When the actor Will Smith slapped comedian Chris Rock onstage at the Academy Awards — retaliation for a comment Rock made about the appearance of Smith’s wife, Jada Pinkett Smith — the incident sparked a national conversation about a disease few people know much about: alopecia areata.
Pinkett Smith has been candid about her struggles with alopecia areata, an autoimmune disorder that causes the immune system to attack hair follicles in the head and face, leading to sudden hair loss.
After trying different hairstyling strategies, Pinkett Smith began shaving her head last year, sharing images on social media. “Willow [Pinkett Smith’s daughter] made me do it because it was time to let go BUT … my 50s are bout to be Divinely lit with this shed,” she wrote on Instagram in July 2021 as People reported.
On the most recent episode of her Facebook Watch show, Red Table Talk, Pinkett Smith addressed the infamous slap: “Now about Oscar night, my deepest hope is that these two intelligent, capable men have an opportunity to heal, talk this out, and reconcile.”
She also said she was grateful for the outpouring of support from the alopecia areata community. “Considering what I’ve been through with my own health and what happened at the Oscars, thousands have reached out to me with their stories,” she said. “I’m using this moment to give our alopecia family an opportunity to talk about what it’s like to have this condition and to inform people about what alopecia actually is.”
She devoted the rest of the episode to interviews with other members of her “beautiful, amazing tribe,” such as the mother of a 12-year-old girl who committed suicide after experiencing relentless bullying because of her bald head; a dermatologist who discussed symptoms and treatment of alopecia areata and described other forms of hair loss, including those that particularly affect Black women; and several men who struggled with the stigma of alopecia areata, among them former NBA player Charlie Villanueva.
Pinkett Smith’s Diagnosis Brings Awareness to Alopecia Areata
Pinkett Smith first revealed her alopecia diagnosis in 2018 on Red Table Talk. According to CNN, the actress spoke candidly about the “terrifying” experience of losing “handfuls of hair” in her shower, which drove her eventual decision to cut off all her hair.
She also detailed treatments she was trying, such as steroids, which she said were helping but not curing her bald patches.
Pinkett Smith has donned short hairstyles, worn hair turbans, and closely cropped her tresses for events in recent years. As her hair loss progressed, she opened up about ultimately deciding to shave her head.
This past December, she wrote on Instagram, “this is going to be a little more difficult to hide, so I thought I’d just share it so y’all are not asking any questions.” She included a photo of herself smiling with her striking new buzz cut.
What Causes Alopecia Areata?
Men and women are equally susceptible to alopecia areata. According to the American Academy of Dermatology Association (AAD), the disease can begin at any age, but many people notice initial signs in their teens, and most of those who develop the disorder do so by age 30.
While alopecia can affect all ethnic groups, a 2018 study found that it can disproportionately affect Black and Hispanic women in the United States.
People diagnosed with other conditions, such as vitiligo, atopic dermatitis, asthma, or thyroid disease are more likely to develop alopecia. While more research is needed, a study published in 2019 suggested that vitamin D deficiency may play a role.
There is currently no cure for alopecia areata, though late-stage research published on March 26, 2022, in the New England Journal of Medicine found that the rheumatoid arthritis medication baricitinib may promote significant hair regrowth.
Pinkett Smith’s Self-Advocacy Inspires Others
Pinkett Smith’s embrace of her appearance despite the loss of her hair — traditionally a sign of femininity and youthfulness for women in many cultures — has inspired legions of people who have spoken out in support of the actress on social media.
As a Black woman, Pinkett Smith is an especially powerful role model. Hair plays an important role in African American women’s identities, with hair loss reported to be an “exceedingly common” issue within the community. A study published in the Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology found that out of 200 African American women surveyed in the metropolitan Detroit area, 59 percent reported a history of excessive hair loss, including excessive breakage and shedding.
Pinkett Smith’s experience with hair loss has brought attention to a problem many women have felt ashamed to discuss publicly.
The actress has encouraged her fans to speak up and ask questions about alopecia on her social media, where she has documented her hair loss journey with enthusiasm and grace.
As she has said, “me and this alopecia are going to be friends … period!”
Additional reporting by Pamela Kaufman.