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Rep. Ayanna Pressley Shares Her Alopecia With the World

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Just before the end of the decade, several states and cities finally passed or proposed laws to stop natural hair discrimination. These long-awaited laws seek to ban the policies that for so long have penalized people of color for wearing natural curls, dreadlocks, twists, braids and other hairstyles that embrace their cultural identity. Yet, there continue to be reports of kids being turned away from school for their dreadlocks or employees facing consequences at their places of work for their natural hair.

Rep. Ayanna Pressley, the first Black woman elected to Congress from Massachusetts, wants you to know that hair has always been political, and she knows that hers—or her lack thereof—is, as well. 

“I’ve only been bald in the privacy of my home and in the company of close friends,” says at the beginning video published by The Root. “I do believe going public will help. I’m ready now, because I want to be freed from the secret and the shame that secret carries with it. Because I’m not here just to occupy space—I’m here to create it.”

In the emotional video, Rep. Pressley revealed she is living with alopecia, a common autoimmune skin disease that causes hair loss on the scalp, face and sometimes on other areas of the body. The disease, which affects nearly 6.8 million people in the U.S., came as a big blow for Pressley, whose hair had always been a centerpoint of her political career. 

Back in 2018, Pressley told The Glow Up that when she was first contemplating to run for congresswoman , she was advised against wearing her Senegalese twists. According to her, she was told the hairstyle “wasn’t polished enough.”

“It was ‘too ethnic …. too urban,’ and I was shocked. It was not just by people of my mother’s ilk and generation, may she rest in power,” she told the publication. “It was by millennials and young professionals who have bought in early to these old constructs and ideas.”

What started out as a transitional hairstyle, ultimately became a statement. With all the warnings given to her about how people might negatively perceive her because of her hairstyle, any backlash that came her way was not a surprise. However, what Pressley was not prepared for was the amount of acceptance and affirmation that she received within the community. 

“Now, I walk into rooms and little girls are wearing T-shirts that say, ‘My Congresswoman Wears Braids,’ ” Pressley said, adding that she has received letters from women commending her for her bravery and talking about their own liberation. “They feel I’ve given them permission,” she said. 

It wasn’t until the congresswoman was retwisting her hair that she was made aware that she had some balding patches. After that, she would wake up to sinks full of hair. Trying to alleviate the problem, Pressley started “employing all the tools that I had been schooled and trained in throughout my life as a Black woman,” including sleeping with a silk pillow and wearing a bonnet to bed. However, every morning she would wake up to the same image. 

“I didn’t want to go to sleep because I did not want the morning to come where I would remove [my] bonnet and my wrap and be met with more hair in the sink—and a woman in the mirror who increasingly felt like a stranger to me.” 

On the eve of the impeachment of President Donal Trump, the last bit of hair came out. Not only was she now completely bald, she was also a matter of hours from walking onto the floor of the House of Representatives and cast a vote in support of articles of impeachment. She didn’t have the time or the luxury of mourning what she described felt like “the loss of a lib.” The morning after she cast the vote to impeach the president, she hid in the bathroom and cried. 

“I felt naked exposed vulnerable, I felt embarrassed, I felt ashamed, I felt betrayed. And then I also felt like I was participating in a cultural betrayal—because of all the little girls who write me letters and talk to me.” 

It was because of those little girls that she knew that she had to go public. 

“My husband says that not everything has to be political,” she said. “But the reality is that I’m Black, and I’m a Black woman, and I am a Black woman in politics. And everything I do is political.” 

Pressley said that she is now making peace with having alopecia, and that even though she is still early in her journey, she is making progress, and it was that progress that allowed her to share her condition with the world.

“Right now on this journey, when I feel the most unlike myself is when i am wearing a wig,” she said. “So I think that means I’m on my way. “

Alexandra Tirado Oropeza is a Venezuelan journalist covering politics, immigration, entertainment and social justice. She moved to the U.S. in 2014 to pursue a Writing degree at The University of Tampa, and after graduating, she moved to Los Angeles where she works in broadcast and as a freelance writer. She’s passionate about equality, freedom of speech, art and dogs.