LOS ANGELES -- Jada Pinkett Smith found her struggle with hair loss at the center of an unexpected controversy at the Oscars on Sunday night, after her husband Will Smith appeared to strike comedian Chris Rock in response to a joke he made about her shaved head.
Rock, as a presenter, joked to Pinkett Smith that he was looking forward to a sequel to "G.I. Jane," a reference from the 1997 film starring Demi Moore, who shaved her head to portray a fictional Navy Seal candidate. Afterward, Will Smith stood up from his seat near the stage, strode up to Rock and smacked him. After sitting back down, Smith shouted at Rock to "keep my wife's name out of your (expletive) mouth."
But while social media users were divided on the "King Richard" star's angry response, there was widespread support online for Pinkett Smith, who has previously opened up about her experiences with the condition alopecia.
"Jada is a CURRENT inspiration for SO many people who live with the same or similar subcategory of her condition," wrote one user. The writer Roxane Gay meanwhile said that although she didn't think the joke about Pinkett Smith's alopecia justified violence, she understood how it "could push someone over the edge."
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Revealing her diagnosis in 2018, Pinkett Smith has spoken publicly about the condition, which has no known cure. In an episode of her chat show, Red Table Talk, she recalled the "terrifying" moment she first noticed she was losing "handfuls of hair" in the shower.
"It was one of those times in my life where I was literally shaking with fear," she said. "That's why I cut my hair and continued to cut it."
In recent years, the actress has often sported short, cropped hair, or has attended events wearing turbans and headwraps. In July last year she revealed her completely shaved head, posting a picture of herself with her daughter, Willow, on Instagram.
"Willow made me do it because it was time to let go," she wrote in the accompanying caption. "BUT ... my 50's are bout to be divinely lit with this shed (shaved head)."
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Posting an update about her struggle with the condition to Instagram last December, Pinkett Smith said she was coming to terms with the disorder and that "me and this alopecia are going to be friends ... period!"
"Mama's gonna have to take it down to the scalp so nobody thinks she got brain surgery or something," she wrote in the post, which was accompanied by video where she showed followers a new area of hair loss that was going to be "more difficult to hide." She then added that she was going to use "some rhinestones" to "make me a little crown."
Pinkett Smith has since appeared in public with her new look to various award ceremonies and premieres. At the Critics' Choice Awards earlier this month she accessorized with a diamond-encrusted headpiece.
Another high-profile sufferer is Massachusetts Rep. Ayanna Pressley, who publicly revealed her battle in a YouTube video two years ago.
"I want to be freed from the secret and the shame that secret carries with it," Pressley said.
WATCH: Rep. Ayanna Pressley goes public with alopecia and baldness
About of a third of women will suffer some form of hair loss in their lives, according to Harvard Medical School. And a peer-reviewed study published in 2018 found that Black and Hispanic women in the US have a "significantly greater" chance of developing alopecia areata -- the medical term for the autoimmune disorder Pinkett Smith has -- in their lifetime than White women.
WATCH | Doctor explains hair loss condition alopecia
"Alopecia areata usually starts off with tiny little patches," said Dr. William Yates, a hair transplant surgeon in Chicago. "In some instances, it can progress where you lose hair over the entire scalp or the entire body."
While hair loss is permanent in rare cases and there is no cure, there are treatments available for most people with alopecia.
"The treatment speeds along the process so the hair re-grows," Yates said. "Usually the treatment is in the form of steroid injections to the scalp."
Robin McIntyre, a nurse at Dr. Yates' practice, said she has also battled the auto-immune disorder for over 12 years.
"I do things to make it look thicker. I lost hair again about six months ago," she said. "It's growing back again. It's just a very frustrating journey because you have no control."
"Having alopecia areata is a very emotional and disabling experience," Yates added. "And I see patients all the time - because there is no cure - they feel hopeless, helpless and wondering 'why me?'"
Alopecia advocates, and those with the condition, took to social media following the incident, with one awareness group, The Bald Girls Do Lunch, tweeting: "Jokes about @jadapsmith or any woman with #alopecia #alopeciaareata is never ok. Period."
"It took Jada a lot of courage to come out in public," wrote another Twitter user, who also has the disorder, adding: "Shame on you Chris Rock."
Former NBA star and self-described "alopecia ambassador" Charlie Villanueva meanwhile used the controversy to post a message of support for those with the disorder: "Remember, you have alopecia, alopecia doesn't have you."
WLS-TV contributed to this report.
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