Interviewing Ayanna Pressley About Her Alopecia Encouraged Me to Go Public With Mine

Illustration for article titled Interviewing Ayanna Pressley About Her Alopecia Encouraged Me to Go Public With Mine
Image: JOSEPH PREZIOSO (AFP via Getty Images)

I didn’t expect to get choked up in front of Ayanna Pressley.

But 17 minutes into our interview at The Root headquarters in New York City on Monday, as she began telling me one of her most personal hair stories by detailing her experience with alopecia, I blinked through tears and silently reflected on my own difficult relationship with hair loss.

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After she finished her response and waited for my follow-up, I cleared my throat and struggled to get my next question out.

“Many black women...and girls in particular...have commented on...how important—”

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It wasn’t until my senior producer Ashley Velez told me to take a breath that I realized how long I’d been holding it. Despite my best efforts and in order to reset from the rising emotions in the room, we decided to break for a few moments in order to collect ourselves. And it was all because listening to Pressley speak took me back to a moment I’ll never forget.

I started losing my hair during my sophomore year of college when I noticed a quarter-sized patch in the middle of my scalp while taking a shower. Over the years, the quarter grew to the point where I could no longer wear my natural hair without some sort of covering, like a wig.

It wasn’t until my eldest sister, who also has alopecia, cut all of her hair off after her own years-long hair struggle that I began contemplating cutting mine, too. And despite working for the blackest website ever, I was still hesitant about how incredibly short natural hair alongside my dark skin would be interpreted by not only people I encounter day to day, but also the overwhelmingly white and male media landscape I work in.

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In the future, could I ever get a job in the “mainstream media” with a fade? 

How will I even cover my massive bald spot?

Do I have the right shaped head for, well, such a short haircut? 

Will men find me attractive?

Despite all of the questions I asked myself almost 10 months ago, I did cut my hair. Most people in my life, however, thought that I just decided to do something different and drastic for the sake of a fashion statement versus out of what was, to me, a necessity. They didn’t know that I used sprays and hair fibers in order to make the middle of my scalp appear full of hair.

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Not only did I feel embarrassed, stressed, and ashamed about having alopecia, but I felt like I was carrying around the weight of not accepting myself for who I was in my entirety. Many black women—including myself—know how much baggage is associated with our hair. So much is assumed and projected on how our hair is worn, and when you lose your “crown,” it’s hard to shake the feeling that it’s your fault.

This is part of why the Congresswoman chose The Root to tell her story. She had previously spoken to us about the personal and symbolic importance of her signature Senegalese twists, and because her relationship to her hair was deeply rooted in her identity as a black woman, she and her team trusted our site to give her experience with alopecia the nuance and attention to detail it deserved.

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So, hearing Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley share a similar sentiment comforted me.

“Every night, I was employing all the tools that I had been schooled and trained in throughout my life as a black woman because I thought that I could stop this,” she said. But Pressley couldn’t, and I couldn’t either. Our alopecia was something that we were going to have to make peace with.

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The irony of it all being that was one of my final questions I asked her.

“I am making peace with having alopecia. I have not arrived there. I’m very early in my alopecia journey. But I’m making progress every day,” Pressley responded.

After our interview, I sat with Pressley’s story and saw myself reflected in her words. The stigma surrounding women’s hair loss—and alopecia in particular—is one that needs to be broken. And now that everyone would soon know about her alopecia, I felt the need to come forward, too. I needed peace.

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As millennials do, I took to social media to share my truth and, in turn, have never felt more seen and accepted in all my life. Family members, friends, coworkers, and total strangers all reached out to me in support after I tweeted my gratefulness to Pressley for encouraging me to be as bold and forthcoming about my own hair journey with alopecia. Many shared photos of their own bald patches, while others created threads recounting their alopecia journeys. The response was more than I could have ever anticipated.

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With each retweet from the likes of the NAACP and positive words from folks like Ilhan Omar and Viola Davis, Pressley’s story of truth grew. Outlets like the New York Times, AP, Time, the Guardian, CNN, CBS, Good Morning America, Buzzfeed, NBC, the Washington Post, and more all covered the story and further amplified Pressley’s message. Rep. Pressley’s boldness and candor put words to something that many of us had previously been unable to open up about. The way the story resonated not only affirmed my work as a video producer, but also my experience as someone with alopecia.

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Congresswoman Pressley’s story and its impact are exactly what my hope is for the future of this video and others like it in the long term—more impact journalism. Her individual narrative is a part of a greater conversation we need to be having as a society about black women’s hair, black women’s health, and all of the intersections in between. Our stories matter, and the more we tell them ourselves to ourselves, the better we all are. Every text I’ve gotten in secret about a girlfriend’s struggle with hair loss and every public post about where our fears of losing hair come from is an indicator to me that we are opening up and heading in the right direction.

And, yes, the internet is oftentimes a terrible place where we should #neverreadthecomments, but in some rare moments, the comment sections are exactly where community building and genuine acknowledgment take place. This is about more than just well wishes and clever screen names. It’s about acknowledging each other’s humanity in the purest way. Ultimately, I’m just trying to live my life and tell stories as a black woman who happens to have alopecia and be embraced for who I am. 

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As the interview came to a close, Pressley shared her own vision of what she wants for herself that I think we all deserve.

“I’m not here just to occupy space. I’m here to create it. And I want to be free.”

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I, too, feel free.

I can also take a breath.

Jessica Moulite is an award-winning Video Producer at The Root passionate about dismantling unjust societal power structures and all things Black culture. She's also probably watching “Living Single.”

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DISCUSSION

I cried my eyes out in the most appreciative way. I admire your and Congresswoman Pressley’s candour and courage, and certainly not just in relation to your alopecia.