Different. It is a word that means so much and so little at the same time. As adults, we understand that no two human beings on this planet have ever been identical. In all of the centuries of our existence, we may have seen near-duplicates, but in every scenario there has and always will be a unique factor that distinguishes each person; making us all different. I know I didn’t just drop an atom bomb of infinite wisdom that will go on to shift our future for generations to come, but I do find it strange that if the concept of being different is so easy to understand, then why do we as humans feel the need to generalize, group and segment people by physical attributes, or any attribute for that matter?
My name is Dionte’ Johnson, and I am no author. I am a husband and a father of four – a set of twin girls with a pair of boys split on both ends – who, like most of you, am just doing what I can each day to provide my children with the best opportunities possible while attempting to block off the fiery darts of the real world. This story comes from a very real place and from an area that up until recently I never knew was an issue.
In the late Fall of 2018, while washing one of our daughter’s hair, my wife began to notice a patch of hair missing, then as time progressed there was another and another. That Winter we would take a family trip to Disney and for the first time, the patches became noticeably visible to the common eye. Partially embarrassed and not knowing what to do, we attempted to cover them up, loosen the braiding, and other “quick fixes” to no avail. We would go on to find out that our daughter had developed an auto-immune disease commonly known as alopecia. This was a giant blow to us as parents as up to that point we had no health “issues” with our children. We prayed, read, asked questions, and sought help… but no matter the treatment or the progress it would always end with the alopecia becoming more aggressive and taking more hair. Even worse than our fears, our daughter began to notice and at just 2 years old she began to question why she was different.
No matter what you are blessed with, as a parent the worst thing to see your child in is pain, and the feeling of not being able to help is a struggle that I do not think that I will ever overcome. But still, we as a family made a decision to make an effort to reinforce in our daughter that her head, even without hair, is completely normal, and true beauty comes from who you are and not what you look like. We decided as parents that we would not complain. We were just as other people in the world with a child going through alopecia. We were thankful she wasn’t battling a more life-threatening battle[GH1] . After counting our blessings and regrouping, we decided to go out and buy as many books and dolls and movies and stickers and anything that would represent different hair and bodies as possible… and that is when we realized the problem.
My twin daughters are very different from one another; one likes to play catch, the other likes to put on a dress and play with dolls, and it just so happens that my child who loves Disney Princesses and girl superheroes the most is also my child who lost her hair at an alarming rate. After months of looking, buying, and trying we had a lightbulb moment; the reason that our daughter feels any kind of way at all is that everything she sees is a visual representation of what society views as a perfect girl or woman. There are no toys on the shelf with bald girls. There are barely any toys at all with any hair other than long and straight. There are no cartoons, no movie characters, no comics or sheroes. Every image that we see of a woman adds to the narrative that even if people are of a different race, weight, age, or anything else, they still share one common bond that makes them female, and that is their full head of hair.
I have never been a person to intentionally treat anyone differently for any other reason than how they treat me, but I had to ask the question to myself; how am I contributing to this invisible narrative that has been ingrained into our planet for centuries? I would go on to then think about all types of underrepresented children all over the world and immediately my mission became clear; representation does not simply mean “include people of color and everything will be ok” or “make a female blockbuster superhero and society will love you”... true representation should be the relentless pursuit to make everyone feel normal in their skin. I imagined how alienated a child with a hearing aid must feel to always feel as if he or she has a defect. I began to feel for children combating cancer who must answer the kids in their class who ask them “what is wrong with you, where did your hair go?” Although my story could not capture every individual and every situation, I do hope that it can serve as a catalyst and inspire people to think outside of traditional “normals” as we advance together as a species. Now more than ever, we need to tell new stories and paint new pictures with no constraints. If not for ourselves, then for our children, who are all different in every way imaginable.