Last year, Ayanna Pressley made history by becoming the first Black woman elected to Congress from her home state of Massachusetts. Her success came in large part as a result of her progressive policy positions, such as her support of the Green New Deal and her proposal to lower the voting age to 16, which have resonated with voters particularly during a time of increased political polarization. Pressley is well-known for her distinctive natural hairstyle, which Slate describes as “waist-long, abundant Senegalese twists,” which has given inspiration to Black women and girls as such hairstyles are often considered to be unprofessional despite the fact that, for many Black women, they are natural. As such, Pressley’s iconic hairstyle became a political statement as well, as it symbolizes personal strength in the face of pressure to conform with society’s expectations of how Black women’s hair should look.
For Pressley, the sudden loss of her hair could not have come at a worse time. As the House of Representatives was preparing to impeach Donald Trump, Pressley noticed that her hair was falling out at a rapid pace, much to her shock and horror. In a video produced for The Root, an online publication focusing on “Black news, opinions, politics, and culture,” Pressley described the experience of not wanting to go to sleep because she knew that she would lose a substantial amount of hair overnight, and she would find new bald patches on her head regularly.
Because her hair is a tremendous element of her public image and a key component of her political persona, Pressley described the loss of her hair as feeling like the loss of a limb. The worst night of Pressley’s personal hair loss story was the night before the House voted to approve articles of impeachment of Donald Trump, which coincided with the final stage of alopecia where all of the hair on her head was completely gone. Still mourning the loss of her hair, as well as the loss of her mentor Elijah Cummings, Pressley appeared in the House chamber to cast her vote nevertheless, wearing a wig and having not yet told the public about her hair loss. And not only that, but the moment was also the anniversary of her mother’s death, causing Pressley a tremendous amount of stress.
Pressley’s story captures an intersection of several factors impacting American life today, including racism, gender, and politics
Pressley knew that she couldn’t appear in the House chamber with a bald head, as the sudden and unexplained change in hairstyle would have been interpreted as a militant political message, which the solemn occasion did not call for. So she contacted Jamal Edmonds, a hair caregiver who created a custom wig for her hours before she was due to appear in the House chamber. While Pressley thought Edmonds had done a “beautiful job” of creating her custom wig, she felt as though she couldn’t recognize herself in the mirror, and was embarrassed about having to keep the secret of her hair loss. Pressley knew that she had to go public with her alopecia eventually, but wanted to wait for the right moment to do so.
Pressley’s story captures an intersection of several factors impacting American life today, including racism, gender, and politics. For many people, especially men, hair is a superficial concern and the loss of hair does not lead to any major problems. But for many Black women, especially those who work in a public-facing role like Rep. Pressley, hair represents an important aspect of personal identity, as the public at times places a disproportionate and often negative focus on the hairstyles Black women choose to adopt. And as she is a person who works in politics, which can be a nasty and cutthroat line of work, Pressley’s hair loss carries political ramifications as well. Pressley not only had to undergo the loss of her hair, which in many ways is a key part of her identity as a Black congresswoman, but also had to do so in the context of a presidential impeachment, which naturally draws tremendous attention and scrutiny, making the prospect of keeping her hair loss secret a tremendous challenge. By revealing the fact of her hair loss, Pressley feels as though she is free to experiment with different styles as she adapts to her new natural appearance.
Since telling her hair loss story, Pressley has received a tremendous amount of support from her peers in Congress as well as the general public. The other three members of the “squad,” a coalition of four congresswomen of color who advocate for progressive causes, all voiced their support; Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said that she was a “living blessing,” and Representative Ilhan Omar said she was “stunningly gorgeous and a magnificent black queen.” Rashida Tlaib voiced her support as well, calling her “queen” and tweeting a crown emoji. Ayanna Pressley’s embrace of her natural hairstyle in the contentious political sphere has inspired Black women and girls across the nation, and her courage in sharing her story of alopecia under remarkable circumstances continues to inspire.