January 16, 2020

In a moving interview with The Root, Massachusetts Rep. Ayanna Pressley opened up about living with alopecia and revealed that she has gone completely bald.

Pressley, 45, said she decided to go public about her hair loss because she felt she owed an explanation to all the women of color who have reached out to her about what had become known as her signature hairstyle: Senegalese twists. She added that she decided to open up about going bald “to be freed from the secret, and the shame that that secret carries with it.”

“I’m not here just to occupy space,” she also said. “I’m here to create it.”

Pressley rocketed to the national stage in 2018 after she defeated ten-term incumbent Representative Mike Capuano in the Democratic primary for Massachusetts’ 7th district. Despite being relatively new to Congress, Pressley quickly gained nationwide attention as one-fourth of “The Squad,” the high-profile group of progressive freshmen Congresswomen that also includes Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar, New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Michigan Rep. Rashida Tlaib.

In an exclusive interview, Pressley told The Root that she used to love playing around with different hairstyles, but once she discovered Senegalese twists about four or five years ago, she felt like she “met [herself] fully for the first time.”

“So what started out as a transitional hairstyle ultimately became a statement, and something that I was very intentional about,” she continued. She said she was prepared for some people to perceive her hairstyle as a political statement, possibly thinking she was “militant” or “angry,” but was unprepared for all the support she encountered. She spoke fondly of finding a community of “acceptance” and “affirmation,” and receiving letters from women “all over the globe” who also wear braids. “Now I walk into rooms and little girls are wearing T-shirts that say ‘my Congresswoman wears braids,'” she said.

“My twists have 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 went on. “That’s why I think it’s important that I’m transparent about this new normal, and living with alopecia.”

According to The National Alopecia Areata Foundation, alopecia areata is a common autoimmune disease that causes hair loss on the scalp, face, and sometimes other parts of the body. The American Academy of Dermatology Association says the disease occurs when the body attacks its own hair follicles. It can range from some small bald patches to total loss of hair on the entire body. And as The Root notes, The Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology found in 2019 that alopecia impacts African Americans at a higher rate than other racial groups.

Pressley told The Root she first noticed her hair loss last fall when she was getting her hair re-twisted. It then quickly accelerated. Pressley described waking up every morning to “sinkfuls of hair,” despite doing everything she could think of to stem the hair loss: including wrapping her hair, wearing a bonnet and sleeping on a silk pillow case.

“I did not want to go to sleep because I did not want the morning to come where I would remove this bonnet, and my wrap, and be met with more hair in the sink,” she shared. “And the image in the mirror of a person who increasingly felt like a stranger to me.”

She said the last of her hair fell out on the day before the House of Representatives voted on President Trump’s articles of impeachment. “Impeachment eve the last little bit of my hair came out. I was completely bald and in a matter of hours was going to have to walk into the floor, the House chamber, the 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.”

Pressley told The Root she felt even more emotional because this was happening on the anniversary of her mother’s death. “I was missing her. I was mourning my hair. I was mourning the state of our democracy. I was mourning my mentor, Chairman Elijah Cummings,” referring to the late Congressman who died last October.

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Pressley’s friend helped her get a custom wig just hours before the final vote, according to The Root. Pressley also said that after she cast her vote in favor of impeachment she quickly left to be alone. “I exited the floor as soon as I could and I hid in a bathroom stall. I felt naked, exposed, vulnerable. I felt embarrassed. I felt ashamed. I felt betrayed. And then I also felt that I was participating in a cultural betrayal because of all the little girls who write me letters.”

She soon realized she wanted to go public about her experience, because she felt like she “owed all those little girls an explanation.”

“The reality is I’m black. And I’m a black woman. And I’m a black woman in politics. Everything I do is political,” she added.

Pressley said she’s working to make peace with having alopecia and is in the early stages of what will likely be a long process, but confirmed she’s “making progress every day.”

“It’s about self agency. It’s about power. It’s about acceptance,” she also said. “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.”

Write to Madeleine Carlisle at madeleine.carlisle@time.com.

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