By now, you’ve heard all about the slap heard around the world at last night’s Oscar ceremony. This year’s Best Actor winner, Will Smith, was not acting when he rushed the stage to take a jab at comedian Chris Rock for making a joke about his wife, Jada Pinkett Smith. Rock’s joke, “Jada, I love ya. G.I. Jane 2, can’t wait to see ya,” referenced Pinkett Smith’s shaved head. But neither Pinkett Smith nor her Oscar-winning husband found it funny.
The actress will surely be at the top of every best-dressed list, wearing a stunning emerald green gown courtesy of the Spring/Summer 2022 couture collaboration between Jean Paul Gaultier and Glenn Martens of Diesel and Y/Project. And she looked absolutely regal with her shaved head and flawless makeup. But the reason for Pinkett Smith’s haircut is extremely personal and one that causes many women of color to suffer in silence.
The American Academy of Dermatology describes alopecia areata as an autoimmune disease that develops when the body attacks its own hair follicles. Although alopecia can affect anyone, it is most common in those who have a relative with the condition or an autoimmune disorder such as diabetes, lupus or thyroid disease. Alopecia is not contagious, and except for hair loss and possible nail changes, many people with the condition are otherwise healthy. A 2018 Nurses’ Health Study found that Black and Hispanic women are more likely to experience alopecia areata compared to white women.
Each case of alopecia is unique, but there are different forms of the disease. Alopecia areata refers to patchy hair loss, while alopecia areata totalis is when a person loses all of the hair on their head. Alopecia areata universalis is the most severe form, and causes a person to lose the hair on their entire body. There is no cure for alopecia, and the AAD says that hair loss is often unpredictable. But the hair can grow back, and there are treatment options, including corticosteroids, that can assist with the process.
The Girls Trip actress first opened up about her battle with alopecia in a 2018 episode of her popular online series, Red Table Talk. “I’ve been getting lots of questions about why I’ve been wearing this turban,” she said. “Well, I’ve been having issues with hair loss.” Pinkett Smith used her show, which usually gets other celebrities to get personal, to reveal the fear she experienced when she first noticed that she was losing her hair. “And I’ll tell you it was terrifying when it first started. I was in the shower one day and then just handfuls of hair, just in my hands, and I was like ‘oh my God am I going bald?’
The actress began wearing turbans in public to cover up her hair loss, which she said was empowering during a difficult time. “When my hair is wrapped, I feel like a queen,” she said. But in 2021, Pinkett Smith decided to shave her head. Her daughter Willow revealed Pinkett Smith’s new look in a stunning July 12, 2021, Instagram photo of the pair hugging. The caption read, “A gift is pure when it is given from the heart to the right person at the right time and at the right place, and when we expect nothing in return.”
Pinkett Smith responded to the post. “Willow made me do it because it was time to let go. My 50’s are bout to be Divinely lit with this shed,” she said.
Jada Pinkett Smith is not the only high-profile figure to suffer from alopecia. Viola Davis, Tyra Banks, and Massachusetts Rep. Ayanna Pressley have all openly discussed their struggles with hair loss. In an exclusive 2020 video, Pressley shared her personal hair loss story with The Root. “I have only been bald in the privacy of my own home and in the company of close friends,” Pressley said in the video before revealing her shaved head with viewers. Pressley says her eventual decision to go public with her story was freeing. “I’m not here to occupy space. I’m here to create it,” she said in the video.
Although alopecia isn’t the thing that people will remember most about last night, hopefully, Jada Pinkett Smith’s story will shed more light on the condition that many Black women have had to deal with in private.