Ayanna Pressley loves playing with her hair. Before she became a Massachusetts Congresswoman (and a high-profile member of “The Squad”), Pressley would experiment with different hairstyles and textures, getting a weave and even cutting her own hair. Lately, she’s been experimenting with lace-front wigs.
“One I call ‘FLOTUS’ because it feels very Michelle Obama to me, [and another] I call ‘Tracee,’ because it feels very Tracee Ellis Ross to me,” Pressley told me in an exclusive interview with The Root earlier this week.
But the wigs are a noticeable departure from her signature Senegalese and bomb twists, which have become synonymous with her political brand and made her the hero of little black girls across the country. Now, the congresswoman has decided to go public as to her reason why: She has alopecia.
“I think it’s important that I’m transparent about this new normal,” Pressley said.
The American Academy of Dermatology refers to alopecia as the official medical term for baldness. And according to the National Alopecia Areata Foundation, the autoimmune disorder alopecia areata makes the body attack its own healthy hair follicles, “causing them to become much smaller and drastically slow down production to the point that hair growth may stop.”
Three of the most common ways alopecia areata presents itself are in the form of patches of baldness (alopecia areata), no hair on the head (alopecia totalis), and complete hair loss on a person’s entire body (alopecia universalis). These types of alopecia differ from traction alopecia, which happens when hair is stressed at the roots.
And despite limited scientific research about racial disparities in experiencing alopecia, a July 2019 study from the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology found that African Americans experience alopecia areata at a higher rate than other racial groups. There was even a survey conducted at Boston University of over 5,500 black women that revealed that nearly 48 percent of them dealt with hair loss.
Rep. Ayanna Pressley first became aware of her hair loss last fall while getting her hair retwisted. Very soon afterward, she was waking up every morning to total hair loss across the scalp.
The hair loss created additional challenges in an already-demanding Capitol Hill schedule, requiring Pressley to creatively conceal her growing baldness in the middle of getting votes, attending committee meetings, and giving press conferences.
The night Pressley lost her final piece of her hair was pivotal, she says. Not only was it the night before Donald Trump’s impeachment vote in the House of Representatives, it was the anniversary of her mother’s death. The sense of loss was manifold.
“I was missing her. I was mourning my hair. I was mourning the state of our democracy. I was mourning my mentor, Chairman Elijah Cummings,” she said.
Pressley had already been accused of being “militant” when she wore her hair in twists, so she knew her bald head, stripped of context, would undoubtedly be viewed as a political message. So, she immediately sought out options. She called her friend Angela Rye, who connected her to “hair caregiver” Jamal Edmonds. Edmonds quickly created a custom wig for the Congresswoman, hours ahead of the time she was scheduled to deliver her vote to impeach the President of the United States.
“When I saw myself in the mirror, he had done a beautiful job, but I did not recognize myself,” she said. “I was wearing this wig, fully clothed. But in that moment, I couldn’t recall the last time I’d ever felt more naked.”
After voting on the House floor, Pressley left and hid in a bathroom stall, feeling exposed, vulnerable, and embarrassed. It was at that point that she remembered those same little girls looking up to her—and decided that when she was ready, she’d go public with her condition.
“I want to be freed from the secret and the shame that that secret carries with it,” Pressley said.
Though she’s still in the process of making peace with having alopecia, Pressley added that she’s making progress every day.
“It’s about self-agency. It’s about power. It’s about acceptance.”
And now that she’s public, she wants to experiment with different styles even more and find joy in those options.
For the first time ever, Pressley reveals her fully bald head and shares her very personal black hair journey in the video above. Take a look.
Additional reporting by Anne Branigin.