Rep. Ayanna Pressley said her braids have become a defining part of her political identity as the first black woman to represent Massachusetts in Congress.
“I got these Senegalese twists, and I feel like I met myself fully for the first time,” Pressley told The Root in an interview published Thursday. “You know, I sort of looked in the mirror and I said, ‘Oh, there I am.’ And it felt good.”
Her hairstyle also became a political statement to some who saw them as an expression of racial pride. While the former Boston city councilor has said she had been advised against the hairstyle early in her career, it became a source of affirmation, not only for herself, but for black women across the country. Pressley said she received supportive letters from “all over the globe” and that she met little girls in the 7th District wearing shirts that said “my Congresswoman wears braids.”
All that made what happened next even more difficult, she said.
In her interview with The Root, Pressley revealed that she has been living with alopecia. While the term can refer to any kind of hair loss, alopecia areata is an autoimmune condition that results in varying degrees of baldness. It affects an estimated 1.7 percent of Americans, but researchers have found it disproportionately affects African Americans. A 2016 Boston University study found that 47.6 percent of nearly 5,600 surveyed African American women reported hair loss.
Pressley said she first realized she had “some patches” last fall while getting her hair re-twisted.
After trying to conceal it, the 45-year-old congresswoman decided to publicly reveal in the video interview that she has completely lost her hair.
“My twists have become such a synonymous & a conflated part of not only my personal identity & how I show up in the world, but my political brand. And that’s why I think it’s important that I’m transparent about this new normal & living with alopecia.” — @AyannaPressley pic.twitter.com/jqraqZeiKr
— The Root (@TheRoot) January 16, 2020
“My twist had become such a synonymous and conflated part of not only my personal identity and how I show up in the world, but my political brand,” she said. “That’s why I think it’s important that I’m transparent about this new normal, and living with alopecia.”
It hasn’t been easy.
Pressley said her hair loss quickly accelerated, filling each morning with “dread.” After employing a number of different strategies to try to stop or hide it, she said the “last little bit of my hair came out” on the eve of the House’s vote to impeach President Donald Trump.
“I was completely bald,” Pressley said. “And in a matter of hours, was going to have to walk into the floor, The House Chamber, House of Representatives and cast a vote in support of articles of impeachment. And so I didn’t have the luxury of mourning what felt like the loss of a limb. It was a moment of transformation not of my choosing. But I knew the moment demanded that I stand in it and that I lean in.”
Still, after the impeachment vote — Pressley, who has long-called for Trump’s impeachment, voted yes — she left the floor as fast as possible and “hid in a bathroom stall.”
“I felt naked, exposed, vulnerable,” Pressley said. “I felt embarrassed. I felt ashamed. I felt betrayed.”
But the Boston Democrat also felt like she “owed” all the little girls who looked up to her and her braids an “explanation,” which could be empowering in its own right.
“My husband says I don’t — you know, that everything doesn’t have to be political,” Pressley said. “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 also said that going public with her alopecia — and her efforts to come to terms with it — might be personally beneficial.
“I wanna be freed from the secret and the shame that that secret carries with it,” Pressley said.
“And because I’m not here just to occupy space, I’m here to create it,” she added. “And I wanna be free. I am making peace with having alopecia. I have not arrived there. I am very early in my alopecia journey. But I’m making progress every day. And that’s why I’m doing this today. It’s about self-agency, it’s about power, it’s about acceptance. Right now on this journey, when I feel the most unlike myself is when I am wearing a wig. So I think that means I’m on my way.”
Several of Pressley’s colleagues and peers applauded her courage.
John Kerry — whose Senate office Pressley worked in before joining the Boston City Council — tweeted Thursday afternoon that he was “glad so many in the next generation have her as a role model.”
The bravery of @AyannaPressley sets such a powerful example. Proud to count her as a friend, glad so many in the next generation have her as a role model, and hope some more in this generation summon even a little bit of Ayanna in the decisions they make. https://t.co/k6CnNUW5hc
— John Kerry (@JohnKerry) January 16, 2020
Rep. Katherine Clark also voiced support.
Always here for you, friend. ❤️ https://t.co/tWw7VQHR0W
— Katherine Clark (@RepKClark) January 16, 2020
In a tweet from her official House account, Pressley said the decision “was not easy.”
“But vulnerability rarely is,” she wrote.