Her waist-long, abundant Senegalese twists were always freaked in a different way. Sometimes half of the braids were pinned off her face as the rest cascaded down her shoulders or in a low ponytail. In her official congressional profile photo, she opted to have them pulled back in a style that was half-coiffure, half low-twisted bun.
The braids weren’t the only thing that stood out about Rep. Ayanna Pressley. She entered Congress in 2019 as part of the most diverse generation of women to arrive on Capitol Hill: an incredibly visible Black woman with a powerful voice, an open desire to create change, and a willingness to throw her political weight behind what she believes is right.
Yet the hair seemed to be an integral part of that visibility. Pressley was one of the few Black women politicians who wore a natural hairstyle. She wore it in spite of other women of color who said her style was “too ethnic,” “too urban” or “wasn’t polished enough.” Seeing an elected official proudly wear her hair in braids mattered.
And then, on Thursday, Pressley announced that the braids were gone. In a powerful video published by the Root, Pressley revealed that she has alopecia areata, an autoimmune disorder that causes the body to attack healthy hair follicles and decrease growth to the point that it may stop.
“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,” said Pressley. “And that’s why I think it’s important that I’m transparent about this new normal and living with alopecia.”
Pressley’s revelation is a testament to the importance of representation and the multifaceted nature of a Black woman’s hair journey. Her braids stood in defiance to a society that actively singles out, disciplines, and asks Black folks to cut their hair or, at times, violently attacks them for wearing braids and locs. When she initially got the twists five years ago, Pressley said it felt like she was meeting herself for the first time. They morphed into a personal and political statement she was intentional about maintaining—in part because of the number of Black women and girls who openly admired her and were empowered by her decision to keep her hair braided.
Anyone can develop alopecia areata, but a study from June 2019, pointed out by the Root, discovered that Black people are more likely to do so. And 50 percent of Black women experience some form of hair loss. The bulk of studies dedicated specifically to Black women and hair loss (and there isn’t much) appears to center on traction alopecia, which can result from the tension of pulling hair too tightly for too long at the roots. But some researchers have shifted focus to central centrifugal cicatricial alopecia, female pattern hair loss and stress—all of which consider factors outside of styling that play a role in hair loss, such as family history.
Hair loss can also bring about feelings of shame for those who experience it. Pressley said she was made aware of her alopecia last fall as she was getting her hair retwisted. She lost the last of her hair on the night of the impeachment vote. “I didn’t have the luxury of mourning what felt like the loss of a limb,” she said in the video. “It was a moment of transformation not of my choosing.” Once she left the floor, she hid in a bathroom stall. Pressley recounts feeling “naked, exposed, vulnerable,” “embarrassed,” and “ashamed.” She also felt as if she was participating in a cultural betrayal of sorts due to all the little Black girls who are a part of #TwistNation. She knew that, when she was ready, she wanted to go public.
Watching Pressley tell her story, instead of simply reading about it, evokes a deep sense of joy for Black women who will further see themselves reflected in her image. As she stands there at the end of the video, smiling and proud, you can see her truth, her Blackness, emanating. She’s further expanding the conversation surrounding the personal and political aspects of Black women’s hair.
“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’m not here just to occupy space,” she added, “I’m here to create it.”
Support our independent journalism
Readers like you make our work possible. Help us continue to provide the reporting, commentary and criticism you won’t find anywhere else.Join Slate Plus