Will Smith’s reaction to Chris Rock’s untimely joke at the Oscars brought even more light to a condition that many people may not have been aware of before — alopecia areata.
Alopecia areata is an autoimmune condition that affects up to 6.8 million people in the U.S., according to National Alopecia Areata Foundation. The same foundation reports that every person, even healthy adults and children, has a 2 percent risk of developing the disease in their lifetime.
In this interview, mental health therapist Dr. Joanne Frederick discusses the psychological and physical effects of the disease specifically for African Americans.
BLAC: Dr. Joanne, what exactly is alopecia?
Dr. Joanne: Alopecia is a hair loss disorder caused by a variety of reasons. It can be environmental or hereditary, and, for others, it develops after a traumatic event. Some have also categorized it as an autoimmune disorder.
BLAC: How does it affect people, socially and mentally?
Dr. Joanne: In Africa, hair, culturally and spiritually, was a symbol of marital status, wealth, age, and religion. During the slave trade, the first step in systematically erasing our identity was cutting off our hair. That’s symbolic of removing our power.
In the ’60s, wearing an afro signified activism, power and Black pride. We were again in control of our hair and became more in control of what it means to our identity.
Then there was a period after that, and in between, where society told Black people that our hair needs to be long, straight, and light in color. The lighter and straighter it is the more it signifies that you were in mainstream society. So, a lot of us were, and still are, into perms, and pressing — anything that makes our hair straight.
We have a long history with hair. Hair empowers us. We identify ourselves with hair.
Hair loss, such as with alopecia, can cause a lot of trauma, whether conscious or unconscious, based on this history. At the same time, losing control of your hair or your hair growth can be devastating.
With alopecia, you’re losing hair on your head, and sometimes on the body, even the eyebrows. Individuals, then, may feel embarrassed. It can lower self-confidence; and cause marital issues, work-related issues and personal issues.
Overall, it influences body image, anxiety and depression.
BLAC: Research shows it is more common among African Americans, why do you think that is?
Dr. Joanne: Some of that is hereditary, but it is more environmental.
One of the things I talk about is how traumatic events and intense emotional suffering can lead to alopecia. A lot of people don’t realize that. They think it’s just random or biological, but it also correlates to trauma.
For African American people, our environmental traumas and its impact, paired with our diet, affects us in many ways.
BLAC: What are some of the physical symptoms of alopecia?
Dr. Joanne: Physically, it is just the hair loss. Some people experience bald spots and/or patches. It may start small, and then it can grow, and then it can be in various areas.
BLAC: Jada Pinkett-Smith has been very vocal about her journey with alopecia and her, now, acceptance of it. Do you believe it is harder for women who have this condition?
Dr. Joanne: I think it is harder for women because we identify ourselves with our hair.
Hair is so important for women — how you wear, what you wear and how it’s maintained — to the point where we sometimes give up self-care, like exercising, because we don’t want to sweat out our hairstyles. For women, hair relates to self-esteem.
So yes, hair loss can be more difficult for women.
BLAC: With that, what are positive ways to cope with alopecia?
Dr. Joanne: Know that you are not alone. Statistically, alopecia is common. Accept what it is. It’s a hair loss condition for a variety of reasons. Be creative with it.
If you have alopecia, what does that mean? What kind of hairstyle can you get, and what are you comfortable doing?
Some people may wear wigs. If you have to wear a wig, have fun with it and try different colors, styles and lengths.
Even if you choose to stop fighting it and shave it off, enjoy it. A bald head to me, no matter if it’s on a male or female, is captivating. It is classy, it is beautiful, and it’s handsome for men. Enjoy it and go with every step of the moment.
Also, seek therapy. Talk about how you feel about the changes and what it means for you and your identity.
BLAC: Where can one seek help if you think you have this condition?
Dr. Joanne: Many people start with their primary care physician, but a dermatologist can and should diagnose that. It can happen at any age. Young adults, adolescents, and older adults can experience alopecia at any time in their life.
If you have health insurance, check to see which dermatologist in your area accepts your health insurance. If you don’t have health insurance, there are other programs where you can get treatment through local clinics, or, at least, a diagnosis to see if it is alopecia or not.
Dr. Joanne is passionate about bringing the benefits of counseling to the greater Black community. She encourages her Black clients to talk about their experiences in therapy so that other people of color can learn that therapy is nothing to be afraid of.
She is the cofounder of Hope Center of Carmody Hills which provides affordable counseling services for families and individuals who may not have the time or financial ability to attend therapy regularly.
She is also the host of “Ask Dr. Joanne,” a YouTube channel where she shares therapy tips that she also teaches in her sessions. Her recent book, “Copeology,” incorporates embracing spirituality for a more fulfilling counseling.
You can learn more about Dr. Joanne Frederick by checking out her website.