Here’s a positive result of Will Smith’s shocking moment at the Oscars: He brought global attention to alopecia. And here’s another one: Jada Pinkett Smith seems to have made peace with it. She wore her nearly balding her intentionally, lighting her up in an event where the audience gaze is as intense as she is. She jumped at Chris Rock’s joke, but she didn’t undo it. She was fabulous.
Then there are us mere mortals. I also have alopecia. Sometimes I think it’s cosmic revenge for being overly image obsessed. My late husband said I loved the mirror too much. “You’re always looking at yours hairHe said, when he caught me in the act.
That’s right – me era always looking. Before making sure my hair was in decent shape, literally. Anything from wearing a pullover to a gentle breeze can wreak havoc on curly hair. But I was also simply admiring my auburn to brown curls (recently tinged with green).
I think black women are fabulous by nature, and the hair complements the fabulousness. Hair is a crown, a kind of armor that helps you feel royal when you are uncertain or weakened. This is true for me even if the mirror shows that the shape of my hair needs to be adjusted, that the curl is imperfect. The fabulous is still there. This is what I usually look in the mirror to reaffirm.
A couple of months ago, a check of the back of my head froze in horror. A large circular bald patch had appeared out of nowhere. It looked like the result of a fire that during the night had consumed most of the side part that still held my characteristic appearance. I gasped, my supposed fabulousness suddenly broke.
At first I was scared, then terrified. Whatever I was missing in life, my hair had always been abundant. Now I was operating from a deficit – distressing, even if it’s an all too familiar position to blacks.
The dermatologist diagnosed alopecia areata, an autoimmune condition in which white blood cells attack the hair follicles and the hair falls out. There is no cure, but hair tends to grow back, with or without treatment but not always, and regrowth can take time. The causes of alopecia are unclear although every Google search on the condition mentions stress. Sometimes the hair loss is total, including body hair, eyebrows and eyelashes. I’ve been lucky. So far, the bush fire has been contained.
When I was growing up, blacks said I was lucky because I was Creole and blessed with “beautiful hair”: curly, but not frizzy. Call it black-ish.
As a teenager, I regretted that my hair was too white to create a voluminous afro, which is something fabulous. I tried the pigtails but they unraveled overnight. My mom set up a weekly wash on curlers to smooth out curls and make them more glamorous, a la Marilyn McCoo. But at the first sign of humidity my McCoo ‘returned to finesse and frizz.
In college, I decided to do my hair. It worked. Whether it’s short or long – I went through a moderate mohawk phase in the 1980s and had a late day Diana Ross mane in the 1990s – it was my natural hair, and that was quite a statement. It was black enough, enough armor.
Most of all, it was me. My natural hair went a long way towards achieving my main goal as an adult: looking as fabulous as possible, with as little effort as possible. Really nice hair.
Now? My faltering hair fails as a symbol of resilience, specifically, the resilience of black beauty as historical and cultural forces have worked to annihilate the idea itself. Failure feels personal. Black women often wear locks, but the hair itself holds out, surviving manipulation and change. But not mine.
Of course they are not resilient, not worthy. All this time I’ve been alone passing equally fabulous.
When I go out, I can’t decide how much I care about the public, so I often wear hats. A good friend saw the bald patch a few minutes after a recent visit (hatless) and blurted out: “What happened?She was understanding, but her initial unhappy gaze lingered. I was shocked.
During airport security a couple of weeks ago I took off my cap and when the TSA agent pointed his wand at my head it stopped. “You can put your hat back on now,” she said softly. She was white; I was mortified. Then I was mortified for being mortified, for being pulled down because of my hair, like I was 15 again.
Three months later, I am (still) waiting for new growth, or perhaps more losses. Self-esteem, like sand in hand, is difficult to maintain. Yet I don’t have much choice but to continue being myself. I don’t look great in hats and, moreover, I want 95% of my hair that I still have, and that I still admire, take center stage.
In the meantime, I struggle daily with blacks’ endemic deficient thinking and intensified by my unreliable hair. Of course I know that black fabulousness is internal. It’s not about hair, it’s about aesthetic and spiritual perseverance, even defiance, whatever has been lost.
This is the very essence of being – without appearance – fabulous. Pinkett Smith embodies it, and it is what my mirror reflects on beautiful days. I will look as many times as necessary, regardless of whether he is checking my hair or not.
Erin Aubry Kaplan is a contributing writer to Opinion.
This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.