Alopecia areata organizations and influencers are using Chris Rock’s Oscars joke, comparing Jada Pinkett Smith to the lead character in the film G.I. Jane because of her shaved head, to raise awareness of the disease and increase support for those who have it.
The joke, made during Sunday’s 94th Academy Awards, spurred Pinkett Smith’s husband, Will Smith, to rush to the stage, slap Rock and yell, “Keep my wife’s name out of your fucking mouth.” Smith insinuated he was defending his wife, who shaved her head after being diagnosed with alopecia.
Alopecia areata is an autoimmune disease that causes hair to fall out. Approximately 6.8 million people in the U.S. have the disease.
One of those people is Kylie Bamberger, a Los Angeles-based woman with severe hair loss. Bamberger, who has more than 12,000 Instagram followers, refers to herself as an alopecia advocate.
Her immediate reaction to Rock’s comment was, “Wow, this is the Oscars and a bald woman was just the butt-end of a joke.”
She felt as if the comment was directed at her.
“We have all been cut at one point or another by comments like that,” Bamberger says of the alopecia community. “They don’t hurt less over the years; you just learn how to handle them in your own way a little better each time.”
Bamberger immediately went on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook to make sure it wasn’t just her who had been offended by Rock’s words.
“I was relieved to see the outrage from so many others by that comment,” says Bamberger.
One positive to come from the Oscars incident is that many people around the world are learning about alopecia.
“Now they might know there are varying types of hair loss and that it’s not just cancer-related treatments that cause people to lose their hair,” says Bamberger. “I am using this opportunity to raise awareness for the women out there struggling with hair loss and feeling so isolated by the way that they look – you are so far from alone. There is this community of women and some men who will encourage you and embrace you.”
Alopecia and skin organizations have also been using this incident as an educational tool.
“For many people – Sunday night’s event may have been triggering,” says Nicole Friedland, president and CEO of the National Alopecia Areata Foundation. “We need to use this as an opportunity to educate about this condition — a medical condition — and end the stigma and suffering. Education is key and an important first step.”
Meanwhile, the American Academy of Dermatology is highlighting the public education its dermatologists have created so that people better understand alopecia and the potential effects on those suffering from the disease.
“In addition, we are using the interest to connect the media to board-certified dermatologists who can explain the disease to the public,” says Melanie Tolley Hall, SVP of marketing and communications for the American Academy of Dermatology.
Jeff Woytovich, founder, president and CEO of the Children’s Alopecia Project, says that his organization wants people to know the emotional toll alopecia can take on a person.
Just two weeks ago, 12-year-old Indiana native Rio Allred, who was bullied for having alopecia, committed suicide.
“The thing I am most afraid of is that children will find out Chris Rock called a bald woman ‘G.I Jane,’” says Woytovich. “Bullies will start calling kids with alopecia GI Jane. We don’t need any new names to be thrown at kids with alopecia or any kids for that matter. “
The Children’s Alopecia Project posted its response to the incident on Instagram and Facebook, letting people with the disease know that the organization “is your Will Smith, without the punch.”
“We want to fight to help your kids feel normal and let them know they are perfect exactly the way they are,” says Woytovich.
Can Rock and Smith be part of the solution?
Smith’s decision to respond to Rock’s comment by slapping him was a “lost opportunity,” says Thea Chassin, founder and CEO of Bald Girls Do Lunch, a nonprofit specifically created for women with alopecia areata.
Instead of resorting to violence, Smith could have simply thanked Rock for the compliment, says Chassin.
“He could have said, ‘Thanks for comparing Jada to a sexy bald woman,’” she says.
Rock, meanwhile, must issue an apology, Bamberger says.
“He needs to find a way to address Jada directly but also the fact that he just okayed this behavior for other people who might bully others,” she explains.
To show he is sincere, Rock could also make a donation to an alopecia organization or even have dinner with someone from the hair loss community. Bamberger, for one, is up for that.
Bamberger gives Rock the benefit of the doubt, noting that he made a documentary in 2009 called Good Hair, exploring the way hairstyles “impact the activities, pocketbooks, sexual relationships and self-esteem of the Black community,” according to an official synopsis.
“I think It was a quick ad-libbed comment that wasn’t very well thought out,” says Bamberger. “I don’t think he understood the implications of making it. And I don’t think it’s likely he will make that kind of joke again.”
This article originally appeared on PRWeek US.