Regardless of whether or not Will Smith was justified in smacking Chris Rock at the Oscars after a joke about wife Jada Pinkett Smith’s alopecia, there’s no doubt that the topic is emotionally charged.
Following the incident that made waves across social media during the annual awards ceremony on Sunday and on Monday morning, many commentators have zeroed in on the question of whether or not Smith’s action was uncalled for. But among alopecia advocates, the focus has been on what it’s like to be the subject of a joke like Rock’s in a society that stigmatizes female hair loss.
Debuting her shaved hairstyle in 2021, after going public with her diagnosis in 2018, Jada Pinkett Smith is one of the most prominent public figures to speak openly about living with alopecia. The condition is extremely common, with over 21 million women estimated to have some amount of hair loss. In recent years, a growing number of influencers and celebrities have spoken out publicly about their experiences with hair loss. Following Chris Rock’s comment and Will Smith’s emotional response, there has been an outpouring of commentary by public figures with alopecia weighing in with their thoughts on the situation.
For most female celebrities and influencers living with alopecia who commented on the situation, the joke was not funny, given the challenges they have experienced living in a society that negatively responds to alopecia.
Fashion designer Symone Douglas stated on her Instagram, “It took me a minute to process what we all watched last night. @chrisrock used his platform to make fun of a Black woman and single out someone that is clearly still processing their condition.” She added, “Seeing the look on Jada‘s face brought me back to when I was 19 and I first lost my hair, terrified and full of shame. Being mocked or ostracized for something you are not in control of was one of my greatest fears. This is probably true for anyone that does not fit into society’s definition of what is beautiful. I worked really hard to fall in love with my bald head and the woman that I have become because of alopecia.”
Former talk show host Ricki Lake, who has publicly shared her own experience with alopecia, addressed the incident the night after the Oscars with Lars Skjoth, founder of hair-care brand Harklinikken, during a talk at the brand’s Beverly Hills flagship.
“What he did was completely unacceptable,” she said of Will Smith’s action, but stated, “I have such empathy for Jada Pinkett Smith. Only the people that have walked in her shoes can understand what it’s like.” She went on to say, “It was a very sad thing, and it definitely struck a nerve with me. The joke itself wasn’t funny, especially for people who struggle with alopecia.”
“The important thing is also that it really goes to show how emotional hair loss is, not just for the one who has it, but also for the ones that are close to you,” said Skjoth.
U.S. congresswoman Ayanna Pressley, who revealed her alopecia diagnosis in January 2020, tweeted on Monday, “Our bodies are not public domain. They are not a line in a joke — especially when the transformation is not of our choosing. I’m a survivor of violence. I’m a proud Alopecian. The psychological toll we carry daily is real. Team Jada always. That’s that on that.” She posted the tweet after deleting a tweet stating, “Shout out to all the husbands who defend their wives living with alopecia in the face of daily ignorance & insults.”
Gina Atinuke Knight, an influencer and wig designer diagnosed with alopecia, shared a post on Instagram that read, “My alopecia is not a punchline.” Her comment stated, “The comments I’ve seen on the matter via socials has made it is glaringly obvious that there is still a lot to learn about Alopecia and the effects it has on individuals.”
Knight, like many influencers speaking up, referenced the tragic death earlier this month of middle school student Rio Allred, who lost her life to suicide. “Let us not forget that less than 2 weeks ago a child unalived herself due to being bullied about her alopecia,” said Knight. “And last night, we see a woman with alopecia being mocked on the world stage.”
“This has highlighted the way alopecia is seen in society. It’s never seen as a big deal because ‘it’s just hair’ but it’s 100% a life-altering condition that can cause long-term mental health issues,” Knight said.
Model, alopecia advocate and custom wig designer Jeana Turner weighed in on her Instagram Stories, empathizing with both Will and Jada Pinkett Smith, saying, “It’s easy for people who have never or will never experience the trauma and daily struggles of hair loss to assume it was unjustified,” referring to Will Smith’s reaction.
Kylie Bamberger, a model and alopecia advocate, stated on her Instagram, “At what point will people understand that making jokes about someone else’s expense have a cost? Being called out for your hair loss in front of your peers, idols and the millions of people watching is mortifying. This comment wasn’t celebrating her hair loss. And @jadapinkettsmith reaction speaks volumes. It wasn’t funny. It was petty and unimaginative.”
Laura Hathaway, a personal trainer who is active online in posting about her experience with alopecia, commented, “I absolutely don’t condone violence, but I have an idea why Will may have reacted so passionately…he has probably witnessed his wife’s deep pain, her bravery facing being in the public eye & trying to inspire others. When people who should know better attack your loved ones, publicly bullying them he had a deep lapse in judgment & misplaced his anger, pain.”
Rock’s joke showed that female hair loss is still considered fair game by many to poke fun at, despite how traumatizing it can be for those dealing with it. Long before Will Smith’s drama, female public figures and regular women who were becoming more open about their own experiences had already begun fighting against rigid beauty standards of what constitutes “normal” for hair.