When Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D) gave her victory speech after being elected Massachusetts’ first Black congresswoman in November 2018, she posed a question to a jubilant, celebratory audience. “Can a congresswoman wear her hair in braids?” she asked. “Rock a black leather jacket and a bold red lip?”
The quote, like Pressley’s election itself, inspired T-shirts and became a symbol and a win for political representation.
Now she’s making yet another powerful statement. On Thursday, the lawmaker revealed she has alopecia in an exclusive and vulnerable interview and video with The Root. Pressley appears in the video first in a lace-front wig, and then with a bald head for the first time.
Alopecia is an autoimmune disease which causes the body to attack healthy hair follicles in people who are typically otherwise healthy. This, according to the National Alopecia Areata foundation, causes the follicles to “become much smaller and drastically slow down production to the point that hair growth may stop.”
The condition impacts 6.8 million people in the United States, and can happen to anyone with hair on the scalp or other parts of the body. Certain factors, like having close blood relatives with alopecia, asthma and thyroid disease, can increase the chance someone has the disease. The hair follicle does not die during this process ― so regrowth of the hair is also possible ― but it’s not guaranteed.
In publicly sharing her story, Pressley joins people like teen Raquel Roth ― who organized a health fair after being bullied for her hair loss ― and Nichola McAvoy, founder of an app that connects people with alopecia called Ally. Each one has worked to create awareness and crush stigma surrounding alopecia.
Detailing the process, Pressley told The Root she was first made aware of patches on her scalp when she was having her hair re-twisted (she has had both Senegalese and bomb twists). Her last piece of hair fell out on the eve of President Donald Trump’s impeachment.
“I was completely bald, and in a matter of hours was going to have to walk into the floor of the House of Representatives and cast a vote in support of articles of impeachment,” she said. “I didn’t have the luxury of mourning what felt like the loss of a limb. It was a moment of transformation not of my choosing.”
Pressley ultimately decided she needed to openly share her condition, despite the fact that her husband thought otherwise.
“Everything doesn’t have to be political,” she recalled him saying.
But Pressley felt it was necessary, and that she owed it to the young girls who reach out to her about their own hair. She also talked about it as a way to come to terms with her new truth. While she’s still on the road to feeling comfortable, she told The Root that sharing her story is a way to move that process forward.
“Now, on this journey, when I feel most unlike myself is when I’m wearing a wig,” she said. “So I think that means I’m on my way.”
An outpouring of support for Pressley has flooded social media in response to the video, with many once again praising her for her openness and honesty.
“Your courage in sharing your story is what makes you so incredibly special,” fellow congresswoman Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) tweeted in response.
Our sentiments exactly. To learn more about alopecia, visit the American Academy of Dermatology.