What is Alopecia? Ayanna Pressley Reveals Hair Loss in Video, Hopes to Raise Awareness of Disease

Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley has announced she has alopecia in an official public revealing on The Root, where she removed her wig in public for the first time.

Pressley is frequently spotted sporting Senegalese twists, which she described as not only a "synonymous and conflated" part of her personality but also her political brand. She is the first woman of color to be elected to Congress from Massachusetts.

In the 7-minute reveal, she explains how it felt to have her hair first put into long Senegalese twists four or five years ago—"I feel like I met myself fully for the first time."

"What started as a transitional hairstyle ultimately became a statement and something I was very intentional about," she said, knowing that some would interpret it as a militant political statement.

"What I was not prepared for was the glorious gift and blessing of the acceptance and the community and the affirmation."

Pressley described walking into rooms with little girls wearing "my Congresswomen wears braids" clothing and people hashtagging #twistnation, while receiving letters from women across the world discussing their own emancipation.

Losing her hair—which she first noticed in the fall—"felt like a loss of a limb," she said. Every morning, she woke up to more hairloss until one day, on impeachment eve, the last patches fell out.

The significance of the day meant Pressley had little time to mourn. She appeared in Congress just hours after finding out she was bald.

In the reveal, she describes feeling naked, exposed and vulnerable, exiting the House floor and hiding in the bathroom stall as soon as she could.

"I felt embarrassed. I felt ashamed. I felt betrayed," said Pressley. She felt like she was participating in a cultural betrayal to all the little girls that had turned out in their T-shirts and their support.

"It felt like I owed all those little girls an explanation," she said. The reality is that I am black and I am a black woman and I am a black woman in politics and everything I do is political."

What is alopecia?

Alopecia areata is an autoimmune disorder that can affect anybody at any time and occurs when the immune system attacks the hair follicles—the part of the body responsible for producing hair. It causes permanent hair loss and scarring.

According to the National Institute of Health, most people who develop alopecia will only lose patches of hair. However, in a small number of people, it can cause total head or body baldness. While hair might grow out, it will fall out again.

There is currently no cure for alopecia and as Pressley explained in the reveal, her attempts at staving off hair loss with silk pillows and bonnets did not work.

Though doctors don't know what exactly causes alopecia other than a combination of environment and genetics, there is a type of alopecia that can be caused by tugging the hair follicles—traction alopecia.

According to the American Academy of Dermatology, close to half of African American women have experienced hair loss, which has been linked to certain styling practices that pull on the follicle, including braiding, weaves and chemical relaxing. (The academy offers tips on how to care for African American hair.)

As a result, African Americans are often misdiagnosed with traction alopecia, Dr. Emma Guttman, a professor of dermatology and director of the Laboratory of Inflammatory Skin Diseases at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York, told Newsweek.

"Many times, I see misdiagnosis. Patients will actually have the other types of alopecia," said Guttman.

"It is important to seek care from specialists," she added, explaining a professional can advise patients on treatments: "The message should be hopeful."

"I think you might overly intellectualize it and say it's just hair," said Pressley. "But I still want it so I am trying to find my way here and I do believe going public will help. I am making peace with having alopecia. I have not arrived there."

Correction: an earlier version of this article stated Pressley's alopecia appeared to be traction alopecia.

The article has been updated to include comments from Dr. Emma Guttman.

Alyanna Pressley
U.S. Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-MA) introduces Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) at a campaign event at Clark Atlanta University on November 21, 2019 in Atlanta, Georgia. Pressley opened up about her alopecia in an official reveal on The Root. Elijah Nouvelage/Getty