming something of a poster boy for baldness. The decision to flip his wig came after another boss told him it was a misrepresentation for someone in the truth business, and it liberated Insana, eliminating a source of tension and bringing him widespread kudos.
"It was probably the best thing I ever did, appearance-wise," he said.
While saying some hair replacements look "fantastic," Insana suggests the recent obsession with hair jobs is a bit, well, over the top.
"If you're confident and have self-esteem, the externals don't matter," he said. "This is kind of a natural part of the aging process.
"You're much better off trying to stay fit and healthy and focusing on the quality of your life rather than sticking fake hair on the top of your head and hoping people won't notice."
Bob Johnson, 37, feels similarly after shaving his head rather than resorting to "the comb-over thing" or a costly transplant as his hairline receded.
"Why waste the money?" the New York publicist asks. "The hair-replacement industry is making a bunch of money preying on men's fears, that if they lose their hair they lose their masculinity. That's dumb."
It's nothing compared to some of the hair-raising remedies of old.
Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, thought baldness could be cured by rubbing a mixture of pigeon excrement, horseradish and beet root onto the scalp -- or, alternatively, sheep urine. The ancient Egyptians used the fat of hippos, crocodiles and goats along with dog toes and donkey hooves.
Caesar, concerned that a bald head projected an image of frailty, combed his remaining strands forward before resorting to laurel leaves to hide his pate.
Today, despite all the advances, there still are many who prefer the natural look. Caesar's fretting notwithstanding, 42-year-old Bruce Bobbins figures it's OK to be older and wiser -- especially after the collapse of the dot-coms run by twenty-somethings.
Et tu, Bruce?
"I think that keeping it natural portrays a mature image and self-confidence in who I am as a person," the New Yorker said. Besides, he chuckles, his wife likes it because it makes her look younger than him, even though she's five years older.