On Monday morning, I woke up and saw that Chris Rock had joked about Jada Pinkett-Smith’s hair at the Academy Awards. I was shaking with rage. Rock took an aspect of her life that she is likely most insecure about, her alopecia, and ripped her apart for it. Nobody deserves that.
I know, because I developed alopecia eight years ago. The first time I felt a bald patch, I felt sick in the very pit of my stomach. I rushed to the doctor, only to discover there is absolutely nothing they can do about alopecia; it just happens.
I am a woman, but I know it’s the same for men; alopecia can be utterly soul destroying.
The first time I experienced it, my hair took around eight months to fall out, but most recently it only took six weeks. This time, I shaved my head in a live video on Facebook and said: “Look, I have alopecia!” I took ownership of it.
Kids now look at me and say, “Why is that lady bald?” and I smile, because it’s a passing comment from a child. But a man once walked past me in a grocery store and said, “Alright, Sinead?” referencing Sinead O’Connor. I remember immediately feeling nauseous and hot. I wanted to yell at him and ask him how dare he be so rude, but I also didn’t want to draw attention to my alopecia. So, I walked away and cried. I’m a strong person, but that really hurt me.
As someone with alopecia, I spend my life thinking, “I have no hair, what are they saying about me?” and 99 percent of the time, no one is thinking or saying anything. But the one time someone does say something, it reinforces all that negativity.
So, if Rock was going to comment on Pinkett-Smith’s hair, he should have prepared her. He must know how hard it’s been for her—if he truly is her friend—to stand up and tell the world she has alopecia and that is why she shaves her head. My closest friends wouldn’t joke about my alopecia, so to me, a true friend—even one who is a comedian—would not have done that.
Because where do you draw the line? The same morning, I saw a woman on television who had been through a double mastectomy. Would Rock have mocked Pinkett-Smith if she had experienced a double mastectomy? No. So why should he be able to mock her over her alopecia?
I can feel the rage that Will Smith must have felt, but violence is never the answer. We cannot punch and hit people. It is not acceptable. Smith’s actions were to defend his wife and I can empathize with the anger he felt, but it was not OK to hit Rock. Had I punched that man in the grocery store, that wouldn’t have been OK either.
Looking at Smith’s eyes afterwards, it was clear he regretted his actions. I suspect we would have all felt better—and I think that includes Smith—if, at the start of his speech for winning the Academy Award for Best Actor he had explained why what Rock did wasn’t correct and talked about why his wife is a strong, amazing woman who would not lower herself to Rock’s standards. Smith could have used it as an opportunity to raise awareness about alopecia, instead, he is now the “baddie.”
I would like other alopecia sufferers, and it affects nearly 7million people in the U.S. alone, to remember that most people don’t think like Chris Rock. Most people are empathetic. Because the more people with alopecia who can speak out, like Jada Pinkett-Smith has, the more people will realize that we are just the same people as we were with hair.
It’s taken me a long time to get the confidence to stand up and say, “I’m OK with my alopecia.” But I’m never OK with people mocking me, or others, for it. And the people who do? I sincerely hope nobody they love ever has to suffer from it, because it really knocks your self-belief—no matter who you are.
All views expressed in this article are the author’s own.
As told to Jenny Haward.