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Ayanna Pressley

Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley opens up on having alopecia as a black woman

‘My black hair story is both personal and political’

A US congresswoman has opened up about her journey with alopecia, making peace with the condition that has left her bald and the intentionality of black hairstyles. Representative Ayanna Pressley, Democrat of Massachusetts, publicly revealed for the first time that she suffers from alopecia, an autoimmune disease that causes hair to fall out from the scalp and other parts of the body. 

In a video for The Root, Pressley explains her hair journey, from experimenting with wigs and extensions to the moment when she first got Senagalese twists and “met herself fully for the first time.” Pressley says that the style quickly became an intentional statement. 

“I was very aware this hairstyle could be and would be interpreted by some as a political statement that was militant,” she says. “What I was not prepared for was the glorious gift and blessing of the acceptance and the community and the affirmation.” 

Describing how young girls wear t-shirts saying “My congresswoman wears braids” and the letters she receives from women all about the world, Pressley explains how the impact of her hair extends so much further than just her own person. “My twists have become such a synonymous and conflated part of not only my personal identity and how I show up in the world but my political brand. That’s why I think it’s important that I am transparent about this new normal.”

She then reveals how she became aware of bald patches on her head when getting her hair retwisted in the fall and describes the quick acceleration to waking up to sinkfuls of hair despite the protective measures she was taking. Ultimately, all efforts failed. “I did not want to go to sleep because I did not want the morning to come where I will remove this bonnet and my wrap, and be met with more hair in the sink and an image in the mirror of a person who increasingly felt like a stranger to me,” Pressley said.

In that universal way that pivotal career moments and those of personal struggle tend to collide, it was on the day that Congress was to cast a vote to impeach President Trump that Pressley realised she was completely bald. “I didn’t have the luxury of mourning what felt like the loss of a limb,” she says. “I knew the moment demanded that I stand in it and that I lean in.” 

Pressley says in that moment she felt naked, exposed, vulnerable, and ashamed. But she also felt that she was participating in cultural betrayal because of all the young girls who looked up to her as a congresswoman who wore braids. Despite her husband telling her not everything has to be political, “the reality is that I’m black and I’m a black woman and I’m a black woman in politics and everything I do is political,” she says. Towards the end of the video, Pressley removes her wig revealing her smooth bald head. 

After the video was released, several of Pressley’s colleagues, public figures and people who suffer from alopecia rallied in support on Twitter.

“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? Ayanna, you are a living blessing,” Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Democrat of New York, wrote on Twitter.

“I didn’t think I could love her more but oh my heart. I wanna be like her when I grow up. @AyannaPressley thank you for being as unapologetic as they come,” wrote activist and co-creator of Black Lives Matter Alicia Garza. 

“This is one of the more poignant and elegant moments that I’ve seen from a politician of late. @AyannaPressley is correct – everything is political, especially hair. Pressley didn’t have to reveal her alopecia, but she shows here why it matters that she did,” tweeted writer Jamil Smith.

Despite over six million people in the US having alopecia, scientists are not sure what causes the condition. Though people who have alopecia are generally otherwise healthy, the hair loss can lead to anxiety, depression, and lack of self-esteem. 

“There are studies about how much this impacts quality of life, not just for the patients but for their family members,” Dr Melissa Piliang, a dermatologist at the Cleveland Clinic told the New York Times. “People spend a lot of time trying to cover it up, and that adds to feelings of shame, even though it’s not their fault.”

“The congresswoman was quite open about her feelings. I applaud her.”