How Jada Pinkett Smith and Ricki Lake talking about their hair loss helps other women deal with alopecia: 'It really does make it more OK'
When Jada Pinkett Smith posted a video to Instagram just before the new year, it was to share a stubble-free scar running across the top of her famously gorgeous shaved head.
"At this point, I can only laugh," she said, running a manicured nail over her scalp. "And y'all know I've been struggling with alopecia." The scar, she said, is new, and will be "a little more difficult for me to hide," although, she joked, she's considering filling it with rhinestones "to make me a little crown."
The post, which has so far gotten over 2 million views, was a follow-up to the first time Pinkett Smith spoke publicly about her hair loss, in 2018, saying on her Red Table Talk that she was "literally shaking with fear" when she first noticed she was losing "handfuls of hair" in the shower, leading her to ultimately shave her head.
That was also the reaction of another celeb battling alopecia — Ricki Lake — who marked her original 2019 hair-loss disclosure with her own Instagram post on Jan. 1. "2 years ago today I took a leap of faith. I finally surrendered and came out about my decades long struggle with hair loss (and shaved my head.)," she wrote. "It was so scary and so liberating. The journey since has been such a gift."
She added that "self-love and acceptance has been the great takeaway," and that coming forward even led her to find true happiness and love, marrying fiancé Ross Burningham at the end of December.
Other famous women have spoken out about their own battles with hair loss over the years — including Rosie O'Donnell, Tyra Banks, Keira Knightley, Naomi Campbell and Lea Michele — and every time, say experts, the impact is invaluable.
"It has a huge effect," Dr. Michelle Henry, a New York City dermatologist with expertise in hair-loss treatments, tells Yahoo Life. "It reduces the guilt, as we as women tend to blame ourselves for everything. And it's something usually shrouded in shame and secrecy, and [women sufferers] don't discuss it, they cover it up. But when others discuss it, you can feel like maybe it's just part of being human."
The Women's Hair Loss Project founder, who goes only by "Y" in order to keep a semblance of privacy, says seeing such a public example can be vital for women struggling with the emotional fallout of hair loss.
"Whenever a celebrity comes out with anything, we look up to them, and it really does make it more OK for a lot of people. It's not uncommon, for example, for people to Google celebrities who are sober, celebrities who quit cigarettes, celebrities who lost weight," Y, 43, who has been dealing with her hair loss for 23 years and has been operating her online support and resource space since 2007, after finding "nothing that made it feel like I'd be OK," tells Yahoo Life. "You want to find that connection, that relatability … and when you see that they got through something, it makes it seem like maybe you can, too."
Lake, who had reached out to the Women's Hair Loss Project for support years ago and wound up befriending Y, was interviewed by her on her Living With Hair Loss podcast in 2020. "I know the suffering that she dealt with, and I couldn't imagine being in the public eye during it," Y recalls about Lake. "I didn't even want to use my face or my name — I didn't even show my eyeballs until 2015 — but I felt I had to let women know they weren't alone. So, when I saw Ricki come out, I was like, holy cow! For her to come out was massive. I still get chills when I think about it because it means so much."
Why hair loss can feel like such a blow for women
Though the American Hair Loss Association estimates that women make up 40 percent of people experiencing hair loss — whether it's female pattern hair loss (aka androgenic alopecia), traction alopecia (due to styles that pull and cause damage), alopecia areata (often triggered by stress or a virus) or the more severe and scarring CCCA (Central centrifugal cicatricial alopecia) — it's not a reality that's spoken about often, causing many women to feel both alone and devastated, explains Y.
"You're losing a part of yourself," she says. "You grow up and you think that what you see in the mirror is what you get to keep … and then one day you start losing a piece of yourself, bit by bit. [Then] it's a spiral, you're in the shower and it's coming out in handfuls. I used to count the strands and sit in the shower and start crying. And you don't want people to see you — I became a hermit, actually."
Y, whose diagnosis is progressive androgenetic alopecia, says she's gotten therapy to help her with the social anxiety she developed in response. What many people don't understand, she explains, is just how tied to identity hair can be.
"The way your face looks when it's framed changes when you take off that frame, so you do not look like yourself … you no longer recognize yourself in the mirror, and you don’t know if you're ever going to get yourself back," she says. "It's devastating, and it erodes a person's sense of self and leaves them feeling alone and isolated."
Henry, who treats a large clientele of women in her New York City practice, explains, "part of it is that society places huge value on women’s hair. In the media, we see old bald men who are rockstars, James Bond who is balding and not positioned as less desirable. But for women, it's such a huge part of how the world defines our beauty, our fitness and our overall health, so [losing that hair] is particularly traumatizing for women."
Dr. Madeliene Gainers, a dermatologist who specializes in hair loss, tells Yahoo Life, "I always keep a box of tissues within arm's reach," as so many of her women patients are hopeless, ashamed and frustrated when they arrive in her Chevy Chase, Md., office. "Whether we agree with it or not there are certain messages that we all get from society and … women have received the message that our hair is our crowning glory."
Hair — and subsequently hair loss — is particularly emotional for many Black women, Henry explains. "Black hair can be quite politicized, is often under a critical microscope, carries a lot of weight and is used to categorize and evaluate Black women, so its loss is particularly disconcerting," she says. "And a lot of the styles used to cover hair loss contributes to more hair loss … There can be traction alopecia from cultural styles … and then maybe extensions or wigs, and that’s more tension, and it can become this vicious cycle."
Adds Gainers, "It is one of the reasons why the natural hair movement is such a blessing."
She also notes that "a lot of people aren't aware that dermatologists are the skin and hair experts," and instead rely on their beauticians, who can offer helpful products and styles but can also cause more damage with attempts to camouflage — one of the reasons Gainers is currently collaborating with stylists to form a new hair-loss organization in which both sets of professionals can swap expertise.
Finally, while many women, including Pinkett Smith and Lake, feel comfortable shaving their heads ("I think that's fantastic," says Henry), plenty do not. For those patients, there are many treatments available, ranging from injectable and topical steroids to oral immune suppressants, Rogaine (Minoxidil), hair transplantation, injecting one's own platelets to regenerate cells (PRP, for platelet-rich plasma) and the still-developing area of using stem cells from liposuction.
"The success of treatments, and type used, depends on the type of hair loss, how far it's progressed and if it’s scarring or not scarring," the latter having the most success, Henry says.
Gainers, who admits it's "heartbreaking when you get people late-stage that have a lot of scarring," says that sometimes the reality is that no treatment works. That's when a "hair unit," or semi-permanent, made-to-order wig that can be glued to the scalp, might be the last option. "And you want to be honest about that," she says, noting that she works with a trichologist (hair and scalp specialist) who "does beautiful work making African-hair units," helping to fill a "very necessary" gap.
"It's been a real pleasure seeing women who feel like they lost a piece of themselves… and then meet with her," Gainers says, "and have a piece of themselves back."
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