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Rep. Ayanna Pressley shares her story of living with alopecia

NEW YORK (AP) — Rep. Ayanna Pressley, whose hair twists have been an inspiration to young girls and part of her personal identity and political brand, said Thursday that she has gone bald due to the autoimmune disease called alopecia.

The freshman Massachusetts’ Democrat made a touching video for The Root, the African American-focused website, in which she revealed her bald head and said she felt compelled to go public due to the impact her Senegalese twists had on supporters.

Senegalese twists are a protective hairstyle worn by black women, much like braided hairstyles. Her style was noteworthy in how Afrocentric it was: in many corporations, black women are expected to wear their hair straightened (though their hair tends to be more coily) and the legacy of black women wearing their hair close or at its natural state is fraught and intertwined with the legacy of racism.

She called her hair story “both personal and political” as she embraced her twists, but noticed back in the fall that her hair was falling out. The hair loss progressed in chunks until the night before the Dec. 18 House vote on impeachment articles against President Donald Trump, when she said she lost the last of it.

“I didn’t have the luxury of mourning what felt like the loss of a limb,” Pressley said. “It was a moment of transformation not of my choosing.”

She donned a wig, explained her vote from the podium on the House floor, then fled to a bathroom stall.

“I felt naked, exposed, vulnerable. I felt embarrassed. I felt ashamed. I felt betrayed,” Pressley said. “And then I also felt that I was participating in a cultural betrayal because of all the little girls who write me letters, come up to me, take selfies with me. Hashtag twist nation.”

Pressley kept her hair loss a secret among close friends and family but knew she would go public when she felt ready.

“I felt like I owed all those little girls and explanation,” she said. “My husband says I don’t, that everything isn’t political. The reality is I’m black, I’m a black woman, and I’m a black woman in politics, and everything I do is political.”

Alopecia areata is a common autoimmune skin disease, causing hair loss on the scalp, face and sometimes on other areas of the body, according to the website of the National Alopecia Areata Foundation. The National Institutes of Health says nearly 2% of Americans have the disease.

Pressley said she’s still trying to find her way forward and went public to free herself from the secret. She joked about her nicknames for her wigs, including one she dubbed “FLOTUS, because it feels very Michelle Obama to me.”

“I am making peace with alopecia,” she said. “I have not arrived there. … but I’m making progress every day.”