Rep. Ayanna Pressley Opens Up About Her Struggles With Alopecia

“As a Black woman, the personal is political. My hair story is no exception.”

Ayanna Pressley
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No member of Congress has had it easy since the impeachment trial began, but for Ayanna Pressley, who became the first African-American woman to represent Massachusetts in state history in 2018, the past month has been especially rough. On the day before the House of Representatives voted to impeach Donald Trump, Pressley lost “the last little bit of hair” that remained on her head. It was the culmination of the alopecia areata she developed in the fall, which she revealed on Thursday in a video for The Root.

“I was completely bald,” Pressley said. “And in a matter of hours, was going to have to walk into the floor [of] the House Chamber…and cast a vote in support of articles of impeachment. And so 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. But I knew the moment demanded that I stand in it and that I lean in. And I exited the floor as soon as I could and I hid in a bathroom stall. I felt naked, exposed, vulnerable. I felt embarrassed. I felt ashamed. I felt betrayed.”

Not many public figures have discussed their experiences with alopecia, which affects nearly 6.8 million people in the U.S. (and is thought to affect African Americans at a higher rate). But those who have have described a similar feeling. “It was one of those times in my life when I was literally shaking with fear,” Jada Pinkett Smith has recalled of the day when she was showering and found “handfuls of hair in [her] hands.” Like Smith, Pressley stressed that her reaction was about much, much more than vanity: “My twists have become such a synonymous and a conflated part of not only my personal identity and how I show up in the world, but my political brand,” she wrote on Twitter.

Upon entering office, Pressley became a member of what’s come to be known as “The Squad”—a group of freshmen congresswomen of color who made history in the midterm elections of 2018. And, just like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, and Rashida Tlaib, Pressley has been both celebrated and attacked ever since. (Trump himself infamously ordered them to “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime-infested places from which they came” last year.)

As much as Trump and plenty others like to lump them all together, not all members of The Squad are alike. And in Pressley’s case, the most immediately identifiable proof of that are her Senegalese and bomb twists, which are much more than a physical distinction. According to Pressley, they’ve resonated with black women across the country, who tell her they’ve never seen someone at her level wear braids.

“I felt betrayed,” Pressley recalled of the day of the impeachment trial, “and then I also felt that I was participating in a cultural betrayal. Because of all the little girls who write me letters, come up to me, who take selfies with me, #twistnation. And I thought of those T-shirts and I just kept revisiting them. And I immediately knew that I was going to want to, when I felt ready, go public. Because I felt like I owed all those little girls an explanation.”

“As a Black woman, the personal is political. My hair story is no exception,” Pressley wrote when she shared the video on Thursday. (Up until that point, she had only been bald in the privacy of her home and in the company of close friends.) By sharing her story, and removing her wig on camera, she hopes “to create space and to create community for those of us who have had complicated relationships with our hair.” (Though she’s still “making peace” with the fact that this is her “new normal.”)

“It’s about self agency. It’s about power. It’s about acceptance,” Pressley said. “It’s so interesting to me that right now on this journey, when I feel the most unlike myself is when I am wearing a wig.” (Though she’s been experimenting with ones that she’s named after Michelle Obama and Tracee Ellis Ross all the same.)

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