It was several years ago when I realized that I no longer had edges on the left side of my head. I was completely bald with patches of hair, and it looked as awful as I felt. What I was experiencing looked very similar to what Naomi Campbell went through back in 2010.
I cried for weeks after realizing that I was balding, and I felt absolutely powerless.
After a while, I knew that I had to do something to regrow my hair, so I put on my big girl pants, and made a doctors appointment.
Following an examination, my doctor gave me some iron pills, and told me to ditch the weaves. After a few months of TLC, and a haircut, my edges were healthier and stronger. But the frightening experience is one I'll never forget.
What I was suffering from, and what Naomi was suffering from in that infamous 2010 photo, is called traction alopecia, and it's not a laughing matter. Many black women suffer from the same medical issue, and there are a number reasons why, including stress and the methods used to care for black hair.
Alopecia is a medical term for hair loss. There are many types of alopecia, but the kinds that impacts black women the most are traction alopecia, which happens when the edges of your hair starts balding, and alopecia caused by chemical straighteners.
Telling black women to give up braiding their hair, or to stop using chemical relaxers and straighteners, is easier said than done. One reason being is that many employers have imposed unrealistic hair standards on black women, and it has been happening for decades.
History proved that as black women followed their employer's hair standards in order to keep getting their checks, they sometimes ended up bald or balding, and what woman really wants that?
HOW EMPLOYERS KILLED BLACK WOMEN'S HAIR
Four African American women, welders employed to work on the Liberty ship SS George Washington Carver, kneeling and holding welding equipment, Kaiser Shipyards, Richmond, California, ca. 1943. Vintageblackbeauty.tumblr.com
If you look at a black woman with a curly hair texture, you'll notice that her hair naturally grows upward and outward, but a lot of people don't realize that, especially some employers.
Even with minimal education on black hair, some employers are still not feeling black women rocking afros, because they see the style as "political," "faddish," or "exaggerated." For instance, back in 2007, a Glamour Magazine editor, who offered some workplace dress code dos and don'ts to a group of black women lawyers, caused a firestorm when she told the group that wearing afros in the workplace was a "big no-no." Lawyer Magazine reported,
An Afro. A real no-no, announced the 'Glamour' editor to the 40 or so lawyers in the room. As for dreadlocks: How truly dreadful! The style maven said it was 'shocking' that some people still think it 'appropriate' to wear those hairstyles at the office. 'No offense,' she sniffed, but those 'political' hairstyles really have to go.
According to Genie, a beautician and hair loss specialist in the Atlanta area who has been treating hair loss for more than three decades, she's seen plenty of black women left out of jobs for not wearing their hair the way it naturally grows. She said that even after the government passed the Civil Rights Act in 1964, which addressed dress code discrimination, black women still had trouble finding jobs because of their hair. So they did what they had to do to get a check, and paid a lot of money to have chemically straightened hair.
"We couldn't get jobs as secretaries, customer service [representatives], cashiers, because we didn’t have [our hair] straightened," she said. To help these women, Genie would install capless wigs on her clients, which allowed the scalp to breath, without causing damage to the their hair follicles.
Unfortunately, a lot of women can't wear wigs to some jobs, including service members with jobs that requires them to not wear them due to safety hazards. Bobby Spence, a Virginia-based Trichologist and Hair Loss Specialist, says that military hair standards that requires black women to wear slicked ponytails, micro braids, or tight cornrows, are enforced because it allows the service member to put on kevlar helmets, or military approved head wear. But those hairstyles, coupled with sweat and germs that falls on the scalp while they're working, has been known to completely destroy black hair, which could result in some severe cases of alopecia.
"Being in the military, you have to wear ponytails and keep your hat on," Bobby said. "So think about all the years of putting your hair in a ponytail, all that traction that’s going to your temple, and your edges are breaking off every time. That causes hair loss."
But employers aren't completely to blame for hair loss in black women. A lot of hair care techniques for black women are passed down generationally, but what isn't often passed down are proper techniques that keeps alopecia in mind.
GENERATIONAL TECHNIQUES AND THE HUSTLE TO GET YOUR DOLLARS
Several years ago, Beyonce was slammed for not combing her daughter's hair. What Beyonce was doing was maintaining the health of Blue Ivy's natural curls.
Bobby said that generational hair care techniques are definitely one reason why hair loss is so prevalent among black women. While tight ponytails with barrettes and beads, chemical or heat straighteners, and tight braids, helps black children maintain cute hair styles, it can also cause a lot of damage to it.
He says that when it comes to maintaining healthy hair in children with coarse hair textures, the best thing a mother can do is to let the child's hair grow naturally, or use techniques that does not put too much strain on their hair.
"Think about the average African American woman," he said. "From a child, what happens is is that your hair is really thick, and mom is like, 'Oh I’m going to put a texturizer in their hair to break it down and make it easier to manage.' Okay, well that’s where it starts, because you have a chemical now."
Genie and Bobby both said that they've had clients who told them that they've used "kiddie perms"
in their hair because they think that it is more mild than a regular relaxer, but they both disagree with this line of thinking. A chemical is a chemical, and no matter how mild it is, it can still cause hair damage and breakage.
Genie said that she's seen some hair dressers go as far as telling their clients that they're using a kiddie perm in their hair, when they were really using an extra strength chemical relaxer. On purpose. Bobby has seen hair dressers do it, too, and he says that they do it because they want your money. Especially when it comes to using keratin treatments.
"[It's] A way to take your money, and charge you $200-$300 because it’s a form of a relaxer," Bobby said. "Anything that takes your coarse hair and makes it straight, it’s a chemical. "
The good news is that if you have alopecia, or if you're leery of using chemicals in your hair, there are techniques you can apply to keep it healthy. Celebrity beautician Mushiya Tshikuka, break out star of WE TV's reality show "Cutting It In The ATL," and owner of The Damn Salon in Atlanta, says that you first have to identify the technique that you're using that's causing your hair loss.
"It’s not necessarily the hairstyle, it’s the technique," She said. "[For example,] two different people can do box braids, but one is doing it absolutely way too tight, and another one is doing it considering the health of the person’s hair. The technique that’s used is what’s different."
Mushiya says that one great technique to help grow your hair while battling alopecia is to use clip-in hair extensions. She says that one of the reasons why she created Runway Curls, her exclusive line of Ethiopian textured virgin hair extensions, was to help her clients battling hair loss. The clip-in extensions from her hair line, which should be available for purchase within the coming months, can be blended with natural hair without causing too much tension on the hair, while still allowing you to look and feel fabulous.
HOW TO STOP ALOPECIA BEFORE IT STARTS
The best way to keep alopecia at bay is to not put too much tension on your hair, no matter how beautiful the hairstyle is. Bobby recalled a client whose weave hairstyle was so tight that he couldn't help her after her scalp grew bumps that started leaking as a result of the tightness of her braids underneath her weave.
"She called her [stylist] back after she put the weave in, and she said, 'Oh my God...I have such a headache because the weave is so tight, I can’t even sleep because it’s so tight,'" Bobby recalled. "So the stylist said, 'Don’t worry. After a couple of days, it will loosen up a little bit.' After a couple of days it didn’t loosen up. Literally, when she came to me...she had puss bumps all over her scalp. I had to refer her to a dermatologist so he could actually treat that condition, because it was even beyond my control."
Genie, Bobby, and Mushiya all suggest that if you are going to wear weaves, make sure that you keep your scalp clean, washed, and moisturized.
"African American hair is very textured and thus prone to dryness," Mushiya said. "Dryness causes breakage... and that stress on the hair will cause alopecia as well. And it’s important that women understand that their hair needs to be moisturized, and the best way and first way to moisturize our hair is by using H2O [water]."
Mushiya also suggests that you shampoo your hair more often than once every three weeks or once a month. "A lot of time black women want to wash their hair once every month, or once every three weeks...that’s the most ridiculous one can do," she said. "It gets drier and drier, and [your hair will] break. When we moisturize our hair, it’s important that we use good products that doesn’t strip our natural oils that our scalp produces. Those natural oils are important because it stops everything from being dry, and stops breakage."
Bobby also says that if you're suffering from hair loss, you should contact a physician before consuming biotin. He says that African Americans naturally have oily skin, and biotin, which is typically prescribed by doctors to help your skin produce more collagen, and it will cause you to suffer from acne.
"I see it all the time," Bobby said. "Seven out of 10 people I see who takes biotin have acne."
He says that if you are looking for a supplement to grow your hair, you should ask your doctor about using sulfur (MSM) supplements instead. He also suggests that you increase your water and healthy food intake."Your hair is made of 16 amino acids. Believe it or not, a lot of those amino acids, you can get through your diet. A lot of those amino acids found in your hair shaft is called l'cysteine. L'cystine if found in things like turkey or a lot of fruits and vegetables. So you can literally feed your hair with the right diet."
Bobby made it clear that weaves and generational hair care techniques aren't totally to blame for alopecia. Besides stress, hair loss in black women may be an indicator of a deeper medical condition.
"When you start see your hair starting to thin out over time, your ponytail didn’t have the thickness it once had, your edges are thinning out, it could be because you’re having an iron deficiency," Bobby said. "It could be from a hormonal imbalance, it could be a vitamin D deficiency...or a thyroid imbalance...or you could be be pre-diabetic. So there are other things that can affect your hair besides traction and chemical alopecia."
Bobby, Mushiya, and Genie say that if you see your hair thinning, or balding, you should seek professional help immediately. As long as the hair shaft isn't damaged, anyone can recover from alopecia. But if the shaft is damaged, you're pretty much screwed.
If you are suffering from alopecia, there are several other things you should probably keep in mind when it comes to your self esteem. Take a look at those tips in the gallery below.