Rep. Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass., disclosed Thursday that she has alopecia areata, a condition that results in the loss of hair on the scalp and elsewhere.
"My twists have become such a synonymous and a conflated part of not only my personal identity and how I show up in the world, but my political brand," she said. "And that's why I think it's important that I'm transparent about this new normal and living with alopecia."
Pressley said she has been bald only in the privacy of her home and in the company of close friends.
She said she experimented with different hairstyles, including weaves and wigs. (She nicknamed one wig "FLOTUS" because to her "it feels very Michelle Obama," and she calls another of her wigs "Trace," after the actress Tracee Ellis Ross.)
Senegalese twists started out as a transitional hairstyle, she said. And it became a statement.
"I was very aware that this hairstyle could be, would be, filtered and interpreted by some as a political statement that was militant," she said. "People said, 'People will think you're angry.' And I said, 'Well, they already think that.'"
Pressley said she was not prepared for the acceptance, community and affirmation that resulted from her wearing the twists, including letters of support from women from around the world.
A study published last year in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology found racial disparities in alopecia areata in the United States, with African Americans experiencing it at a higher rate than other racial groups.
Pressley said she learned that she had bald patches last fall while she was getting her hair retwisted. Not long after, she said, she was waking up every morning to "sinks full of hair."
The hair loss presented new challenges as she tried to conceal her growing baldness while juggling her responsibilities on Capitol Hill, she said.
Pressley told The Root that she lost her final piece of hair at a pivotal time, both politically and personally: the night before the vote to impeach President Donald Trump in the House, which was also the anniversary of her mother's death.
"I was completely bald. And in a matter of hours, was going to have to walk into the floor [of] the House Chamber ... and cast a vote in support of articles of impeachment," she recalled. "And so I didn't have the luxury of mourning what felt like the loss of a limb. It was a moment of transformation, not of my choosing."
She said that she was missing her mother and that she was mourning the loss of her hair, the state of U.S. democracy and her mentor, Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., who died in October.
She wore a custom wig to the vote and said she left the floor as soon as she could to hide in a bathroom stall.
"I felt naked, exposed, vulnerable. I felt embarrassed. I felt ashamed. I felt betrayed," she said.
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Feeling as though she was participating in a cultural betrayal, she immediately knew that she would go public when she was ready.
She said her husband reassured her that she did not owe her supporters an explanation and that "everything doesn't have to be political."
"The reality is that I'm black and I'm a black woman and I'm a black woman in politics and everything I do is political," she said. "I think you might overly intellectualize it and say it's just hair."
Pressley said she is very early in her alopecia journey but is making progress every day.
"And that's why I'm doing this today. It's about self-agency. It's about power. It's about acceptance," she said. "Right now on this journey, when I feel the most unlike myself is when I am wearing a wig. So I think that means I'm on my way."