And now, Pressley is showing the world that black women are beautiful when they have no hair at all.
In a recent video op-ed in the Root, Pressley reveals she has alopecia and is now completely bald. It’s a striking act of bravery, especially given that Pressley, like many other black women, has had a complicated relationship to her hair. When Pressley first wore her Senegalese twists, she explains, she felt as if she “met herself fully for the first time, and it felt good.” Over the past several months, Pressley began to lose her hair. On the eve of her vote to impeach President Donald Trump, she says, “the last little bit of my hair came out.”
Pressley concludes the video by revealing her bald head, paired with a beautiful yellow-and-black blouse and bold red lipstick. In a single monumental and incredibly personal moment, she challenges us to rethink the importance of hair for all women, both within and beyond the black community.
Many women around the world, including some devout Orthodox Jews and the women of Kenya’s Massai tribe, voluntarily shave their heads for cultural and religious reasons, and political reasons. Women’s hair is considered so important that it can become a tool of protest, as in 2018, when South Korean women shaved their heads to protest the rise of nonconsensual pornographic videos. A shaved head can be a statement of empowerment, as it was when Demi Moore shaved her hair on camera for her role in “G.I. Jane,” or of fashion daring for women such as Grace Jones, Danai Gurira and Lupita Nyong’o.
When we celebrate women who have gone bald against their wishes, it’s usually in the context of cheering them on in the fight against breast cancer. In 2008, during New York Fashion Week, “Good Morning America” co-anchor Robin Roberts walked bald in Isaac Mizrahi’s runway show. In 2014, Joan Lunden, a former co-host of the same show, revealed her bald head on the cover of People magazine.
Alopecia feels different. It’s not a choice, and it isn’t a condition that has attracted widespread conversations or public awareness campaigns, either. Generations of black women have been told that their hair is too much, and needs to be controlled and contained; Pressley faces the opposite problem: hair that is not nearly enough.
Like Pressley, like all black women, I’ve had my own hair journey through braids, flat twists, relaxer, natural styles, blowouts, cuts and trims, dye jobs and even the big chop.
In elementary school, my classmates, both white and black, couldn’t quite understand why my hair didn’t lay as flat as everyone else’s, why I never wore my hair straight, and came to the conclusion that I didn’t have “good hair.” In high school, I begged my mother to let me get a relaxer, which would use harsh chemicals to straighten my hair, even if it meant taking the risk that the process would burn my scalp (which it did). I needed the torment to stop. And I was still in college when Don Imus, then a nationally syndicated radio host, called players from the Rutgers University women’s basketball team “nappy-headed hos.”
Over time, the conversation has broadened. Chris Rock made a documentary for his daughter called “Good Hair” that explores black women’s relationship with their hair and the hair industry. Just this year, an animated short film titled “Hair Love” that focuses on a black father taming his daughter’s tresses was nominated for an Academy Award.
But Pressley’s video takes the fraught black hair conversation into new territory by focusing on the beauty of having no hair at all. She is raw and honest as she shares her emotions processing the loss of her hair. She says she is still coming to terms with it, the way someone might come to terms with losing a limb. “People have been reminding me of the India.Arie song ‘I Am Not My Hair,’ ” Pressley says. “You are not your hair. And that’s true. But I still want it.”
I hear you, girl. But by revealing your bald head, you have expanded the definition of black beauty, and demonstrated that your power lies not in your hair but in what lies underneath it.