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Healing the Emotional Fallout From Hair Loss

Rep. Ayanna Pressley’s public struggle mirrors fellow sufferers’ private pain. A therapist living with hair loss offers help.

As a little girl, I dreamt of having long hair. As an adult, I embraced my hair’s natural texture. Soon, dreadlocks flowed to my knees. Then three years ago, I was faced with stage 2 breast cancer, chemo and total hair loss. “It’s just hair,” said well-meaning friends. “It will grow back.” I wondered anxiously, But what if it doesn’t?

My dreadlocks had become my trademark look. That’s why I so relate to Rep. Ayanna Pressley who, through a powerful video on The Root, revealed her new normal — living with alopecia. Pressley’s Senegalese twists had been her political brand, inspiring and emboldening Black women and girls across the country.

Whether we rock a TWA, a silk-pressed bob, box braids, a twist out or a permed pixie, we sisters take special care in maintaining our "crown and glory." African American consumers spent an estimated $2.5 billion on hair care in 2018, according to Mintel: Global Market Research. Losing our locks can be especially devastating, as many among us have learned to make a gentle peace with them while building a sense of attractiveness and self-acceptance.

“Society determines beauty based on skin color and hair — length and texture,” says licensed psychotherapist and relationship expert Joyce Morley. “This goes back to the plantation,” she says, a history that has had a negative impact on our self-image. “Men, Black and white, saw [us] as less desirable than white women. From [youth], unless [they] had long, flowing, straight hair, African American females often walked around in pain and shame.”

With hair loss, one can experience a loss of self, identity, love and acceptance, says Morley, who understands to how hair length and thickness affect how others value us. When a beautician left a perm on her hair too long, the damage affected a small area, but was noticeable. “That was when I decided to have my hair cut and wear it naturally short,” she says. Her family was concerned about what people would think of her making speaking and media appearances with extremely close-cropped hair. “I wasn’t concerned at all; I know my inner and outer beauty,” recalls Morley, who says she is currently experiencing another bout of alopecia.“Unfortunately, a TV network offered me a show years ago, but they wanted me to wear a wig. I was told, ‘You’ll look softer!’”She refused and the offer fell through.

For Pressley what was meant as a transitional style became an intentional statement as she brought the fight against hair-based discrimination of Black women and girls to Capitol Hill. Her public reveal and her appearance on AM Joy in all her bald beauty further challenge conventional norms of what is beautiful and acceptable.

As Pressley embarks on her journey with alopecia, licensed clinical social worker Carolyn A., 75, has been navigating the road for decades. Wearing a wig has more to do with external biases against older women in the workforce than her own image of herself. “I’m in a place where what you look like doesn’t define who you are,” she says. This wasn’t always the case. “It took me a long time to get there,” she admits. When she was in her 20s, her scalp became sore and her hair began thinning. A dermatologist told her that her follicles were dying. Her braider covered up the bald spots, “but the braids were so tight, they made it worse.” So she started wearing wigs. “When I was dating guys, I would never let them see me without it,” she recalls. One walked in on her when she wasn’t wearing the wig, and she was alarmed. “I said ‘Don’t come in here!’ We never talked about it, but he sent me an article on alopecia.” She perceived this gesture as him wanting her to feel comfortable and to realize your hair doesn’t define who you are. It’s OK.Even today she says men don’t have an issue with her baldness. “Guys say it’s beautiful.”

Shanell “Nell” Coleman, 30, model and founder of the nonprofit The Baldie Movement, went bald by choice 10 years ago. “Though I chose to be bald, it took some time to fully embrace it because I still cared about what others thought of me,” she told the blog The Refined Woman. “It took a while to learn that self-acceptance is far greater than acceptance of others.” Actually a guy challenged her to do without the wig, telling her that she needed to own her baldness. “I haven’t been back since,” she says.

No matter what, you wear the crown and are glorious

Black women have finally arrived at a place where our hair’s uniqueness is a source of celebration and solidarity among us. Sadly, losing our hair can also feel like a weakening of that bond and a sense that we are no longer celebrated. When Sisters published an article on superfoods for healthy hair that also referenced our “crown and glory,” a reader emailed us to ask, “What is your glory if you don’t have hair?” Sis, regardless of what is or isn’t on your head, you are a queen. Consider the following expert advice for sisters on coping with hair loss and claiming emotional well-being:

Address the problem medically. Read about treatments for hair loss here. If the issue isn’t medical hair loss but hair breakage, find solutions here and here.

Lavish love on the woman you see in the mirror. To get comfortable with your changing looks, recite daily affirmations, advises Morley. Practice radical self-care, which may include massage or guided meditation.

Keep a journal focused on daily feelings and thoughts, “especially feelings about yourself, your appearance and your hair,” suggests Morley. “Date each entry so you can recognize patterns and track your [emotional] growth.” Read about journaling’s mind-body benefits here.

Consider counseling. Patients with alopecia areata and those with more severe hair loss have an increased risk for anxiety and depression, according to researchers from Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. A mental health provider can help you reframe your difficult feelings, thoughts and beliefs about hair, Morley says.

Connect with peer support, either through an online forum or through a network such as TheBaldieMovement.org or BaldGirlsDoLunch.org.

Own and affirm your beauty, no matter what. Eugenia Hargrove, 64, a style blogger with hair loss who recently won our Sisterhood Is Beautiful Contest, received a professional wig styling and makeover by celebrity artist Sam Fine. She says, “The main thing is to not be in a place where you can’t be confident or feel good about who you are. I have the wig pulled back today. I wore it in a side knot on Sunday. I’m working it like it’s mine.”

“I’m making peace with having alopecia. I haven’t arrived there yet,” says Pressley in her authentic, affirming video. “I’m very early in my alopecia journey, but I’m making progress every day… It’s about self-agency. It’s about power. It’s about acceptance.”

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