by Alyx Arnett
When Angenetta Whites’ hair began coming out in patches as a young girl, her mother’s first thought was ringworm—an infection of the skin that is readily treated and rarely progresses. However, doctors came back with a diagnosis much more unsettling—alopecia.
While several doctors explained to Whites’ mother what this autoimmune disease was that causes hair loss, Whites sat scared still in the waiting room, unaware of the torment that lay ahead of her.
Doctors prescribed steroids, shampoos, and treatments to get the hair to come back. The mother and daughter left. They went home, and Whites’ mother acted normal. She didn’t really let it bother her, Whites said. After all, it was just hair.
Whites’ mother kept her up on the treatments and seeing the doctors, and the long black hair would come back and then leave again and come back and then break off again. Though the disease took a toll on Whites as a young girl, it got that much worse when she was old enough to enter elementary school.
Journey into elementary school
“Now we’re getting to the traumatic part,” White said quietly, glancing down. At 34 years old, she sat nicely dressed in a grey blouse and black pencil skirt. Large, glistening hoop earrings framed her now completely bald head.
As an elementary student in Detroit, Mich., Whites did the best to disguise the bald patches with braids and certain hairstyles. But no matter what she did, her classmates saw through it.
“Just imagine walking around as a kid, as a little girl, and people pointing at you, laughing at you, coming up with names,” she said. “I used to walk through the hallways along the wall. You know how you had a lunch line at school, and everybody was playing, having fun? Well, the wall was my friend, my shadow. That’s who I leaned on. That’s who I played with and talked to.”
Seeing the hurt Whites was going through, her grandmother bought her a wig in an attempt to hide the spots and ease the pain.
“She came in there with a Marge Simpson wig. The hair was about this high,” Whites said, now with a laugh, raising her hand way above the top of her head.
Whites told her grandma, no, she didn’t want to wear the wig. She hated wigs.
The next day, she wore the wig.
“You know, I’m mad. I didn’t want to wear it, but they made me wear it anyway,” she said, still with a chuckle in her voice and a hint of humor in her eyes.
That same day, students made a game of snatching the wig off of her head.
“Just cruel, cruel,” she said slowly, all the humor that was in her voice seconds ago now gone.
But she made do. She went on. She coped.
“My mom used to tell me, ‘You’re beautiful. You’re a star. Don’t let anyone tell you you’re not beautiful.’ But I didn’t hear it. Still, I singled myself out,” she said.
Whites made it day by day though elementary school and finally up to high school.
High school hardships
“Now in high school, you’re definitely looking at yourself. So, I said I really have to do something to try to hide this. I started messing with my hair more, trying to cover up the spots. I would use black eyeliner pencils to try to color in the bald spots.
“I tried and tried to cover it up and still never felt pretty. I felt like the ugly ducking. That’s basically what everyone was telling me. You’re not pretty. You’re bald headed. It’s hurtful. It messes you up,” she said.
Just when the pressure to fit in was at its highest, bad got worse. Whites lost her mother to a heroin overdose.
“That’s when I started abusing myself. So whatever little young man came along, I was going to do whatever he wanted me to do because I’m trying to be accepted,” she said. “People were saying, ‘Well, you lost your mom. You’re trying to find everything to cope.’ Well, for years and year I’d been trying to cope. This wasn’t new.”
Without her mother there to keep Whites up on the treatments and medication, Whites let it all take a backseat to running the streets of Detroit, moving from house to house, and just trying to “make do.”
As her hair continued to fall out in patches on the sides and in the back, she did her best to keep it hidden from everyone. However, it didn’t always work out in her favor.
“I can tell you about one of the times one of my guy friends touched my head. We were just lying there with each other, and he reached up and rubbed my head. I used to wear these bandanas on my head when I’d take my hair out. And one day he was just rubbing upward and touched my head, and he snatched his hand back. That’s a terrible feeling. He just snatched it back like ‘what’s wrong with you?’” she said.
After repeatedly being hurt, Whites finally had it.
“It says in the Bible hair is a woman’s crown, so you get mad also at God. You say, ‘You lied. Why are you going to create me and say hair is a woman’s crown? Does that mean you don’t love me because I don’t have hair?’ These are the kinds of questions you ask yourself over time; 1,001 questions all about that one little beauty secret—hair,” she said in a whisper.
Getting out of Detroit
Life had taken a toll on Whites, and she decided it was time to get out of Detroit. In 2004, her family moved to Kokomo, and Whites decided to go along.
“It’s calm here. It’s slower. That’s when I definitely started relaxing a little bit more,” she said.
Still, the move didn’t keep alopecia away. In 2007, Whites’ hair began falling out more and more and in places she’d never lost hair before.
“It started coming out right here in a patch,” she said, touching the area right above the middle of her forehead. “My hair never came out right there in the front. It came out on the sides and in the back, but all that always stayed on.”
With less hair, it was getting harder and harder for Whites to keep the alopecia hidden.
“I’m sitting at the house one day, and I take my hair out. I don’t really pay attention when I take it out. I just take it out and hurry up to put the weave back on so nobody can see it. So I’m sitting there one day, and I took it out. I’m looking at my head, and all my hair on this side was gone,” she said, pointing to the right side of her head. “I’m shaking, and I’m crying. So I got really mad, and I took the hair clippers and just shaved the rest of it off, just shaved it off.”
After that, Whites went to covering her head with quick weaves, still refusing to let anyone see her without hair.
The beginning of change
However, after a couple incidents just last year, Whites finally began getting fed up with trying to hide who she was.
“I had to go up to Detroit to visit my family, so I’m putting a weave on top of my head,” she said, laughing about what was coming next. “So I had this incident where my hair had gotten snatched off, and I didn’t have my weave on. I was crying and screaming that I needed my hair, and my family kept telling me, ‘You’re pretty without it. It’s OK. It’s OK,’” she said.
Not yet ready to embrace being bald in public, she wrapped her head in a T-shirt and calmed down, but the seed was planted. Disguising the alopecia was getting to be too much.
The final straw came that same summer after Whites returned from Detroit to go on another trip. She went down to Georgia to visit her sister, but the heat and humidity just didn’t mix with her weave.
“I had the quick weave on my scalp, and my head was getting irritated under there, a burning, itching feeling. And then the tracks were just sliding and sliding, so I said, ‘OK.’ So I go and look at it, and I said ‘I’m fixing to take this off. I’m tired. I’m going to take this hair off. It’s too hot.’
“My head started breaking out from the glue being stuck on there, and it was just wilted, little sores all over. I took it off, and then that’s when I stepped out, last year when I went to Columbus, Ga. That’s when I first wore my head out,” she said, running her hand over her head with a smile.
Looking to the future
Looking back, the pain and the trauma are still there, and one thing Whites can’t help but wonder is whether things would have been as hard for her for so long if she had received counseling or help dealing with alopecia as a child.
“Back then nobody took me for counseling. I didn’t talk to anybody. It was just OK, and how can you say that’s just OK? Growing up as a child and teenager, it’s not OK,” she said, pausing to wipe away her tears. “I really think people should get their children counseling and listen to what they’re saying, especially little girls. That’s a hurtful feeling. You can’t wear ponytails like the rest of the little girls, beads, or barrettes. It’s just traumatic.”
Since moving to Kokomo, Whites said she hasn’t been able to find any support groups specifically for those with alopecia and is hoping to start her own and be the spokesperson to share her story in the hopes that no little girl will have to suffer alone.
“It would have been nice to have someone to talk to, people to talk to who were going through it, too. It can be the littlest things, someone to show you some beauty techniques. A child will look up to that, seeing someone with alopecia holding their head up high,” she said.
e every one have a blessed day.