It’s taken a full week for many to be able to fully digest what was possibly one of the most infamous moments in award-ceremony history: Will Smith slapping Chris Rock at the Oscars, 2022. It was a slap heard across the world, and quickly divided audiences between those who condemned Smith’s violent act, and others who believed Smith’s actions were understandable, given comedian Rock had insulted his wife’s appearance. Rock’s “G.I Jane” joke made in reference to Jada Pinkett Smith’s bald head as a result of her alopecia, led to wider conversations about when jokes can become violent acts themselves. As Smith stated in his public apology, posted on Instagram last week, “Jokes at my expense are a part of the job, but a joke about Jada’s medical condition was too much for me to bear and I reacted emotionally.” The King Richard star has now been alienated by the academy, and the hysteria, outrage and memes have yet to die down. For people living with alopecia, especially Black women, the incident has provoked a conversation about bald beauty they’ve been eager to have. Joy Blenman, a 30-year-old senior marketer from Toronto, Canada, who has had alopecia since she was a child, tells Unbothered that the national coverage for alopecia has been welcome, because as she says it is “never just about hair.”
I had a very visceral reaction to the Oscars slap last week. When the camera turned towards Jada Pinkett Smith after Chris Rock’s horrible joke, you could see the pain in her face. She shifted in her seat a little and at that moment you see the sadness. When I saw that I felt that very same sadness; feeling invalid, unworthy and ugly, all of those things. The incident was a huge trigger point for me, and yet it stirred national coverage about alopecia we haven’t had to date, and I hope it’s not a flash in the pan.
My journey with alopecia has been lifelong. Shortly after my first birthday, my mother began to find chunks of hair in my crib. They took me to Sick Kids, the Children’s Hospital in Toronto, Ontario where I’m from, and they ran a series of tests before finding out that I had an auto-immune disease that attacked my hair follicles and made my hair fall out. At first, it was Alopecia Areata, the most common form of alopecia that sees hair loss in patches, then in high school, that’s when it became Alopecia Totalis, where I was completely bald over my head. By University, it became Alopecia Universalis, which is when my eyelashes began to fall out. I don't know why. That’s the thing about alopecia, it’s an incredibly unpredictable disease. But, I’ve learned you can take control of how you react to it. It’s taken me a lifetime to — while not accepting it — I have much more of a positive outlook on [alopecia], where I can speak and share tips with other folks, be an advocate and not be so destroyed by it. Mind you, this hasn’t been easy and it's important to stress that healing isn't linear when it comes to hair loss and mental health.
Growing up with alopecia was incredibly tough. It was two-fold tough because I grew up in a relatively white suburb and not only was I the only Black girl but on top of that definitely the only bald girl. People would call me “Caillou”, a character from a Canadian TV show about a little bald boy called Caillou. In middle school, I was at a party and we were playing truth-or-dare and a guy was dared to ask me out. He thought it was hilarious that someone would find me pretty or could possibly be romantically interested in me. I didn’t know it was a dare until I found out after. I remember walking away from that party so devastated. I experienced lots of traumatic things like this and it really damaged my self-esteem to the point where I didn't want to participate in class even though on paper I was the top student. I was scared people were going to look at me and I didn’t feel safe in the classroom.
I can help other young bald women, especially Black bald women, to see while alopecia is traumatic, it's not a life sentence.
In the 90s, before the internet became what it is now, I felt like neither my parents nor teachers had the language or resources to really talk about what I was going through, so most of my journey with alopecia has just been me doing my own research and finding groups with people just like me. Doing therapy with a therapist who is also Black, femme, and the child of immigrants has been huge. She is helping me break down the childhood traumas from alopecia and other things. I also practice yoga and work with my doctor to address my mental health concerns and questions.
Fast-forward to just before the pandemic, when I started to think about how I didn’t see many bald or short-haired folks being represented in beauty influencer content. I saw nothing in the media — no toys, no books — nothing to validate my experience. I know a lot of women of colour can resonate with this; we didn’t see ourselves until we had Tiana in The Princess and the Frog or Brandy’s Cinderella, but, to add to this, I also never saw anyone with short hair that was deemed the romantic interest or that girl. I got to the point where I thought, I have an amazing job and I am in an amazing relationship with a person who makes me feel safe and celebrates my unique identity (and often encourages me to just leave the wig off and go out into the world as myself), I could help other young bald women, especially Black bald women, to see while alopecia is traumatic, it's not a life sentence. So I created Joyful Beauty on Instagram, where I offer makeup tips and more, and the tagline is “keep growing and glowing.
[My Instagram account] has helped change my approach to how I measure my self-worth. I started to move to a place of body neutrality and decided to learn to love my body even IF some days it objectively didn't look good because my looks aren't intrinsic to my value as a human, rather my character and my actions are. Through this platform, I am also able to connect with people all over the world about alopecia, including parents of children with alopecia who are helping their children navigate through a world that is obsessed with image. Earlier this March, we learned about the story of a 12-year-old girl with alopecia who committed suicide and it reminded me of the reason why this work is so important.
I’ve been asked in response to Chris Rock’s terrible joke whether it’s “just hair, right?” To that I would say, no. Hair is such an intrinsic part of our identity...
I've been asked to appear in the media a lot since the Oscars incident, and I’ve been asked in response to Chris Rock’s terrible joke whether it’s “just hair, right?” To that, I would say, no. Hair is such an intrinsic part of our identity, for all women but especially for Black women. It’s very much our crown, and the personal is political. For me that “joke” was so painful, and such a pointed, painful kind of misogynoir, especially because Chris Rock has a Black daughter, and he created the documentary Good Hair about Black hair because of his Black daughter in 2009.
Since I’ve appeared on TV discussing this subject, people have texted to tell me that I’m “so brave” that they could never be “confident and bald on TV”. While a lot of that is true and a compliment just because I’ve done it doesn't mean it wasn’t painful to talk about my traumas on national TV. The trope of “strength” can be dangerous because it almost dehumanises Black women, as if our feelings don’t get as hurt. I just felt I had a duty to do this and I just know that there are other [young people with alopecia] out there that need it.
I am still healing. In fact, last year I went on stress leave, but this year I got promoted at work, and I believe that my success happened because I took the time to ground myself, work on my insecurities, take care of my mental health, and create new practices for myself (at work and outside of work). The work is never done and alopecia makes life challenging, but every year things get a little easier. I hope the world walks away from this conversation knowing all types of beauty exist and bald really is beautiful. There aren’t any if or buts. It’s just beautiful. Period.
As told to L’Oréal Blackett