April 16, 2021

Marie Antoinette Syndrome

Let them eat brioche*.

Many of us are familiar with the famous last Queen of France who is said to have pronounced those words when her people were dying of hunger(1)

I bring Marie Antoinette up, because I recently read House of Hollow, an excellent fantasy-horror novel by Krystal Sutherland. The novel is about three sisters who mysteriously disappeared in their childhood, only to reappear a month later, with no memories of what had happened to them. Shortly after the girls' reappearance, their hair turned suddenly white, a medical condition that doctors in the novel call the "Marie Antoinette Syndrome". 

Turns out this syndrome is real** and comes from the embellished witness accounts that state that Marie Antoinette's hair turned suddenly white right before the Revolutionaries had her pretty neck offered to the guillotine (this was in 1793, a month short of her 38th birthday).

As an article on Healthline(2) states, a similar occurrence was reported to have happened a couple centuries prior, with Thomas Moore (also upon his execution), and, more recently, with WWII bombing survivors. 

But, although (chronic) stress could be a catalyst for such a dramatic whitening of hair, science tells us it's not the actual cause, and certainly does not happen that quickly. Instead, other possible reasons listed include: pattern baldness, which would suddenly expose the white hairs we already have but haven't noticed until then; a genetic predisposition to graying hair; hormonal changes, including thyroid issues, menopause or a drop in testosterone levels;  nutritional deficiencies, and the B12 vitamin in particular; and vitiligo, which impacts our body's pigmentation.

Still, I can imagine that the state of Marie Antoinette at her execution must have been quite a contrast to the popular vision people may have had of her as a young, pretty and profligate queen. After all, she had just spent ten weeks in prison, and that was after a couple of years of house arrest and failed attempts to flee the country. This sudden contrast between reality and the popularized image of her may thus explain the idea that her hair turned white overnight.

Marie Antoinette moments before being beheaded

Notes and Sources:

*I know that traditionally, the quote is translated as "cake," but brioche is more of a sweet bread, more like Hawaiian bread, rather than actual cake...

**Well, somewhat... as explained lower in the text.

(1) Interestingly, that happened because some "clever" bourgeois decided to force King Louis XVI's hand in adopting more capitalistic business practices, which included raising the price of bread (when before, it was forbidden to do so).

(2) Marie Antoinette Syndrome: Real or Myth?

(3) Additional info on Marie Antoinette's end of life