EXPLANATION: Alopecia affects millions of people, including children

Millions of people around the world are affected by alopecia areata, an autoimmune disease that causes hair loss and which came into the limelight after actor Will Smith slapped comedian Chris Rock at the Oscars ..

The slap stunned millions, sparked widespread condemnation and earned Smith a 10-year ban from the ceremony after he apologized. It came after Rock threw a pointed joke that some felt was insensitive at Jada Pinkett Smith about her hair loss.

Supporters said at the time that increased awareness of the condition, which is fairly common but little discussed, could be a bit of good to come out of the blast. On Wednesday, Jada Pinkett Smith devoted an episode of “Red Table Talk” to the disorder.

Here’s a glimpse of the messand how hair is linked to beauty and race, culture and identity:



Alopecia areata can cause hair on the scalp to fall out in patches and also affect other parts of the body, such as the eyebrows and nose hair.

Alopecia can happen quickly, is unpredictable and can be incredibly difficult to deal with mentally, Yale Medicine hair loss expert Brett King told The Associated Press in March.

“Imagine if you woke up today with half an eyebrow missing,” he said. “That unpredictability is one of the things that is mentally treacherous and horrific because you have no control over it…it’s a disease that strips people of their identity.”

Although rarely discussed, it is actually quite common: the second leading cause of hair loss, after male or female pattern baldness. About 2% of people have it. It’s not physically painful, in some cases it goes away on its own and can be treated.



While it’s unclear if Rock was aware of Pinkett Smith’s diagnosis, hair is a big part of anyone’s appearance, and for women it’s tied to cultural concepts about what makes them feminine.

“Most women are expected to have beautiful hair,” said William Yates, a Chicago-based hair loss surgeon. “They’re well aware that men lose their hair and are ‘elegantly bald’, so to speak, but a woman losing her hair is devastating.”

The condition also tends to strike people when they are relatively young. Most are diagnosed before the age of 40, and about half are children when the disorder first appears, said Christopher English, a board-certified dermatologist at Intermountain Healthcare in Salt. Lake City.

Having the condition is especially difficult for teens, for whom appearance anxiety and peer pressure are often already at an all-time high, said Gary Sherwood, director of communications at the National Alopecia Areata Foundation.

Rio Allred, a 12-year-old girl with the disease, killed herself after being bullied at school in Indiana. Her mother appeared on “Red Table Talk” to talk about the loss less than two weeks before the Oscars.

Some studies also indicated the disease was more prevalent among blacks and Latinos, Sherwood and Yates said. The National Institutes of Health state that it affects all racial and ethnic groups, men and women.

Rock’s joke was “not unusual,” Sherwood said. “It’s been around since there’s been humans on Earth… for centuries people wouldn’t talk about it.”



Rock’s joke was hard to hear for New York interior designer Sheila Bridges.

She spoke to Rock for his 2009 documentary “Good Hair” about the importance of hair in black culture.

For many Black Americans, grooming and style choices are tied to a desire to counteract what is considered normal or acceptable by society at large. From afros and cornrows to wigs and hair extensions, black hair can be more than just style statements.

In her interview, Bridges spoke about the shame and humiliation of losing her hair to the disease, how her hairstyle is tied to her racial identity, and how losing her hair has affected her. sense of femininity and social currency.

The Oscar slap left Bridges with mixed emotions: She condemned Smith’s assault on Rock, sympathized with Pinkett Smith, and was deeply disappointed in Rock.

“It’s not easy as a woman to navigate life without hair and in a hair-obsessed society,” Bridges said.

She doesn’t wear wigs because she doesn’t want to, and also hopes to normalize and destigmatize the appearance of bald women.

But even a decade after deciding to go bald in public, Bridges said it was still hard for some to accept: “I rarely go through the week without someone saying something very, very insensitive.”

Hair in general can already be a difficult landscape for black women, who have been expected for generations to alter their natural hair texture to fit a standard of white beauty. Black women are 80% more likely to change their natural hair to meet social norms at work, according to a 2019 study by Unilever USA’s Dove personal care division.

Black students are also significantly more likely than other students to be suspended for dress code or hair violations, according to research that helped convince the U.S. House to vote to outlaw discrimination based on natural hairstyles in March.

“The only good thing that can come out of all of this is that alopecia is front and center,” Bridges said of the Oscar slap.


AP Race and Ethnicity writers Annie Ma in Charlotte, North Carolina, and Aaron Morrison in New York contributed to this story. Whitehurst reported from Salt Lake City.