Congresswoman sparks honest conversation about alopecia, hair loss
Rep. Ayanna Pressley, a Democrat from Massachusetts, on Thursday unveiled for the first time publicly that she has alopecia, an autoimmune condition that can cause complete hair loss.
"This is my official public revealing. I'm ready now because I want to be free from the secret, and the shame that the secret carries with it," Pressley announced in an interview with The Root, in which she also revealed that she is bald. "And because I'm not here just to occupy space, I'm here to create it. I want to be free."
Pressley, who is the first black woman to represent Massachusetts in Congress, began by reflecting on her signature style of Senegalese twists, which she first got done about four years ago. That look, she explained, had not only become an integral part of her identity and political brand, but also served as an inspiration to young women of color across the country -- even sparking T-shirts that read, "My Congresswoman Wears Braids."
But on Thursday, Pressley said her new normal is living with alopecia, a skin disease she began to develop late last year.
"In the fall, when I was getting my hair retwisted, is the first time that I was made aware that I had some patches," Pressley recalled. "From there, it accelerated very quickly."
Soon enough, Pressley said, she began "waking up every morning to sinkfuls of hair."
According to the National Alopecia Areata Foundation, the condition develops when the body's immune system attacks healthy follicles, creating issues in hair production. While it affects 6.8 million people in the United States of all ages, genders and ethnic groups, according to the foundation, scientists have not yet determined what exactly triggers the disease.
Pressley said the last of her hair fell out last month -- just before she was set to vote to impeach President Donald Trump. She wore a wig as she announced her vote.
"I was completely bald and in a matter of hours was going to have to walk into the floor -- the House chamber, the House of Representatives -- and cast a vote in support of articles of impeachment," she said. "It was a moment of transformation not of my choosing. But I knew the moment demanded that I stand in it and that I lean in."
Jenn Jackson, an assistant professor for political science at Syracuse University, who is black, explained Thursday that she has many friends and family members who have experienced what is known as "traction" alopecia, which is associated with long-term braiding or other styles that pull on the hair. The condition sometimes goes undiagnosed in black communities because of the stigma around it, she said.
Much of that stigma, Jackson said, comes from a debate around "good hair" -- which some don't associate with kinkier, tightly coiled African American hair. In some cases, women of color may choose hairstyles that mask their curls and more closely mirror European styles.
"What's really important about narratives around black hair and hair loss is there's so much shame in black communities and in black women's circles around our hair already," Jackson said. "It's liberating to have Pressley say: 'This is what I look like, and this is what's happening with my body,' helping to alleviate some of that shame, which for some of us affects how we navigate our day-to-day lives."
Jackson said she has faced intermittent issues with losing hair after wearing twists on and off for the past decade. While she's thought about shaving it off entirely, some of her students have privately said it's inspiring to see her wear Senegalese twists in the classroom.
"We're tired of having to hide what our hair looks like," Jackson added.
Describing her own experience, Pressley explained that she tried everything to stymie her hair loss. She wore a bonnet and used a silk pillowcase, to no avail. After the vote in the House chamber, she recalled hiding in a bathroom stall, feeling vulnerable and ashamed. She felt like she was participating in "cultural betrayal" by letting down the women of color who admired her twists, and that she owed them an explanation.
"I am making a peace with having alopecia," she said, after removing her wig for the first time publicly. "I'm very early in my alopecia journey. But I'm making progress every day. And that's why I'm doing this today. It's about self-agency, it's about power, it's about acceptance."
The freshman Democrat explained that before doing the video, she had only been bald in the privacy of her home and around her close friends. But as her interview made the rounds Thursday, Pressley received overwhelming support and praise from colleagues on Twitter, who commended her for sharing such an intimate story.
"Could you imagine losing all your hair on the eve of an enormously public day? And then turning that intensely intimate ordeal to make space for others?" asked Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortex, A New York Democrat, in a Thursday tweet. "Ayanna, you are a living blessing."
Rep. Gwen Moore, a Democrat from Wisconsin, offered similar adulation: "Thank you, my sister, for your bravery," she wrote.
"You are such a shining light," Moore added. "Your beautiful spirit, full of courage, love and strength, is why you're such a powerful example for young women and girls."