LYNCHBURG, Va. (WSET) — After Will Smith slapped Chris Rock at the Oscars, there is some hope that it can lead to one positive: education about Alopecia Areata.
Smith walked on stage and slapped Rock, a presenter, after he joked to Jada Pinkett Smith that he was looking forward to a sequel to “G.I. Jane." It was a reference to a film starring Demi Moore, who shaved her head for the role.
Pinkett Smith has spoken publicly about her hair loss and alopecia areata diagnosis over the past few years.
Alopecia areata is a disease that happens when the immune system attacks hair follicles and causes hair loss. According to the National Alopcia Aereata Foundation, it affects as many as 6.8 million people in the U.S. with a lifetime risk of 2.1%.
Gloria Simon, a Lynchburg resident, was diagnosed with this about 30 years ago when she started to lose her hair.
"It wasn't an option that I was ever going to be bald, so we have to find a way to fix this," Simon said of how she felt when she got her alopecia areata diagnosis. "I went to dermatologists. I went to doctors. I had medications. I had pills. I had scalp injections. I refused to accept that this could not be fixed."
She, like many women, wore wigs. She said this was a constant struggle.
"You want to go do things but, 'It's really hot today, is this wig going to make me sweat even more?' We're going to the beach; you can't go jump in the water because you're wearing a wig," she said. "It became making sure that you were doing what you had to do in order to go face the public."
She says about a year ago, she decided to shave her head.
"So here I am," Simon said during an on-camera interview. "And here, I am comfortable."
Simon said this was all a part of her journey
"I've had women that reached out and said, 'I finally did it when I saw you,'" Simon said. "Because I did it when I saw another woman. So we are all in this together."
Carla Wilkes, also a Lynchburg resident, is on a similar journey. She also has alopecia areata. She started losing her hair when she was just 18-years-old.
She said now, she has a closet of wigs.
"We change it up daily," Wilkes laughed. "I have the 'fro today. Tomorrow it may be straight and long."
About four years ago, she said she did shave her head.
"I looked in the mirror and it was like, 'Who is this person? This is not me,'" she said. "It's your identity and it was kind of wiped away."
It's why both Wilkes and Simon say to many, it's about more than just hair loss. Which is why Simon said she was "furious" to hear Chris Rock's comment.
"I was furious for that child who was on a playground getting called G.I. Jane," Simon said. "And probably not even knowing who G.I. Jane was because of the time, but knowing it's something to tease about."
Dr. Samantha Hill, a dermatologist with Ridgeview Dermatology, said dealing with hair loss can be a very emotional and stressful experience for many of her patients. Especially, because it can be hard to treat.
"The thing that I always tell my patients is the biggest thing to both understand and kind of wrap their heads around with autoimmune processes, is that they're really unpredictable," Dr. Hill said.
She said with an autoimmune disorder, the body is basically going after something in and on itself.
"It's sometimes easy to convince the body to stop doing it," she said. "Sometimes we can't convince the body to stop doing it and sometimes the body just decides by itself to let things go back to normal."
Dr. Hill said because the process itself is so unpredictable, the therapies can be unpredictable as well.
She said there are many different approaches they can take though, depending on how much hair loss someone has.
Dr. Hill also stressed that not all alopecia, or hair loss, is because of an autoimmune disorder.
"Alopecia is a totally generic word that means hair loss," Dr. Hill explained alopecia could be hereditary, and happen with aging.
She said it can also happen after certain hormonal or medical changes.
Both Wilkes and Simon hope that this incident can lead to open dialogue, which can help others understand.
"I love to tell people," Wiles said. "I would rather someone come and ask me why I'm bald versus assuming it's something else."