How Jada Pinkett Smith’s Vulnerability Sparked An Important Convo About Alopecia & Mental Health

The 2022 Oscars ceremony has become a talking point, not for its elegant dresses or critics’ choices, but for the moment where the world watched in shock and awe as Will Smith walked onto the stage and slapped Chris Rock. The trigger? Rock made a “G.I. Jane” joke at the expense of Jada Pinkett Smith’s shaved head, despite the fact that she publicly acknowledged that she has been diagnosed with alopecia.

Online discussions have since been dominated by discourse about toxic masculinity, Smith’s anger management issues, the ethics of Rock’s so-called “joke” and the Academy’s failure to react to the incident. Amidst this discussion, there is one important topic that remains to be addressed: female alopecia. It’s time to bring this condition to the forefront and normalize it.

Studies show that by the age of 40, around 40% of women will suffer from hair loss to some extent. While for many it might be temporary and occur on a minor level, like seasonal hair loss or hair loss after childbirth, other women may experience hair loss as a result of autoimmune conditions like alopecia areata, alopecia totalis or alopecia universalis. These conditions may lead to varying levels of hair loss, from patches on the scalp to full body shedding, including eyebrows and lashes. 

Eliza Pineda, a hair, beauty, wellness, and lifestyle journalist and an internal expert for Mayraki Professional, shares: 

“The three main types of alopecia are:

  • Alopecia areata: hair loss that starts with coin-sized patches on the scalp and other areas;
  • Alopecia totalis: total or near total hair loss on the scalp; and
  • Alopecia universalis: a rare type of alopecia that causes total, or near total, hair loss on all areas of the scalp, face and body.

“Alopecia is an autoimmune disease with no known cause. In addition to environmental factors,
it is believed to have a genetic component to it where both parents carry the genes associated
with alopecia. Alopecia causes the immune system to target and attack hair follicles, leading to
major hair loss. In some cases, hair can regrow after a few months. In rarer cases, small
patches of hair loss can develop into bigger patches and eventually lead to alopecia totalis or
alopecia universalis (complete hair loss on the scalp or body),” she explained.

Culturally, having healthy, voluminous hair has been one of the greatest markers of femininity and youth for millennia. This societal beauty standard places major pressure on women to maintain it. For many, hair is part of our self-identity, telling the story of a strong cultural background and promoting a sense of belonging to certain communities.

For Black women, there is a heightened element of misogynoir, exacerbated by politics. Black women’s hair has been a contentious cultural issue in America for many years, and this was ironically outlined in Chris Rock’s own 2009 documentary called ‘Good Hair’, where he interviewed and featured stories from a variety of Black women talking about their experiences being discriminated against because of their hair. Among the women was someone who talked about alopecia quite vulnerably, which makes his flippant comment about Jada at the Oscars particularly awful and insensitive.

In 2019, California signed the Crown Act Law, which prohibits discrimination based on hair style and hair texture by extending protection under the FEHA and the California Education Code. It is the first legislation passed at the state level in the United States to prohibit such discrimination. The Crown Act was created in 2019 by Dove and the Crown Coalition, in partnership with then State Senator Holly J. Mitchell of California, to ensure protection against discrimination based on race-based hairstyles by extending statutory protection to hair texture and protective styles such as braids, locs, twists, and knots in the workplace and public schools.

In 2022, just before the Oscars telecast, the U.S House of Representatives passed a federal version of the Crown Act, underscoring the cultural climate that Black women have to contend with when it comes to their hair. It was quite a eye-opening and startling contrast, and couldn’t have been timed better, showing audiences why we need this type of legislation, and how far we have to go to tackle bias, and focus on the mental health implications of this type of discrimination.

In 2018 we spoke with Swedish actress based in Hollywood Jannica Olin, who has given a TEDx Talk about having alopecia, and who also started an online movement to empower other young women who have the same condition. She told us how being diagnosed completely turned her world upside down, but she also learned to redefine herself and what is considered “beautiful” away from harmful media and patriarchal standards around women’s hair.

“So much of my identity was in my long, blonde hair and to all of a sudden not have any was very confronting. Who was I now? We all have moments of feeling ugly and unattractive but that doesn’t mean that you are. They’re thoughts that are born out of what we take in through social media, culture and advertising. I started seeing that I had an opportunity to help redefine what our idea of beauty, perfect and normal is supposed to look like,” she told us.

While conversations about male baldness and hair loss are nothing new, there is still a wide gap when it comes to acceptance and dialogue about female alopecia, which leads to negative mental health impacts on the women who experience this condition. In a 2012 study of dermatology clinic patients, of the 157 women interviewed, 54% reported hair loss and 29% reported at least two key symptoms of depression.

A further 2013 study from the National Alopecia Areata Registry analyzed data from 532 patients with alopecia areata (73% of whom were women). The results showed that more than 50% of patients experienced either decreased quality of life or increased risk factors (females aged between 20
to 50 years with changes in physical appearance as a result of hair loss and feeling that hair
loss led to a change in social status or job status).

“Women face a massive amount of pressure when it comes to their appearance, which has been rooted in our culture for centuries. Raising awareness of and discussing autoimmune diseases such as alopecia, as Jada Pinkett Smith bravely did when she first shared her diagnosis with her followers on Instagram in 2018, is an important step towards normalizing the conversation and educating the public about this condition,” adds Pineda.

“There are just some things we can’t change about the way we look, which is why Jada’s story resonates with so many women who are fighting health conditions everyday, yet are also tackling societal stigma or judgment. This is definitely a part of an important wider conversation about body image and self-acceptance, as well as combating stereotypes around female beauty standards.”

Love doesn’t necessarily justify public outbursts, but there is hope to be found in the Oscars 2022 debacle that should lead to greater discussion and acceptance of women, no matter how they look. It’s time to promote more self-love to eventually reduce body image-related anxiety and depression.

We salute Jada Pinkett Smith for the way she has been outspoken about her struggles with alopecia, creating an important dialog about mental health, perceptions of beauty, and breaking down harmful standards.

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