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How Jada Pinkett Smith is uplifting Black women with alopecia

The actress recently took to Instagram to reveal the challenges associated with hair loss.
Image: Jada Pinkett Smith
Jada Pinkett Smith attends the L.A. premiere of "King Richard" in Hollywood in November.Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images file

The actress Jada Pinkett Smith revealed her alopecia diagnosis in 2018, and since then, she’s been embracing the challenges of the condition and publicly displaying evidence of hair loss with confidence and candor. 

Last month, she released a video on Instagram to talk about a new patch of baldness caused by alopecia, a condition that causes drastic hair loss. The video, which has almost 2 million views, shows a smiling Pinkett Smith acknowledging the discovery.

“Look at this line right here,” Pinkett Smith, 50, said as she pointed to her scalp. “Now this is going to be a little bit more difficult for me to hide, so I thought I’d just share it so y’all not asking any questions — but you know, mama’s going to put some rhinestones in there, and I’m going to make me a little crown.”

Like Pinkett Smith, many women of color experience alopecia. According to a 2016 survey of 5,594 Black women, 47.6 percent of respondents said they experienced hair loss. A majority of respondents who experience hair loss do not seek help from medical professionals and often go undiagnosed, according to the report.

A Nurses’ Health Study conducted in 2018 found there was an increased likelihood of alopecia areata in Black and Hispanic women compared to white women.

Pinkett Smith is among the notable women of color who have broken their silence about hair loss, including Rep. Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass., who revealed she had alopecia in 2020. Hearing celebrities share their stories inspires those like 43-year-old Mabel Peralta, who was diagnosed in 2014 with alopecia areata, an autoimmune disorder that causes unpredictable patchy baldness on different areas of the body.

Image: Mabel Peralta
Mabel Peralta shown with a full head of hair before being diagnosed with alopecia aereta in 2014. Courtesy Mabel Peralta

Peralta, who is Afro Latina, said that growing up, hair was a primary focus in her Dominican culture. When she began losing her hair, she said she felt like less of a woman and struggled to cope.

“When I let my hair grow long — if it ever gets long — it’s, like, wispy,” Peralta said. “It barely covers my scalp. So I just shave it down just because I don’t want to look at it sometimes. Sometimes I’m like ‘Ah, it’s fine,’ and other days I’m like ‘Oh my God, I can’t even deal with this right now.’”

Peralta said that she was extremely distraught immediately after her diagnosis, due to her hair loss and lack of a good support system. She also said talking about her condition with others would initiate emotional turmoil when she did not want to discuss it.

After getting trolled on TikTok for owning a large assortment of wigs, Peralta decided to share her condition with followers in late 2020. In that moment, she also wanted to become an advocate by helping others who may be struggling with hair loss and lacked the proper support.

“Not having someone there was a little hard,” Peralta said, “but that’s why I’m such an advocate for talking about it on a constant basis because I want to be there for others — because I know it’s not easy.”

Image: Mabel Peralta
Mabel Peralta now embraces her hair loss, years after getting a alopecia aereta diagnosis. Courtesy Mabel Peralta

As a way to promote healing for people of color, psychologist Afiya Mbilishaka launched PsychoHairapy, a program that trains stylists to recognize mental illness in patients. Some women who lose their hair can develop social anxiety, depression and paranoia, Mbilishaka said.

In addition to offering mental health counseling, the organization holds mindfulness and meditation sessions, and hosts book clubs with a focus on literature detailing the history of Black culture and hair. PsychoHairapy also identifies the themes that emerge around hair among people of color. Mbilishaka said it’s important for Black celebrities to explore their hair loss journey, which can disrupt the Western concepts of beauty of long, straight hair.

“I think it’s important that Black women in general can have these visual images of beautiful Black women feeling happy and being successful, despite their experience with hair loss,” Mbilishaka said. “I think that it’s really important for people to show up as their most authentic self — and I think with the celebrities, it normalizes the everyday person to also show up in that way.”

Dr. Dina Strachan, a board-certified dermatologist at Aglow Dermatology in New York City, said that common types of alopecia in African American women include traction alopecia, which is caused by tension on the hair from tight hairstyles and extensions. Another common form of hair loss is central centrifugal cicatricial alopecia, or CCCA, which is a form of scarring alopecia that occurs on the scalp and causes permanent hair loss. 

According to a 2017 study by Johns Hopkins Medicine, Black women who have CCCA may be at a greater risk of developing fibroids, which may be linked to a genetic predisposition, Stratchan said. Discoid lupus, which is also common in African American women, can cause scarring hair loss.

While there is no cure for alopecia, there are many treatments available. Most of Strachan’s patients use topical or injected steroids to treat alopecia areata. In more severe cases, some patients may use Janus kinase inhibitors. Other treatment options include Rogaine, an over-the-counter hair growth product, anti-inflammatory medications, and platelet rich plasma, which stimulates hair growth. If patients experience significant hair loss and have exhausted the other options, some opt for a hair transplant, which is suitable for traction alopecia, Strachan said.

In addition to eating a well-rounded diet with adequate protein, Strachan suggests that people experiencing alopecia get a diagnosis from a board-certified dermatologist who can perform a biopsy. For Black women, it’s important that they seek a doctor specialized in African American hair loss, because not everyone has equal expertise, she said.

Image: Mabel Peralta
Mabel Peralta discusses her experience with hair loss in front of an audience.Courtesy Mabel Peralta

Six years since her diagnosis, Peralta is more comfortable with her appearance and has redefined her own standards of beauty. As a professional car saleswoman who works in a male-dominated industry, last year she went into work without a wig for two days in a row, which was a pivotal moment in her journey of self-acceptance. Now when she witnesses celebrities like Pinkett Smith openly share their struggles with alopecia, she is overcome with emotion.

“Oh my God — I cry,” Peralta said. “I literally cry every time I see her talk about it, because I’m like, I get it. I love the fact that she’s so open about it, and I’m looking forward to more celebrities talking about it, because you know, everyone talks about weaves and the wigs and this, that and the third — but talk about alopecia. It’s such a big deal.”

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CORRECTION (Jan 7, 2022, 11:58 a.m. ET): An earlier version of this article misstated the prevalence of Janus kinase inhibitors as a common treatment for alopecia. It is used only in more severe cases.