In humans: Premature newborns, and even some full term newborns, are covered with fine, downy hair on their shoulders, back, forehead, and cheeks. It usually is shed in utero, and joins the meconium. Babies born with lanugo usually shed it within a week.

Elephants (also considered a "hairless" mammal) exhibit the same phenomenon.

In the later stages of starvation the body re-grows a layer of lanugo on the arms neck belly and back. This is a defense mechanism that probably dates back in the days when people had more hair and it actually helped to keep the dwindling frame of the starving person warm. In North America and Europe adult lanugo is most likely to be found on anorexic people.

1. She thinks that her skeleton-body is a hot air balloon although it is hardly even the frail wooden frame of a kite. Blue veins painted on the underside of inner arms like watercolors; skin like wet paper. She may just blow away one of these days. The wind will catch the concavity that has replaced her stomach and she will ascend in an updraft, hairs drifting from her head in a gossamer rain.

She no longer takes care of her body, and so her body says to her, "Then I will take care of you, instead." "I will protect you," it says.
Her blue-tinted body is trembling.
"I am so cold," she says.
And her body says, "then I will keep you warm."

And when even her mountain of blankets and her chattering teeth and her teacup of hot water cannot warm her, her body says, "Then I will give you a coat." And it grows for her a coat of down, soft like a new cat, all over her arms and her back and her belly. "Please," says her body. "Please wear this coat that I have made and please don't be cold anymore. And please nourish yourself. I am so sad, so sad, and there is only so much I can do for you."

But the girl cannot hear her body. She thinks only about hot air balloons.

And finally, she drifts, drifts away, still covered in hair like a very young animal, her body whispering, "Please no, please stay with me a while more, I did all I could."

But the wind has caught her and she drifts.

2. Millions of mostly-formed humans are floating all over the world at this moment, suspended upside-down in fluid, held in by red membranes with the dimmest of light filtering through, showing cobwebs of veins. Tiny bodies within larger bodies. And between the tiny bodies and the larger bodies, a buffer: the finest of fine hairs, everywhere it is able to grow. On the little ones' mostly-formed legs, heads, elbows, eyelids. Everywhere, almost. The tops of their toes, their almost-formed bellies, their backs, their ears. And so on. A layer of down.

Most of these millions of little ones will lose their protective down before they are ever seen. It will be retained by some who are born before their time. A few will still have it even upon emergence from the womb after a solid nine months -- perhaps these little ones just have particularly cautious bodies.

For all of them, the down will be shed when the body decides that it can handle the harsh world without that added layer of protection, almost always within a few weeks of birth. It does not return again throughout the entire duration of the little ones' lives, except in the most dire of circumstances.

La*nu"go (?), n. [See Lanuginose.] Anat.

The soft woolly hair which covers most parts of the mammal fetus, and in man is shed before or soon after birth.

 

© Webster 1913.

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