- Chris Rock's Oscars "joke" evoked painful memories in people with alopecia.
- Women told Insider they've been bullied, experienced depression, and have missed out on jobs.
- Most didn't condone Will Smith's violent response, but understood why his reaction was so visceral.
Michandy Lee is no longer an insecure little kid. She's a 52-year-old professional in North Carolina who hasn't worn a wig in more than a decade and instead wears shirts celebrating her "bald and beautiful" self.
She's had alopecia, an autoimmune condition that causes hair loss, almost her entire life.
But Chris Rock's joke at the expense of Jada Pinkett Smith, who also has alopecia, during Sunday's Academy Awards — as well as Will Smith's response — made painful memories come rushing back.
"What people have been saying on social media, and what happened last night, that hurt," said Lee, who took Monday off work to process her emotions.
She remembers being called "Baldilocks" and "Chief Lee" in elementary school, the latter referencing the headbands she'd fashion to smooth what hair she did have over the thinning spots.
In high school, Lee said, "I remember a guy saying I was cute, but he couldn't date me because I didn't have any hair." She never made the cheerleading team despite prepping long in advance and nailing splits and jumps.
In college, her wig came off after getting caught in a friend's watch. "He never spoke to me after that."
While Lee does not condone violence and wishes Smith had used his platform to talk about alopecia instead, she said she understands his reaction.
"He knows what it took for her to get dressed and be there with him last night," Lee said, acknowledging she can only project how Pinkett Smith feels based on her experiences. "Will knows the tears on the pillows, Will knows the insecurities. Will knows it all."
One woman suspects her hair loss cost her several jobs
Erica Olenski Johansen tried to take the empowered road. She'd gone through an engagement, marriage, and most of her 20s with thinning hair, and by 2015 what was left of her hair resided in the center of her scalp.
So she styled it into a mohawk.
But after interviewing for a customer-service job she was more than qualified for, she was passed over in the final round. The hiring managers said she was a "great influence internally," Johansen remembers, but didn't have confidence in her external-facing abilities.
"The only thing I could rationalize is they misinterpreted my 'lemonade out of lemons' look as being too progressive or counter-culture" for corporate America, Johansen, now a 33-year-old in Dallas, told Insider.
Three other organizations denied her a gig and gave similar feedback. "It was really traumatizing," she said. Johansen, who's now fully bald, ultimately became an independent consultant so she could work for herself.
Johansen has continued to try to find the positives living with alopecia. For example, when strangers ask her how cancer treatment is going — a common experience for people with the condition — she uses it as an opportunity to advocate for her 3-year-old son, a brain cancer survivor.
She also finds rocking a bald look means she's not sexualized — and she believes she is therefore taken more seriously — by men in business situations. She's grateful she's come to a place of self-acceptance early in life.
While Johansen said Smith's slap "is not the energy we need brought to the awareness of this, I'm grateful for the platform that it's brought to alopecia."
Now, she added: "Let's have a conversation about what it's like to lose your hair."
'I've never had anyone go to bat like that'
Dina Hornreich was already outcast as a Jewish girl with parents from the Bronx trying to assimilate into a small Connecticut community. Then, in seventh grade, she started losing her hair.
"People would take my hat off and yell at me and shout at me out the bus windows," Hornreich, now a 46-year-old educator and academic librarian in Colorado, told Insider. "It is still the worst year of my life."
She stopped getting invited to parties, and doctors didn't know how to help. She tried cortisone injections that didn't work but she says affected her fertility. She never experienced girlhood rites of passage like shaving her legs because there wasn't any hair to shave.
Now, Hornreich doesn't face much outright bullying, but she sometimes feels judged: If she puts on a wig or hat, she'll get accused of getting "dolled up." If she forgoes the accessories, she says people think she's playing the "pity card." "You can't win," she said.
Hornreich says her experiences help her relate to other marginalized populations, who she now helps through her work in diversity and inclusion. She said she wishes someone would have "gone to bat" for her growing up the way Smith did for Pinkett-Smith Sunday.
"No one has ever taken offense to someone picking on me," Hornreich said. "GI Jane — that's a lot more empowered than what I was called."
One woman kept herself so isolated she couldn't be bullied
Upon graduating high school, Joy Myers' boyfriend asked her to marry him. Her hair had been falling out for the past several months, and even her eyelashes and body hair were sparse.
So, she said yes. "I loved him," Myers told Insider, "but I was like, 'Nobody else will love me, this is my only shot."
The couple moved to California, where Myers' husband was in the Air Force, and Myers didn't leave the house for six months. She covered up all the mirrors in the house, lost contact with friends, and vowed not to have kids "because I didn't want them to have a mom who doesn't have hair," she said.
She gained 30 pounds from steroid injections that didn't help, and on some days, she didn't want to live. Myers wasn't bullied because she wasn't seen.
It took many years, family support, and bad wigs to get to who Myers is now, a confident 41-year-old professional and mom of three in Austin, Texas.
But Rock's "joke" set her back. "My heart sank to my toes, and immediately there were flashes of all the times that someone has said something offensive." Like when Myers' kids' peers say "your mom's a boy,' the Starbucks barista calls her "sir," or the checkout lady pushes a hair-growth cream on her.
She said the joke can't be defended because it made fun of something Pinkett-Smith has no control over, despite many people with alopecia feeling like it's their fault.
"My heart is broken for a lot of people today who are early in their journey, for the kiddos with alopecia," Myers said. "It's so much deeper than 'just a joke.' It's our lives."
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