Alopecia stole my locks, but not my passion as a natural-hair activist

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It has been two years since I made peace with my alopecia. I marked the moment on Juneteenth in 2020, with a video that I posted on social media. Before an audience of supportive Facebook friends, I revealed my bald head that was shaved by decision, even though having alopecia was not my choice.

Alopecia is a disease that happens in the immune system and causes hair loss. By robbing me of the freedom to flaunt my own hair in its most natural state, it left me conflicted about whether I could effectively continue my mission of advocating for Black women to be able to do the same.

My alopecia cared nothing about my community reputation as a nap activist. As founder of A Nappy Hair Affair, I passionately promoted Black hairstyle choices and worked hard to debunk the good-hair-bad-hair mythology that diminishes the self-esteem of Black women and girls. As a news reporter, I wrote about workplace hair discrimination and unfair state licensing regulations imposed upon professional braiders.

I launched a line of nappy T-shirts, produced the Nappy News, a newsletter of events and affirmations, and made myself the “headitor.” I wrote a book of “Nappyisms” to celebrate our hair.

The theft of my own hair started when I was a college student in the early ’70s. I discovered a small bald patch the size of a quarter on the right side of my scalp. Since I wore a relatively thick Afro, I was able to fluff my hair out just enough to cover the bald spot. It remained a secret from the public until my boyfriend outed me in front of his friends. Poking his finger into my hair, he exposed the spot that I was trying to hide. It was supposed to be a joke. Since it was my boyfriend who had embarrassed me with his obnoxious act of cruelty, there was no Will Smith-style intervention. No one stepped up on my behalf to slap the crap out of him when the laughter began. My boyfriend was obviously not a keeper, and fortunately that was the last time anyone was that mean about my condition.

My bald spot remained dormant for several years, so I still had enough hair to wear my favorite African-inspired hairstyles. At times I was even daring enough to wear my Afro cut low, knowing that the bald spot was visible. But I didn’t care. I loved the look of the rest of my thick and kinky hair. By the time I reached my 40s, the hair loss had spread, and I was thankful for headwraps and skillful braiders who helped me keep the patchy spots concealed. I didn’t like wearing dreadlocks, braids or tightly coiled twists that were synthetic, but that was the only way that I could — at least symbolically — continue wearing the styles that I loved.

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Posted by Linda Jones on Friday, June 19, 2020

When I entered my 50s, my scalp looked like my grandmother’s. I grew up seeing her completely without hair on the top with a little still left in the back and along the sides. It was normal to see her tool around her house bareheaded and bald and only using her wigs as hats when it was time to leave the house for church. I don’t remember my grandmother’s baldness ever being discussed by her or anyone else.

I adored seeing Black women who were bold in their baldness. They looked stunning, like Black art at its finest. But I was unable to see that image in me. My excuses for not being as bold were weak. My head was the wrong shape. My face was too fat. I was unable to admit that I simply lacked the confidence to show up without my hair.

My discomfort ran deep. My real hair, and the way I chose to wear it, became a symbol of my advocacy. Losing it felt like a betrayal to my cause. Still, I continued my advocacy because my commitment to that cause was stronger than my vanity and fears.

In my home, I held communal hair-grooming sessions called Hair Days, to provide a safe space where natural-hair wearers could be affirmed for their hairstyle choices and not be harshly criticized. I playfully administered “naptisms” to initiate the neophyte naturals. Word spread about my Hair Day gatherings, and women formed communities around the concept. Hair Day groups popped up with names like “D.C. Naturals,” “Southern Kinks” and, in Switzerland, the “EuroNaps.” A friend nicknamed me “Mosetta,” describing me as a female Moses who was liberating women from hair bondage. Mosetta had arguably become more popular than my identity as a reporter.

Unimpressed by my nappy bona fides, my alopecia continued to steal my hair.

By the time I entered my seasoned 60s, the mourning was over. I stopped grieving over hair that was never coming back and was sick of the prolonged coverup. I began entertaining notions of removing what was left of it and was no longer worried whether men would find me unattractive or whether my femininity would be diminished. And with the wisdom and clarity that I gleaned from age and life experience, I understood that I do not need to display a crown to support the crowns of others.

All that I needed to do next was wait for my courage to kick in. The courage finally came with the help of a politician and the coronavirus pandemic.

When Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) went public about her alopecia in a January 2020 news video, and elegantly unveiled her new bald look, her transparency nudged me closer to a decision to do the same.

I had spent years wearing my wig as a mask. After spending so much time early in the pandemic tooling around my house bareheaded and bald — just like my grandmother — I couldn’t bear to put it back on. Living with alopecia had made me reluctant to look at my hairless image in the mirror, and I decided to get reacquainted.

I stood in front of the mirror and made direct eye contact with my reflection. Still wearing a few remnants of her natural locks, she looked apprehensive and shy. I smiled at her. She beamed and smiled back. I had found the grace to accept my new image, a new natural, and an attitude that didn’t give a follicle about what others would think.

I called my friend Sherri who, in the summer of 2019, had cut off her own locks and shaved her head because of alopecia. I asked if she could come over and do me the same honor. She accepted with glee. She arrived in June 2020 with her clippers and gave me a hug before seating me in front of my bathroom mirror. And with a gentle, knowing touch, Sherri shaved my head to freedom.

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