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Four women with alopecia on the Chris Rock-Will Smith Oscars drama

There’s been a distinct lack of empathy towards Jada Pinkett-Smith underpinning all the pearl-clutching takes, symptomatic of a wider dearth of empathy for alopecia sufferers

Even if you do live under a rock, it’s likely that you’ve seen that video of Will Smith racing onto the stage at the Oscars to smack Chris Rock round the face after he made a cheap joke about Jada Pinkett-Smith’s alopecia areata – an autoimmune condition which causes hair loss.

Predictably, the internet is now up in arms about the whole fiasco. Armchair commentators are baselessly comparing Smith to Harvey Weinstein, calling on Rock to press charges against Smith, and throwing around the phrase “Black-on-Black violence”. It’s wearing to see take after take on what the slap ‘signified’ and what it ‘means’, especially from keyboard warriors who are wading into the discourse to offer their unsolicited opinions.

But cutting through the cacophony, there is one group whose opinions on the matter are worth listening to: alopecia sufferers. There’s been a distinct lack of empathy towards Pinkett-Smith underpinning all the pearl-clutching takes online, symptomatic of a wider dearth of empathy for alopecia sufferers (and, in this case, a wider dearth of empathy for Black women too). Despite the potentially life-changing impact of the condition, the seriousness of alopecia has been wrongfully underplayed and dismissed for years.

Dazed asked four women with alopecia what they made of last night’s incident.

Tee, 23

“I felt really disheartened hearing the joke because I suffer from alopecia. It really affects your self-confidence a lot and it affects the way that you perceive yourself. Also Black women’s hair is used as an expression of their identity and Chris Rock knows this – he did a documentary just over ten years ago about the importance of hair in Black culture, so it’s not lost on him.

Slightly controversial, but I’m one of those people that does believe that there are lines to be drawn in comedy – to insinuate that people are ‘soft’ or ‘snowflakes’ for objecting to comedians constantly punching down is really disingenuous. I think Will’s reaction probably wasn’t the right thing to do, but I completely understand it. It was clear that Chris’s comment crossed a line – freedom of speech doesn’t equate to freedom of consequence. I don’t condone violence, but – excuse my French – fuck around and find out.” 

Katie*, 30

“To lose your hair in clumps to alopecia, particularly as a woman, is one of the most dehumanising things that can happen to you. Self-esteem plummets, relationships suffer, events and opportunities are missed out on because hair loss has ravaged your confidence – I’d hate to hazard a guess at how many dates, nights out, trips, or work events I’ve dipped from at last minute because I can’t get my hair to sit right across the last two decades, but it’s a lot. I consider myself a deeply self-deprecating person, and someone who can take a joke at my expense (at least if it’s made with love), but my hair loss, as friends have found out when they’ve made gentle piss-taking comments in the past, is way, way off-limits.

I’m not surprised that Will Smith lashed out at Chris Rock like he did. No doubt Will has been witness to the tears, confusion, and deep, lasting pain the condition leaves you with through Jada’s own experience, and knows how even the smallest of comments can cause the most incredible setbacks – never mind those made on an international stage in front of not just your peers, but an audience of millions.

“I’m not surprised that Will Smith lashed out at Chris Rock like he did. No doubt he has been witness to the tears, confusion, and pain the condition leaves you with” – Katie

Besides anything else, with her shaved head and her Glenn Martens’ Gaultier gown, Jada actually stole the red carpet last night. Time for Rock to pass the mic to someone who doesn’t rely on shit jokes for cheap laughs at a brave, beautiful woman’s expense? I’d have to go with yes.” 

Priyanka, 27

“I’m not usually one to condone violence but if you look at the situation, Chris Rock decided to make a joke on a public platform about something which a lot of people would find distressing if they were suffering from it themselves. I think Will’s reaction was more to defend Jada and I completely get where it was coming from. If I was in that situation, I personally wouldn’t want my partner to punch someone, but in the heat of the moment when your wife is being disrespected publicly, I guess a lot of partners would want to do the same.

I don’t think people understand how distressing it can actually be to suffer from hair loss. You just don't know what Jada went through to actually even turn up because personally, I didn’t want to go out or socialise or dress up because I was so self-conscious of my hair. She turned up and looked absolutely beautiful. She didn’t wear a wig or a hairpiece or anything to hide it: she was like, ‘here I am, I’ve got alopecia’, which I think is amazing. And then for someone to not just highlight it, but then make fun of her for it as well… I know I would be extremely distressed if I was in her position.”

Mabel, 43

“When you are a Black woman or a woman of colour and you are brought up in a culture where hair is everything and then you are diagnosed with a medical condition where you have no control over your hair loss, it is devastating. It is devastating beyond belief. Chris Rock’s joke is not something that should be done – we don’t make fun of people who have cancer or MS or ALS. So why is it OK to make fun of someone who has alopecia? It’s not.

Now, Will running up to Chris and smacking him is also wrong, but an understandable wrong. Alopecia takes such an emotional toll on you – I cover up my alopecia with a wig, but every so often I do show my bald head, and the amount of anxiety that you go through right before you go into the world with your bald head... I can’t even measure it. It’s just overwhelming because you’re not sure what people are going to say. In Jada’s case, someone made a GI Jane joke.

You just don’t joke about someone’s medical condition. You just don’t do it.”

*Name has been changed