What is Alopecia? The joke that led to the Oscars dispute

After Chris Rock’s joke about Jada Pinkett Smith’s hair loss condition, a portion of society was formally introduced to alopecia for the first time.


Chris Polk/Deadline

Jada Pinkett Smith at the 94th Academy Awards on March 27, 2022.

Amere Dorsey, Staff Writer

Everyone with access to social media and television saw the Will Smith and Chris Rock dispute at the 94th Academy Awards, but many do not understand the origin of it. 

Chris Rock made a joke about Jada Pinkett Smith’s short haircut, referencing the film ‘G.I. Jane.’ Pinkett Smith’s low haircut is a result of alopecia, a hair loss condition.

With Rock’s joke and playful manner, many believed he did not know why she cut her hair in the first place. 

Before the awards show last Sunday, Pinkett Smith was transparent about her ongoing struggle with alopecia.

According to WebMD, alopecia areata is an autoimmune disorder that causes hair loss in masses, often the size and shape of a quarter. 

The amount of hair loss varies for each person; some lose hair in a few places while others could lose the entirety of their hair.

In 2018, Pinkett Smith mentioned her battle with the hair loss condition in her Red Table Talk series. 

Pinkett Smith said, “A lot of people have been asking about why I’ve been wearing turbans, well I haven’t talked about it, it’s not easy to talk about it but I am going to talk about it.”

The particular episode focuses on insecurities and when Pinkett Smith was asked what is one part of her body she disliked the most, she brought up her alopecia.

“It was terrifying when it first started,” Pinket Smith said at the table along with her mother Adrienne Banfield Norris, and daughter Willow Smith. Pinkett Smith also mentioned that she was shaking with fear at this time of her life.

“My hair has been a big part of me. Taking care of my hair has been a beautiful ritual. And having the choice to have hair or not, and then one day, to be like “Oh my God I might not have that choice,”  Pinkett Smith said.

Lakirra White, owner of her mobile service ‘Hair.By.La,’ is a cosmetologist located in Annapolis, Md. As she works with clients who suffer from alopecia, she understood why the joke could be seen as offensive. 

“A lot of people who suffer from alopecia become self-conscious and are embarrassed by the hair loss. Chris Rock making a joke out of it was definitely disrespectful,” White said.

“Women struggle day to day with men or people, in general, accepting their flaws, and I find it so off-putting. His ‘joke’ didn’t just affect Jada, I am sure he hurt the feelings of many Oscar viewers at home that suffer from Alopecia,” White added.

White said that although many people may not know about alopecia, it is more common than others may think.

She said, “Alopecia is very common. It’s not rare that you will see someone with it. It’s also very common in the black community.”

A 2019 study found in the journal of the American Academy of Dermatology shows that alopecia areata is more common among African Americans compared to any other race and ethnicity.

There is currently no cure for alopecia, but special treatments can help the hair grow back.

“With the use of medicated shampoos, my client’s hair has started to grow back. Many people assume their hair will never grow back, but with the proper hair care routine anything is possible.” White said.

While Smith’s actions continue to be the biggest debate of the week, Rock’s joke can still be seen as offensive to the alopecia community.