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Alopecia isn’t a haircut

Taylor Jaseph, April 19, 2022

Maybe I should audition for “G.I. Jane 2” if alopecia is the only requirement to get the role.

Will Smith slapping comedian Chris Rock is now infamous. Rock made a joke in poor taste about Jada Pinkett Smith’s shaved head caused by the autoimmune disease, alopecia.

Although, I guess there is one bright side: this event is bringing alopecia into the spotlight.

Alopecia isn’t a commonly known disorder, but it is one of the most common hair loss reasons for women. Just over 2% of Americans have gone through some form of alopecia. The percentage doesn’t seem high, but that is over 6.8 million people. If every single enrolled student in Cal Poly Pomona had alopecia, it would take 242 CPPs to reach this percentage.

An autoimmune disease is when the body’s defense system can’t tell the difference between healthy cells and foreign cells, which then makes the body attack the healthy cells. In a way, my body has been in a civil war of my white blood cells against hair follicles for the past decade. Currently, my white blood cells are winning.

It was July 2011 when my mom found the quarter-sized bald spot on the crown of my head. It was a week or so after that I learned I had alopecia and not cancer as my family had first feared.

There are three types of Alopecia: areata, totalis and universalis. Pinkett Smith has areata, where her hair falls out in patches on her scalp. She shaved her head because it’s hard to hide the bald spots. I started with areata and progressed to totalis, where you lose all the hair on your head. I even lost my eyebrows at one point. Universalis is rare and is when someone loses all the hair on their body.

I had my 10-year anniversary with alopecia last July, but I haven’t been completely bald the whole time. It has only been six years with no hair, or not enough hair to be confident enough to go without my headscarf.

This is why Rock’s joke about Pinkett Smith is wrong. A woman’s hair is one of her coveted features. Even men don’t like talking about their balding process. Then, Rock makes a joke in front of millions of people at Pinkett Smith’s expense.

This isn’t just a haircut to us. This was a decision we weren’t allowed to make because of genetics and environmental factors. I didn’t decide to be bald like Demi Moore did for “G.I. Jane.” It was taken from me. My own personal natural disaster stealing the control out of my hands.

Justin Oo | The Poly Post

Pinkett Smith has been vocal about her diagnosis with alopecia on a level I can’t. She is raising awareness in a population that was once ignorant of what we have.

This representation is important because everyone thinks I have cancer. Not too long ago at Centerpointe Dining Commons, a worker made a smiley face on my sandwich, handed me my food and said, “stay strong.”

His comment surprised me because I forgot in a new community with people who don’t know me, they wouldn’t know I have alopecia.

It was jarring when the first person came up to me to share their cancer story. It was in a Walmart, and he was telling me how his wife is going through chemotherapy. It took me a moment to remember what to say after a couple years of not having anyone question my baldness.

I know the whole dance by now. I meet somebody new, their eyes flicker up to my headscarf, linger for a moment, before coming back to my face. Some don’t come back to my face.

Some are bold enough to tell me how “brave I am.” That I am strong. I can get through it. Sometimes it takes me a moment to realize what they are telling me, and then I remember I look different.

When people give me words of encouragement, I can’t find it in me to correct them. They didn’t outright say I have cancer, and they look so hopeful and empathetic that I can’t ruin it with the truth. I don’t know if my response is morally right, but I just say thank you.

Some people are too scared to ask me. My best friend got used to telling people that I don’t have cancer too.

Others — and these are the ones that break my heart — come up to me and tell me their cancer story. They tell me they defeated breast cancer four years ago or they are in remission for lung cancer or they are currently going through chemotherapy for leukemia.

They have unwavering support in me, these people who have gone to hell and survived to tell their stories. These people who don’t even know me. All I can say is, “I don’t have cancer.”

I see it gradually take over their features. The realization of what I said. I’m quick to fill in the silence between us and tell them why I have no hair.

I almost feel guilty, as if I slapped them in the face.

I am very lucky that alopecia is just a vain disease. There is no physical pain. No necessary treatment to keep me alive. I’m not even immunocompromised — I actually have an overactive immune system.

I understand this is just hair. I get that I’m not in pain, and I am so thankful for that. But that doesn’t mean it can be made fun of.

I do make hair jokes about myself in a way to normalize how I look, to be comfortable with the fact I don’t have hair. I even let my close friends joke about my hair, but most are so scared in worry they will hurt my feelings.

Rock didn’t hold back. He showed no empathy as he ridiculed of Pinkett Smith’s lack of hair. I may be fine with hair jokes, but that doesn’t mean everyone with alopecia is, especially not in front of millions of people.

Alopecian’s like me already deal with the assumption we have cancer when we’re nowhere near that strong. Please don’t make us deal with alopecia just being a joke to the world.

Because I can assure you, alopecia isn’t a laughing matter to Pinkett Smith or to me.

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