EXPLAINER: Alopecia ‘stripping people of their identity’ | Health and medicine

By LINDSAY WHITEHURST – Associated Press

Alopecia is an autoimmune disease that affects millions of people worldwide. But for many women — and for black women, in particular — it’s much more. It’s about beauty and race, culture, and the uncertainty that clutter creates around people’s self-perceptions.

So at the 94th Academy Awards on Sunday night, when comedian Chris Rock threw a pointed joke at Jada Pinkett Smith about her hair loss that some deemed insensitive, the event revealed many layers of feelings for those who struggle with the disorder.

It also shed light on the disorder, which is little discussed but fairly common and affects a wide range of people, including children.

Actor Will Smith, who stunned millions when he took the stage and slapped Rock for the Pinkett Smith joke, has since apologized to the comedian, the academy and viewers.

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Rock’s joke was hard to hear for New York interior designer Sheila Bridges.

She spoke to Rock for his 2009 documentary “Good Hair” about the importance of hair in black culture. She spoke about the shame and humiliation of losing hers to illness, how her hairstyle is tied to her racial identity and how losing her hair has affected her sense of femininity. and social currency.

The Oscar slap left Bridges with mixed emotions: She condemned Smith’s assault on Rock, sympathized with Pinkett Smith, and was deeply disappointed in Rock.

“It’s not easy as a woman to navigate life without hair and in a hair-obsessed society,” Bridges said.

She doesn’t wear wigs because she doesn’t want to, and also hopes to normalize and destigmatize the appearance of bald women.

But even a decade after deciding to go bald in public, Bridges said it was still hard for some to accept: “I rarely go through the week without someone saying something very, very insensitive.”

While it’s unclear if Rock was aware of Pinkett Smith’s diagnosis, hair in general can already be a difficult landscape for black women, who have been expected for generations to alter their natural hair texture. to fit a white beauty standard. Even rich and famous black actresses have said it can be hard to find Hollywood stylists who know how to style their hair.

Black women are 80% more likely to change their natural hair to meet social norms at work, according to a 2019 study by Unilever USA’s Dove personal care division.

Black students are also significantly more likely than other students to be suspended for dress code or hair violations, according to research that helped convince the U.S. House to vote to outlaw discrimination based on natural hairstyles at the beginning of the month.

“The only good thing that can come out of all of this is that alopecia is front and center,” Bridges said of the Oscar slap.


For many Black Americans, grooming and style choices are tied to a desire to counteract what is considered normal or acceptable by society at large. From afros and cornrows to wigs and hair extensions, black hair can be more than just style statements.

Black women and girls watching the Supreme Court nomination and confirmation hearings for Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson said in interviews with AP that they were moved to see someone wearing their hair in “sisters to gain such an important position. It is a style that uses natural hair woven into micro locs and is known for its versatility.

Seeing someone like Jackson embrace her natural hair, instead of conforming to society’s beauty standards, reminded these women and girls not to shrink in order to succeed, they said.

For black women in the public eye, losing the pride and representation symbolized by their hairstyles can add another layer to the professional and self-esteem challenges of hair loss.

Alopecia areata, the autoimmune disease from which Pinkett Smith suffers, can cause scalp hair to fall out in patches. It can also affect other parts of the body, such as the eyebrows and nose hair.

Alopecia can happen quickly, is unpredictable and can be incredibly difficult to manage mentally, said Brett King, hair loss expert at Yale Medicine.

“Imagine if you woke up today with half an eyebrow missing,” he said. “That unpredictability is one of the things that is mentally treacherous and horrific because you have no control over it…it’s a disease that strips people of their identity.”

Although rarely discussed, it is actually quite common: the second leading cause of hair loss, after male or female pattern baldness. About 2% of people have it. It’s not physically painful, in some cases it goes away on its own and can be treated.


Hair is a big part of anyone’s appearance, and for women it’s tied to cultural concepts about what makes them feminine.

“Most women are expected to have great hair,” said William Yates, a hair loss surgeon based in Black Chicago. “They’re well aware that men lose their hair and are ‘elegantly bald’, so to speak, but a woman losing her hair is devastating.”

The condition also tends to strike people when they are relatively young. Most are diagnosed before the age of 40, and about half are children when the disorder first appears, said Christopher English, a board-certified dermatologist at Intermountain Healthcare in Salt. Lake City.

Having the condition is especially difficult for teens, for whom appearance anxiety and peer pressure are often already at an all-time high, said Gary Sherwood, director of communications at the National Alopecia Areata Foundation. In Elkhart, Indiana, a 12-year-old girl with the disease died by suicide this month after being bullied at school, her family said.

Some studies also indicated the disease was more prevalent among blacks and Latinos, Sherwood and Yates said. The National Institutes of Health state that it affects all racial and ethnic groups, men and women.

Rock’s joke was “not unusual,” Sherwood said. “It’s been around since there’s been humans on Earth… for centuries people wouldn’t talk about it.”

He hopes a good result from the Oscars slap will be more education, awareness and empathy.

AP Race and Ethnicity writers Annie Ma in Charlotte, North Carolina, and Aaron Morrison in New York contributed to this story. Whitehurst reported from Salt Lake City.

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