Why Is Everyone Talking About Alopecia?

Why Is Everyone Talking About Alopecia?
Photo: ANGELA WEISS, Getty Images

Will Smith single-handedly made the Oscars buzzworthy again last night. And by single-handedly, I’m of course referring to the single open hand he used to slap comedian Chris Rock. I could keep making jokes, but Twitter has got it covered.

However you feel about the altercation, the event begs the question: What does any of this have to do with alopecia?

In case you didn’t watch the 94th Academy Awards ceremony and have yet to catch up on the action via Twitter, here’s what you need to know about the slap, The Slap, alopecia, and how they are all connected.

The Slap watched ‘round the world

The capital-s Slap (not to be confused with the NBC drama miniseries of the same name) was, er, handed out in response to a joke Rock told while handing out the Dest Documentary Feature Oscar for some reason. Its subject was actress Jada Pinkett Smith, wife of Best Actor nominee (and eventual winner) Will Smith. “Jada, I can’t wait for G.I. Jane 2,” Rock chortled. I admit I was hazy on why this was to be considered funny, because I’m told it was reference from “before my time.” Thus, I defer to Lifehacker deputy editor Joel Cunningham, who is very old:

“You see, back when we still had a monolithic cultural zeitgeist, you could know one thing about a subject and that was all you needed to know. To star in G.I. Jane, famously beautiful actress Demi Moore had to shave her head; once you logged that fact away, you could understand Jay Leno’s monologue for the next several years, and save the time it would actually take to watch G.I. Jane (124 minutes).”

The punchline of Rock’s joke — which no doubt came from a team of writers and not Rock himself — was Pinkett Smith’s bald head. After slapping Rock, Smith clarified any confusion about his actions when he said from his seat, “Keep my wife’s name out of your fucking mouth.” Then he won an Oscar for Best Actor and gave a teary, emotional speech in which he both apologised for his actions, kind of. What did you accomplish last night?

So, how is this connected to alopecia?

We’re not here to litigate whether or not The Slap was justified. For the purposes of this article, all you need to know is that Rock’s joke came at the expense of Jada Pinkett Smith’s bald head, which whoever wrote the joke may or may not have known is related the autoimmune disease alopecia, which causes hair loss. Explaining why the mere fact of pointing out a woman is bald constitutes a joke worthy of the Oscar stage also requires historical context. As my deputy editor again elaborated:

“Demi Moore won the Worst Actress Razzie for G.I. Jane because back then you could publicly shame a woman for her appearance and everyone would freely laugh about it, not like today when…oh wait.”

Pinkett Smith has spoken publicly about her struggle with alopecia, which has no known cure. In a 2018 episode of Red Table Talk, she recounted the “terrifying” moment she first noticed she was losing “handfuls of hair” in the shower. Pinkett Smith has since taken to Instagram to further destigmatize her condition with captions like, “Me and this alopecia are going to be friends…period!” Though it wasn’t his intention, Rock’s non-joke did a lot to raise awareness of the condition, which was trending on Twitter and in Google searches following the ceremony.

What is alopecia?

When people talk about alopecia, they’re usually referring to alopecia areata, which is an autoimmune condition that causes hair to fall out. The hair loss usually occurs in round or oval patches on the scalp. It can also affect eyebrows, eyelashes, and facial hair.

Who gets alopecia?

Anyone can have alopecia areata. It affects all racial and ethnic groups and all genders equally, according to the NIAMS. While the onset can occur at any age, most cases begin in later teens, twenties, or thirties.

What causes alopecia?

According to the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases (NIAMS), researchers do not fully understand what causes the immune system to attack hair follicles, causing the ensuing hair loss.

Genetics likely plays a role: The American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) reports that about 10% to 20% of people with alopecia areata have a family member who has it, but notes that, “because many people try to hide hair loss, this percentage may be higher.”

How is alopecia diagnosed?

Many people experience some degree of hair loss as a part of ageing, changing hormone levels, and a variety of environmental factors. To confirm your hair loss is actually due to alopecia areata, the AAD says that your dermatologist may be able to diagnose you via an exam and asking you a few questions about your symptoms.

Since hair loss can be caused by a number of medical conditions, your dermatologist may run additional tests to rule out other causes.

Living with alopecia

Although there is no known cure for alopecia areata, there are several methods to manage the condition, such as steroid creams and injections. Other treatment options include over-the-counter hair growth products, anti-inflammatory medications, and the use of platelet rich plasma to attempt to stimulate hair growth. Many people opt to wear a wig to cover hair loss.

Hair is an identity-laden, emotionally-loaded issue. Chris Rock should understand this, given he helped make a documentary that purports to explore the importance of hair in black culture. Pinkett Smith’s openness about her struggle with alopecia has been embraced by many others living with the condition. Hair loss can be extremely distressing for the individual experiencing it, but the sort of visibility and self-acceptance that Pinkett Smith embodies can help can help ease that struggle for others. Doesn’t really seem like something to laugh at, but maybe if I’d been around to see G.I. Jane in the theatre, I would understand.

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